Critic's Notebook: How Tuesday's election affects L.A. transit projects

With the Republicans wresting control in the House, some plans likely won't be funded, but California improvements may go forward.

November 04, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

It would be easy to see Tuesday's election results as a sign that momentum on mass-transit projects in Los Angeles and California is in danger of screeching to a halt.

Republican gains in Congress spell obvious trouble for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's 30/10 Initiative, which proposes squeezing 30 years of transit improvements into a single decade. California's plans for a high-speed rail line face similar anxieties after Rep. Nancy Pelosi lost her House speakership and the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Minnesota's Jim Oberstar, was defeated. As a divided Congress prepares a major transportation bill over the next year, roads and bridges — and a suburban-rural focus more generally — promise to be back atop the agenda, thanks in part to the priorities of likely incoming Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

But after the dust settles, the picture for an expanded transit network in Los Angeles — and the important implications of that network for public space, new kinds of architecture and pedestrian amenities — may not look so dire. The Republican wave this year largely missed California, where Governor re-elect Jerry Brown backs the state's proposed high-speed rail line. Oberstar's likely replacement as Transportation chair, Florida Republican John Mica, has supported some high-speed rail projects.

More to the point, the basic funding for mass transit in Los Angeles is firmly in place — thanks to 2008's Measure R — and therefore largely protected from the chill of fiscal austerity descending on Washington, even as the pace of subway construction may speed up or slow down. In fact, in the long run the most important event this fall when it comes to the future shape of Los Angeles was not the Tuesday election but rather a vote last week by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board of directors.

The board voted 10-0 to endorse a route for the Wilshire line that was once known as the Subway to Sea, choosing stops along Wilshire Boulevard at La Brea Avenue, Fairfax Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. (The three stops on the western end of the line have yet to be chosen, as Metro considers a handful of options.) The board also voted to support a regional connector downtown, an underground project that will connect the Blue Line directly to the Gold Line, among other improvements.

The unanimous vote was expected. But as a signal of how central Metro considers the Wilshire subway to its larger regional ambitions, it was hugely significant. It also allows us to imagine, with a new degree of certainty, how the Los Angeles of two or three decades from now will look and operate and how the city promises to change physically and symbolically. There is no street more closely connected than Wilshire, after all, to the idea that L.A. remains a car-dominated city. And since the demise of an earlier Wilshire subway plan in the 1980s, there has been no street more symbolic of the notion that a comprehensive transit system here is a political nonstarter.

The decision to put a stop at Wilshire and Fairfax, though long anticipated, has implications for the future of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that go beyond accessibility and attendance figures. UCLA too will play a new regional role after it's connected to the subway. As traffic has worsened in recent years — particularly on the Westside — the university has grown increasingly remote. A subway stop in Westwood will begin to change that. Still, given the likely distance between a Westwood station and the heart of campus, well-designed pedestrian and bike connections between the stop and UCLA will become crucial.

On the other hand, Metro's decision not to build a station at Wilshire and Crenshaw boulevards, largely because of opposition from homeowner groups in the area, is a throwback to the era when subway plans aroused predictable ire throughout the city and region. (The website for the Windsor Square Assn. proudly announces that it has been fighting the idea of a subway stop in the neighborhood "ever since… 1983.") The route Metro endorsed last week will create a two-mile gap in the line between Western and La Brea avenues. Even in a city as spread out as L.A., that is a major hole.

Metro leaders are gambling that by bypassing the Crenshaw station, which had a projected price tag of $200 million, they've managed to save some of the resources — and political capital — required to push the subway west of the 405 Freeway to the Veterans Affairs campus.

With control of Congress split and Republicans seeing their mandate clearly in terms of curbing government initiatives of all kinds, we're likely headed for at least two years of gridlock in Washington. To the extent that major legislation emerges at all, it will require concessions from both parties. And that means projects already moving forward or looking relatively robust — Metro's expansion and California high-speed rail very much among them — will enjoy a strategic advantage. In the end, a Congress eager to sacrifice fledgling transit plans on the altar of deficit reduction may wind up boosting others — including ours.

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