Joe Mathews: Rail can remake California – again

A conductor coordinates a preview ride of the 8.6-mile Metro Expo light-rail line in Los Angeles in 2012. The Expo Line will begin service to West Los Angeles and Santa Monica on May 20.
A conductor coordinates a preview ride of the 8.6-mile Metro Expo light-rail line in Los Angeles in 2012. The Expo Line will begin service to West Los Angeles and Santa Monica on May 20. Associated Press file

What will the railroad bring us?

Henry George answered that question for California in his 1868 essay as the transcontinental railroad was completed. The renowned economist’s vision – that the railroad would make California a global giant – was so prescient that it was taught in schools well into the 20th century.

Now the question is timely again for Californians, as the Metro in Los Angeles County opens two new light-rail extensions – one through the San Gabriel Valley on Saturday, the other to Santa Monica on May 20.

That Southern California, of all places, is leading the way in building new rail links suggests we have entered a new era of transit that is full of questions for the entire state. Will the Bay Area revamp its aging, expensive BART system? How can San Diego best expand its trolleys, and Sacramento its light rail? Can the Inland Empire raise its transit game? When will Fresno realize it’s a major city that needs a real urban transit system?

Unfortunately, as we consider the possibilities, Californians are asking the wrong questions, particularly about what they might save us in traffic or fewer car trips. That’s a losing game; traffic is driven by hard-to-predict trends in technology, telecommuting, immigration and the price of gas.

The smarter, more inspiring question is George’s old one: What new things do these new rail lines bring us? Do they connect us to places and each other in powerful new ways?

For me, these questions are personal. I spend as long as four hours a day commuting by car. But I live only five blocks from the Metro Gold Line, which is opening its 11-mile extension through the San Gabriel Valley. My office is in Santa Monica, seven blocks from the terminus of the Expo line extension that opens in May.

For me, light rail promises a healthier, more productive, more fun life. Riding the trains to work could take 90 minutes, but if the trains are on time, the commute will become more predictable. I should get more exercise by walking to the stations, and I should be able to work on the train so I can spend more time with my family or sleeping.

On weekends, I will ride the Gold Line extension with my three train-crazy boys and explore places near the new stations. Tops on my list are Friday nights at the Family Festival on Myrtle Avenue in Monrovia. I might do an old-school date night for surf-and-turf at the Derby in Arcadia – if the owners grant me an exemption from the dress code.

The Gold Line extension should allow more people to discover the big Christian university Azusa Pacific, enchiladas at La Tolteca in Azusa, the Justice Brothers Racing Museum in Duarte, Monrovia’s movie theater and the 626 Night Market in Arcadia.

The Expo Line extension also should be transformational. It’ll get you to the beach or the Santa Monica Pier without a car. Japantown along Sawtelle Boulevard should see a surge in customers from the new Pico/Sepulveda stop. More people will find their way to the Bergamot Station arts complex, which has its own stop on the new line.

Of course, none of this happens unless Metro makes sure the trains are safe, reliable – and fun. And those Expo Line trains better have strong Wi-Fi for us working commuters.

I’m most excited about the surprises – new communities, businesses, even ideas – that new rail lines may bring us. Such surprises can be big. George, in making grand 1868 predictions about California, saw big things for the Bay Area but never once mentioned L.A. It was unimaginable then that a small town could become our greatest city, with the state’s best public transit.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at