Sun, Sep

Inside the Elusive Hunt for a Regional Air and Rail Plan

GETTING THERE FROM HERE-Transportation, like so many other key issues, is so very often a political dogfight that our electeds forget how cooperation almost always trumps the pyrrhic victory of ramming one's vision down the throats of those who disagree with it.  Like it or not, the voters/taxpayers won't spend another dime if they don't agree with at least part of a given plan. 

There are obstacles and there are solutions--Governor Jerry Brown has sadly proven himself to be an obstacle, while others such as Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez is promoting a fair price and process to allowing the Inland Empire to purchase and run its own airport at Ontario. 

Governor Jerry Brown has chosen to throw too much money and power into a CA High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) scheme, which demands too high a speed, and benefits too few a number of cities and constituencies, that his plan is ultimately likely to fail...no matter how much he and others such as Ted Rall belittle the opposition. 

This is not to say that high-speed rail isn't a bad idea.  In fact, it's a great idea--a truly cost-effective high-speed rail plays a vital role in our 21st-Century economy.  Yet while Brown and Rall dismiss all those who oppose the current CAHSR plan as anti-high-speed rail, their arrogance and oversimplifying the opposition inevitably threatens a better and more cost-effective high-speed rail altogether. 

A slim majority of Californians voted in favor of a CAHSR back in 2008, but they were lied to.  This is a painful reality that Brown and Rall ignore--and it's as inappropriate as President G.W. Bush lying to us about the premise, details and pitfalls of invading Iraq, or President Obama lying to us about the premise, details and pitfalls of the Affordable Care Act.   

The timing, speed and cost of the trains were such that Governor Brown's successor (even if he/she is a Democrat) will almost certainly have to scale down or slow down the project-- because the excessive costs of this project is cutting (if not eliminating) other vital state freeway, rail and other transportation endeavors, and because insufficient portions of the state benefit from the current $68 billion plan. 

Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (photo) has already expressed his strong concerns, if not a lack of support, for the current CAHSR plan because he's correctly recognized it was a big lie to the voters, and it's sucking all the transportation money from all the other critical needs of our cities and state. 

Had an Amtrak/Caltrain/Metrolink upgrade and statewide rail electrification system that allowed for more realistic speeds of 125-150 mph (instead of the 200 mph promised for $35 billion) been pushed to the voters in 2008, the ability of the CAHSR Authority to deliver this project within budget would have been much more likely, and both feature creep and cost overruns would probably have been more accepted by the voters. 

Right now, if the voters COULD vote again for this project, the poll numbers all show it would fail--likely voters have yet to rise above the 50% threshold. That should mean something to those who dismiss and decry the CAHSR opposition. 

In contrast, polls show that if Southern California voters had the choice to force Los Angeles World Airports to sell Ontario Airport to the Inland Empire, even LA voters would support that measure--no matter how much LA World Airports might scream about those numbers. 

Hence the push by CA Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (photo) and other politicians to establish a locally-operated Ontario Airport is one that merits further discussion and--hopefully--finalization. 

The negative sentiments about diverting more air traffic to LAX exist as much today as when I was a kid growing up in Long Beach.  Everyone in the eastern portion of L.A. County, and in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties, all hate being forced to LAX, and the majority of LA residents hate all the traffic and pollution that gets forced upon them by the LAX-centric air traffic plan we now must endure. 

To his credit, Mayor Garcetti is still pursuing a sale of Ontario Airport, which is as wise a strategy as it is moral and friendly.  

Mayor Garcetti is also pursuing a County Transportation Tax Measure "R-2" for 2016 that recognizes the strong desire of the San Gabriel Valley to include the Foothill Gold Line to Claremont in L.A. County's MetroRail plans.  

Being a good neighbor has its benefits, especially if one is endeavoring to woo, not force, the taxpayers to cough up more of their hard-earned wages to building and operating new transportation projects. 

So how do we focus on a 21st-Century transportation system that is good for our Economy, Environment and Quality of Life?  Consider the following approach: 

1) Asking the voters to approve a CAHSR 2.0

While almost impossible to ask from Governor Brown, a lowering of the costs and/or expanding the system to include more of the state is probably a more reasonable request of the voters for future years and decades to come.  California high-speed rail, even if it's only 125-150 mph, would be well-accepted by the voters if it lowered the costs from its current 200 mph and time constraints between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

The beauty of the CAHSR is NOT in its current focus of avoiding air travel between LA and SF, but rather its more cost-effective alternative to air travel between shorter distances (such as between Bakersfield and LA, or between Fresno and SF). 

Add to this the goals of extending a CAHSR that is slightly slower but with secure, reliable service from Sacramento to San Diego, with the entire system ultimately electric and not diesel, and you've got a CAHSR that the voters almost certainly WILL pay for (even if the overall costs are greater) because it's cost-effective, helps the entire state...and it's more in line with what they were originally promised. 

2) Asking SoCal voters to create a Regional Air Traffic System and a Regional Rail System

This is undoubtedly tougher, because it crosses the lines of multiple county and city jurisdictions--but the need to have LA, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino County residents be allowed airplane flights of similar costs and frequencies at Ontario as they do at LAX is as critical as it is to provide first-rate rail transportation between the four adjacent counties that Metrolink serves. 

It's been suggested that Metro have a separately-elected Board of Directors, but the LA Mayor and County Board of Supervisors already run on platforms that include transportation.  Metrolink, however, crosses four counties and requires more intercounty cooperation--not the current rivalry we now see--and a Metrolink Board elected by voters from all four counties is one that merits serious consideration. 

Former Westside LA City Councilman Bill Rosendahl once fought to create a more cooperative intercounty air traffic network, but was rebuffed by the egos and pettiness other cities and counties.  A new LAX-Metrolink and Ontario-Metrolink network would go a long way to tying our air and rail traffic systems together in a way that is both efficient and common sense to voters, taxpayers and commuters. 

The need to have a Metrolink Board that is elected by voters of different counties, instead of the dysfunctional system it now has, is one that--if resolved, can make Metrolink as successful as is Caltrain in Northern CA. 

...and it can only be hoped that the rumors of outgoing Metro CEO Art Leahyrunning Metrolink are entirely true. 

It's still a New Year, and it's a time for new working paradigms.  Money and taxes WILL be approved for projects that make sense to the voters, and allow for all voters to benefit from these expenditures.

The unfortunate example of  CA Governor Jerry Brown and his current CAHSR plan can and should be replaced with the more cooperative examples of CA Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti in their attempts to create a fair and smart regional air and rail transportation system. 

The hunt for cooperation and common sense need not go on forever.


(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org  He also does regular commentary on the MarkIsler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)