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Valley Must Get Real on Rail

The area should back the quick-and-dirty solution of using existing tracks. The alternative may be no solution at all.

June 29, 1997|WILLIAM FULTON | William Fulton is editor of California Planning & Development Report and a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate School Research Institute. His book "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles" was recently published by Solano Press Books

Some things never change. The latest round of debate over the cross-Valley rail line reveals how the debate over rail transit in Los Angeles never seems to leave the platform--even though parts of the transit system are already up and running.

Hoping to adopt a plan with realistic expectations, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority pushed back the construction date on the cross-Valley line from 2004 to 2011. The Los Angeles City Council responded by withholding $200 million in payments to the MTA. Councilman Hal Bernson responded by proposing that the cross-Valley line run along the existing train tracks--a solution that would be quicker and cheaper than other alternatives. Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) responded by demanding that rail construction in suburban areas be linked to better transit service in the Crenshaw district, which he represents. "How do you tell people in one place they get a billion-dollar subway, and we get a bus?" he asked.

Then last week, in an effort to resolve at least some of this, the City Council agreed to free up the $200 million if the MTA moved up the construction date to 2007. The issue, however, is hardly settled.

If this sounds like a bonfire of political vanities, don't be surprised. For 70 years, Los Angeles politicians have been fighting over rail transit. And in the world's most famously sprawling city, the reason for the ongoing battle shouldn't be surprising: Everybody wants a piece of the action, and nobody wants just one part of the region sucking up all the rail transit money. So for seven decades, plan after plan has tried to resolve this inter-regional friction by promising everything to everybody, no matter how unrealistic or expensive the idea might be.

Beginning in the 1920s, there was general agreement among Los Angeles' business leaders--then located mostly downtown--that an extensive rail transit system revolving around downtown ought to be built. But L.A.'s decentralized political system meant that downtown couldn't get a rail system unless suburban politicians bought into it--and the price for their support has usually been the promise of a choo-choo of their own.

That's why, after decades of having no rail transit at all, we've now got no less than three different rail systems: the heavy-rail Red Line subway system, which makes the downtown and Wilshire district businesses happy; the light-rail system, including the Blue Line, which gives suburban politicians some ribbons to cut, and the Metrolink commuter rail system, which makes outlying counties feel good about rail. Creating all three systems is overtaxing our financial resources, but getting rid of any one of them would undermine the thin political coalition that supports rail transit in Los Angeles.

In fact, this whole coalition is so fragile that any time anything goes wrong--a cost overrun, a sinkhole, a contractor's indictment--the entire political deal begins to fall apart and the politicians began scrambling to protect their own constituencies. That's what happened recently when the MTA had to face reality and scale back the promises it had previously made to build rail transit lines across the Valley and elsewhere in Southern California.

The truth is that it's hard to make the case that the cross-Valley line should be moved up in priority. Such a line would be a critical link in a comprehensive regional system, but it's increasingly clear that the entire regional system will never be completed. And there's a much better case to be made for several other lines--especially the downtown Pasadena line and the extensions into heavily populated areas of East L.A. and the Westside. When you add the inevitable neighborhood opposition into the mix, and the Valley's chronic inability to agree on the route and the form (monorail, subway, street level), you can see why politicians outside the Valley have little incentive to support the cross-Valley line at all.

That's why Bernson has proposed running Valley trains on existing tracks along Burbank and Chandler boulevards. The tracks are already owned by the MTA, and the route is already earmarked for an eventual subway. The Bernson plan would be a quick-and-dirty way to get the trains to the Valley, making it easier for politicians from other parts of the region to support it.

Of course, this same strategy was used in opening up the Blue Line, which runs from downtown through South-Central to Long Beach. The Blue Line was built not because it was a good transportation idea (among other things, it's duplicated by special bus lanes on the Harbor Freeway) but because the MTA was desperate to show that it could get something up and running quickly. The Blue Line has been only a modest success--carrying some passengers but failing to transform the city in any significant way--and the Burbank-Chandler proposal would probably suffer from the same fate.

The MTA's constant over-promising has raised the expectations of Valley residents to an unrealistic level. Given the constant regional battle over rail resources, it's unlikely that the Valley will ever see an expensive subway built. So Valley residents and politicians will have to decide, once and for all, what they really want: The quick-and-dirty solution, which will give Hal Bernson a ribbon to cut, or no solution at all.

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