As Sacramento weighs whether to cut off an arm or a leg to save its regional mass transit, Los Angeles is celebrating yet another gleaming advance in public transportation there.
As a former Southern Californian, it has been hard to read about the new L.A. Expo Line and not be wistful. I like my car, but the latest addition to that light-rail system, if not yet perfect, is new and hip, running from the lofts and high-rises of downtown L.A. to the Santa Monica beaches. The cars are clean, the stations have public art and the riders come from every corner of the socio-economic spectrum.
Meanwhile, in the state capital, local leaders are talking about shuttering a rail line and straining to put a half-cent countywide sales tax for transportation on the November ballot. Even if the necessary two-thirds majority approves it, the bulk of the money will go to roads.
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All I hear about RT here is: “Nobody rides it.” Maybe that’s true, though I’m guessing that by “nobody,” people mean the poor and elderly. The rap is the same criticism that used to be leveled at L.A.’s mass transit: Too few stops. Too pricey. Too few trains to places that people actually want to go. Too overrun with scary street people.
“Nobody” used to take mass transit in L.A., too. In the 1990s, when I worked there, commuting with others was seen as an affront to the laws of nature.
As in Sacramento, people in L.A. came to feel that only desperate measures would reverse the growing public cynicism toward investing in transit. And they were right.
The local transportation bureaucracy was fraught with infighting and widely perceived as incompetent and wasteful. When the subway got underway, bus riders sued, charging that it was racist to build rail that white people might take when black and brown people were packed into shabby, standing-room-only buses.
Every move elicited fear that public money was being misspent, which it was in some cases. At one point, a chunk of Hollywood Boulevard above the subway dig collapsed, like bad karma, into a giant sinkhole.
As in Sacramento, people in L.A. came to believe that only desperate measures would reverse the growing public cynicism toward investing in transit. And they were right.
Interestingly, the medicine was a lot like what Sacramento’s new transit head, Henry Li, is contemplating: The first step was a dose of fiscal reality. L.A. County leaders put an initiative on the local ballot preventing the subways from swallowing any more of the county’s existing transit sales tax. Then in 1998, after voters overwhelmingly passed it, the transit authority hired a private sector turnaround expert to stabilize finances.
As in Sacramento, voters wanted to know money wasn’t being wasted. “We lived within our means,” recalled former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, now with UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “We made some tough decisions, including shutting down bus lines.”
Gradually, trust returned, and with it, ambition. The Hollywood subway line was completed in 2000 without further drama. Pasadena got a new light-rail line. A state-of-the-art bus line came to the San Fernando Valley. Results – and a willingness among politicians to put the issue, and not individual careers first – kept controversy at bay.
In other words, the key was stewardship, then confidence, then smart investment. It can work here if it can work in car-centric L.A.