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Transit that serves all requires some to sacrifice

The commuters of Compton enjoy the freedom the Blue Line provides, and have given up much in exchange. The residents of Beverly Hills have a better deal with the Purple Line.

June 07, 2012|Hector Tobar
  • Signs opposing construction of a subway tunnel under Beverly Hills High School are posted at a school district office.
Signs opposing construction of a subway tunnel under Beverly Hills High… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

It's a long way from the casino tables of Compton to the "slums" of Beverly Hills.

Yet in the somewhat distant future, those areas will be linked by Los Angeles County's expanding and essential Metro rail system.

In Compton, where the Blue Line has run for more than 20 years, residents have learned to live with accident-prone trains. They hate the smell of the passenger cars, but enjoy the freedom light rail gives them to travel without an automobile.

In Beverly Hills, the slated arrival of the Purple Line a dozen or more years in the future inspires fear and loathing. A subway is coming, and some people say digging the tunnel for it could cause Beverly Hills High to erupt in flames.

"Methane gas, toxic chemicals and teenagers don't mix," intones a video produced by subway opponents. "But this dangerous combination is on the verge of exploding at Beverly Hills High, turning the school into a mega disaster."

And even if that "mega disaster" never comes to pass, opponents say, the subway could cause Beverly Hills High to lose something else that's critical to their education: a new underground parking garage.

The no-tunnel chorus of Beverly Hills has been widely mocked. But in Beverly Hills they don't care if you make fun of them. They went ahead last week and sued to stop the tunneling.

So while Beverly Hills went to court, I went to Compton. My mission was to give the subway's opponents something that's available in larger quantities the farther away you travel from Beverly Hills: perspective.

Go to Compton, and you'll understand what a great deal people in Beverly Hills are getting with the new subway line, even if it does pass underneath their high school.

In Compton, the locals got, and continue to get, a lousy deal.

"It is what it is," said Gary Stevens, a security guard, as he prepared to board a train at the Artesia Station. The stop falls in a desolate corner of Compton, adjacent to an industrial park and the Crystal Casino's empty parking lot.

The Blue Line runs above ground, for the most part, as it passes through Compton and South L.A., and crosses many busy streets. Some 114 people have been killed by its trains — more than a quarter of them suicides.

"I've seen cars that have been hit," Eugene Warren, 60, told me. "Most of those accidents are the driver's fault … Pedestrians get hit because they cross when they shouldn't."

In another corner of South L.A., a few residents fought hard to get the new Expo Line to tunnel underground as it passes through part of their community, citing fears that students at Dorsey High might get hit by trains. They lost.

Beverly Hills High students won't have any such worries. In Compton, people dodge the trains all the time. Over the years, several pedestrians have been killed at the Artesia Station.

The current design of the station is extremely unfriendly to pedestrians. A once-open gate on the eastern side of the station has been locked by the Crystal Casino's management, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say. That forces people to take a walking detour of up to 1.9 miles to reach the station.

A lot of people jump the fence to avoid the detour, risking death. Metro has built ever-higher barriers to stop them.

This week, I watched a crew install a new, 12-foot-high fence. When completed, it will be topped with razor wire. "It's going to look like Alcatraz," one of the workers told me.

I'm pretty sure that when the subway stations in Beverly Hills and Century City open — circa 2026 — they won't look like Alcatraz. Like most of the new stations in the network, they're likely to have some outstanding public art.

The public art at the Artesia Station can be described with one word: sad.

A single, steel pillar is decorated with drawings by Compton children that have been converted to ceramic tiles. "I wish that Compton Schools had more school supplies," reads one, accompanied by a child's drawing of scissors, paper and pencils.

Now that's something you don't see every day: one government agency (MTA) paying for a display immortalizing the incompetence of another (the Compton Unified School District).

People in Compton really need their train, so they don't complain about what it looks like, or how hard it is to get to.

No one, to my knowledge, has gone to court to improve access to the Artesia Station, though they should. In the course of an hour, I saw two dozen people walking to the station along the old Southern Pacific railroad tracks.

"It's a short cut," one young woman explained to me. A moment later, a man with a briefcase and a business suit trudged up the same tracks.

It pains me to say this, but it's true: Compton has a Third World train station.

Beverly Hills is sure to get a world-class subway station. But like every transportation project in our crowded city, it's going to require inflicting some headaches on the locals.

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