A Southern California Assn. of Governments staff study has concluded that the Exposition Boulevard railroad right of way is a valuable resource that should be purchased to preserve it for future transportation uses.
The as-yet-unpublished regional study particularly praises the route that would link Santa Monica with USC and downtown, if a controversial light-rail system were constructed there. The study's recommendations were approved unanimously Thursday by the SCAG transportation committee.
"This would provide a superior travel alternative to the very congested Santa Monica Freeway," the report, written by senior transportation planner Alan Havens, said.
The study is the latest entry in the highly charged debate about the possibility of a light-rail line linking Santa Monica with downtown. The issue pits the Santa Monica against highly mobilized Westside homeowner groups and Los Angeles Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Nate Holden.
Santa Monica, which bought a nine-acre site next to the proposed route for $17.2 million, has been lobbying for the purchase of the 14-mile stretch of tracks by the county Transportation Commission. Culver City has shown strong support, too. The property bought by Santa Monica was part of 76.5 miles of railroad right of way offered for sale in May by Southern Pacific Railroad.
The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission is now appraising the Southern Pacific property, but must contend with what Yaroslavsky has called the "political monster" of citizen opposition. Opponents of light-rail oppose it as noisy, expensive and ill-conceived; a project that will fizzle because people won't use it.
By contrast, the Havens report, a voluminous five-county study of 40 rights of way, lists the Exposition route as as one of a handful of "high opportunity railroad corridors." The study urges a regional plan to buy available railroad lines as a "valuable resource toward solving our urban mobility problems."
Proponents of the purchase of the Exposition Boulevard route, and others like it all around Southern California, argue that it is economical and sensible to buy already carved-out corridors, rather than painstakingly try to acquire transit routes by condemning and buying property in bits and pieces.
"You can't lose by buying them," Havens said in an interview. Otherwise, the railroads can sell the land for development and it will be lost to the public forever, he said.
The Exposition Boulevard train route is the "only right of way available in that heavily trafficked part of the city," Havens said. "The arguments are all there."
Ryan Snyder, the executive director of the Los Angeles Transit Improvement Coalition, said the availability of the property does not justify a light rail line. Snyder, an urban planner who represents neighborhood groups throughout Los Angeles that oppose light rail, said the 36,000-a-day ridership projected by the study is "way out of line."
Snyder argues that the push for light rail is fueled by a provision in Proposition A that requires spending $100 to $130 million a year on light rail. Progress on other transportation alternatives, such as bus lanes, is stymied because "all the money is tied up in light rail," he said.
Proposition A, passed in 1980, raised the sales tax in Los Angeles County by half a cent and earmarked the money for mass transportation projects.
The answer, according to Snyder, is to persuade the Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to support a ballot measure to change the part of Proposition A that mandates the funding of light rail.
Steve Lantz, community relations manager of the Transportation Commission, said: "We're encouraged the (SCAG committee) has agreed right-of-way protection is a priority in this region."
Hank Dittmar, director of the Santa Monica Airport, and coordinator of the effort to promote light rail, called the new study "independent validation" of his city's own study. He urged that the right of way be bought while it is available and that the feasibility of light-rail--and the community's objections--be taken up at a later date. "Their concerns need to be out front, but there's a lot of time--10 years. I think all their issues can be dealt with."
Westside homeowners' groups have criticized Santa Monica for hiring a public relations firm to get its side of the light-rail debate to the public. But Dittmar said paid consultants are hired by individuals, businesses and government agencies all the time. "I can't figure out what's wrong about being an advocate for something you believe in."