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Q&A / CITY GOVERNMENT

L.A. Will Need More on Board to Bring Back Streetcars

September 25, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

If reader email is any indication, Los Angeles is developing a case of streetcar envy.

A few weeks ago, the Community Redevelopment Agency released a study concluding that it's feasible to have a downtown streetcar.

Whew. Who knew that kind of technology existed?

In the three weeks since the release, reader e-mail has been running about 4 to 1 in favor of bringing the streetcars back.

The idea, however, has received a lukewarm response in City Hall. The mayor's office gave the study a "no comment," the kind of reply usually reserved for inquiries about naughty interns.

Of course, if Los Angeles needs any inspiration, it can look north to San Francisco, which has had two rebuilt streetcar lines in operation since 1995 and 2000, respectively.

One travels right up the gut of downtown on Market Street -- sharing the road with traffic -- while the other travels in a median along the Embarcadero, connecting the city's refurbished Ferry Building with Fisherman's Wharf.

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Question: So what is city transportation chief Gloria Jeff saying about the streetcars?

Answer: Not much.

"I know people want them and it's a good suggestion," Jeff said Thursday. "But we're still moving to purchase more buses and improve the DASH system."

Jeff also said that she needed to learn more about what is being proposed and whether downtown streetcars would, in fact, help people get around town.

"Come back and see me in 60 days and I'll be more intelligent on this," she added.

Done. Provided that editors do not cave in to my request to write stories about urban planning in small Swiss ski villages, Jeff can expect her phone to ring at 9:01 a.m. on Nov. 20.

In related news, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said she understands that people would like the idea to be debated publicly. And she said she's willing to hold a hearing on the issue in the transportation committee that she chairs.

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Q: Any other thoughts on the streetcar study?

A: Not everyone is in love with the idea.

"I think it's gimmicky," said Ben Reznik, a prominent land-use attorney in Los Angeles. "To me it's not serious transportation planning. I don't like the idea that it's fixed -- you're locked into that route and those tracks."

Among Reznik's clients are developer Geoff Palmer, who has built hundreds of apartments downtown, although most of them are on the west side of the 110 Freeway and not near any of the possible routes that the redevelopment agency has proposed for streetcar service.

That said, Reznik isn't alone in thinking that the streetcar idea is based too much on nostalgia. One big issue he raises is that the trolleys won't be very fast -- a trip from Union Station to the Convention Center could take 30 minutes.

"This isn't about mobility; it's about atmosphere and fun and creating a streetscape," Reznik said. "If we want to move people around downtown and make it fun, bring in double-decker buses."

We'll be tracking the issue in this space in the coming months, years and -- this being Los Angeles -- probably decades.

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Q: Have any lessons for cub reporters covering politics?

A: Always have fresh batteries in your tape recorder.

The reason: You never know when Councilman Bill Rosendahl might step to the lectern at a news conference, like he did 11 days ago at UCLA, and start talking about his support for a $1-billion affordable housing bond on the Nov. 7 ballot.

"This is a no-brainer for all of us, press -- if we don't invest in our infrastructure on housing for all of our people we will become a city that is so divided like a third-world situation -- the very rich on one side and the very poor on another," Rosendahl said.

He was just hitting his stride.

"We want the shining city here to be the microcosm and the capital planet for the whole world and we are the megalopolis of the whole Earth and if we can't get our act together, we're in trouble," he added.

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Q: Can a planet be part of a world?

A: Most leading authorities say no, because in all but rare cases, it's difficult for two objects to occupy the same space.

UCLA physics and astronomy professor Matthew Malkan offered the following theory as an example. More than 4 billion years ago, a large space object collided with Earth. After that object was pulverized, pieces of it began orbiting the Earth and then reassembled into the moon.

"Basically, conservation of matter for planets, stars and galaxies is absolute and you can't get around it," Malkan said. "The denser things are, the more violent it is when they hit each other."

To clarify, he was talking about planets, not politicians.

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Q: Any other reasons to have a tape recorder?

A: The collision of two big-city mayors.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in town last week and held a joint news conference with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in South Los Angeles. We'll share some nuggets of wisdom, which hopefully will not discourage readers from either running for office or pursuing a career in journalism.

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