Bouncing slowly down a rusty track in an automobile equipped with railroad wheels, Christine E. Reed could see with her mind's eye the commuters of the future zipping back and forth from Santa Monica to Los Angeles in 50-m.p.h. trolley cars.
Although a Westside commuter line is still no more than a figment of the imagination, one possible route is already in place--the 100-year-old Exposition Boulevard freight line that is about to be abandoned by the Southern Pacific railroad.
"It's a clear shot from 15th Street in Santa Monica to the Long Beach-L.A. light-rail line," a new-generation trolley link being constructed 15 miles to the east, Reed said. "It's kind of spooky that it's all there."
Reed, vice chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and a member of the Santa Monica City Council, said that public officials should act now to save the Southern Pacific route, which otherwise may be sold piecemeal to private interests.
"People will be demanding this in 15 to 20 years, when there will be no other way to get to work," she said.
The Santa Monica City Council has spent $30,000 on a feasibility study of a possible commuter link along the Southern Pacific route, but homeowner groups and Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky are alarmed by the prospect of a busy commuter line in a residential neighborhoods.
"In our community, the residential quality of life for people who live 12 feet from the tracks is of vital concern," said Sara Berman, president of the West of Westwood Homeowners Organization.
"There is no question that people might benefit from mass transit, but the question is where is the best location," she said.
In a letter to Santa Monica officials, Yaroslavsky said, "noise, vibration, aesthetic impact, invasion of privacy, vandalism and security issues" should rule out construction through residential areas.
He said any mass-transit service instead should be an underground extension of the Metro Rail subway system, the first leg of which is under construction in downtown Los Angeles. Metro Rail is expected to extend through Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley sometime in the next decade.
But Reed said Santa Monica and most of the Westside will not see Metro Rail "until my funeral, and you can make a light-rail line a lot cheaper--10 miles of light rail for the cost of one mile of Metro Rail."
Reed noted that the county Transportation Commission's funds to build a light-rail system are already committed to the Los Angeles-Long Beach line and other routes. Money for a Westside connection would probably come from a bond issue, she said.
She also said new track would have to be laid, and extensive construction work would have to be done to provide smooth service while not interfering with already congested automobile traffic.
"We're going to ask if we can get it on the long-term list (of county Transportation Commission projects)," she said. "To read Zev's letter, you'd think we're going to run (commuter) trains tomorrow."
Despite the convenience of an already-existing transportation right of way, regional transportation planners concluded years ago that not enough people live along the Exposition Boulevard route to justify securing it for the early stages of a mass-transit system, said Richard Stanger, director of rail development for the county transportation commission.
It was decided then that a more expensive Metro Rail line serving Century City, Westwood and the densely populated Wilshire Corridor would be more useful, he said.
Buy and Save Line
If the Southern Pacific eventually abandons the entire length of its Exposition Boulevard line, he said, "we as a region might want to buy it and save it, because otherwise we'd lose it and it'll never be as good as it is now. But that would not be justifiable if the money is going to a Metro Rail extension."
The Southern Pacific already has suspended its freight service west of Culver City, having won permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the right of way after a period during which local governments have first rights to buy the land. That period ends in November, but a railroad spokesman said it could be extended.
"As long as the city is really and truly interested in the acquisition, we're willing to negotiate," said Robert Stacey, assistant vice president and regional director of real estate for the Southern Pacific Transportation Co.
Owners of plants and warehouses along the predominantly industrial right of way have told the railroad that they would like to buy individual stretches of the right of way to expand their facilities, he said.
"We just don't want to be stuck holding (the land) as an open line, waiting for some transportation plan some time in the future," Stacey said.