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Transit Nerds Making Themselves Heard

Advocacy group, armed with stacks of data, lobbies officials on benefits of light rail.

November 12, 2002|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Mad about gridlock, these everyday Angelenos are fighting like mad to do something about it.

They spend countless hours working for free, hosting packed community meetings, cornering politicians, lobbying for light rail.

They attack the matter with gusto, armed with volumes of statistics, flow charts, demographic data and a Web site where they plot, plan and rage.

They are so single-minded, and pay such detailed attention to arcane transit data, that they sometimes self-deprecatingly call themselves "the transit nerds."

"All we need is the shirt pocket protector for the pens," said Darrell Clarke, a co-founder of the all-volunteer group Friends4Expo Transit.

The group came together to push for construction of the proposed 14-mile light railway connecting Los Angeles to Santa Monica, running mostly down the middle of Exposition Boulevard.

With engineering studies on that project underway, Friends4Expo's goals have grown. It is lobbying elected officials to build more mass transit infrastructure all over the region -- mostly light rail -- to ease the traffic nightmare.

The officials -- partly bothered by the bold tenacity of Friends4Expo, partly awed by members' transit knowledge -- are listening.

Case in point: When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted in September to reengage in an against-the-odds fight to extend the Red Line subway to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Friends4Expo members complained loudly that the subway plan would take money and attention from their project, which is cheaper and much closer to taking shape. MTA officials quickly agreed: The Expo Line will have first crack at federal funds.

"Those people, they're a vital force," said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the proposed Expo Line. Watson noted that, although full funding is not in place, engineering for the Expo Line is getting underway. That's quite a feat because, until a crucial MTA vote last year, the Exposition right of way was being touted by some for use as a bus line.

Clarke's group met with almost every top transit official in the region before the vote, showing off scores of signatures supporting its rail plan. Watson said the lobbying was crucial: "If it wasn't for their willingness to show there was a community that wanted rail, the Expo Line would not have gotten this far."

Operating largely under the radar, Friends4Expo is part of a burgeoning movement that could have a major effect on the way the metropolis deals with congestion.

In the past, transit planners could build major projects -- freeways or rail lines -- with little regard for community groups. Today, ordinary people are demanding more say in the matter, even proposing rail routes and busways. Without the full support of the community, said John Catoe, deputy chief executive of the MTA, "there's little chance new projects will get off the ground."

Aware of this, and with commuters grinding nearly to a halt and pollution clogging the skies, scores of new grass-roots transit advocacy groups are sprouting.

From Los Angeles -- home of the nation's worst traffic -- to cities such as Seattle, St. Louis, San Francisco and Phoenix, well-organized transit advocacy groups have formed, some operating with no funding.

Seattle voters last week may have approved financing plans for a 14-mile elevated monorail, the culmination of efforts by a quirky taxi driver who has been pushing for monorail in the city since the mid-1990s. Absentee ballots were still being counted at week's end.

Across the nation and in Los Angeles, such groups are avidly pushing officials and policymakers to back the construction of big-money infrastructure: rail lines, dedicated busways, subway systems and monorails. Some also push exclusively for more and better bus service.

Almost all of the transit advocacy groups have slick Web sites that beckon recruits, break down policy issues and urge people who fight traffic every day to get involved.

For example, the Web site features thorough explanations of the efficacy of light rail, and chat rooms where frustrated commuters post rants against politicians who are seen as obstructing progress.

The groups vary in size, stature and nature. Some promote a particular rail line, some a particular philosophy. They don't always get along; at times they express outright hatred for one another. Emotions are driven sometimes by outsized egos, and often by the many earnest debates swirling around transit. Does it make sense, for example, to work for more buses, more trains, or both?

In Los Angeles, the advocacy groups include vigorous outsiders such as the Bus Riders Union, a left-leaning, anti-rail powerhouse. It first sued the MTA, claiming civil rights violations, and then, in 1996, forced the agency into a 10-year court agreement requiring the MTA to increase bus service. Because of its legal victory, most observers say the group is the most powerful advocacy organization in the region.

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