'Transit Mayor' of Los Angeles?

According to NBC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky may be counting on nostalgia for July's 405 Freeway closure to begin a run for mayor in 2013.

Before Carmageddon, Yaroslavsky vied with the Mayor Villaraigosa to be the principal spokesman for impending doom, and Yaroslavsky generally did a better and more consistent job.

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Making everyone very afraid was a necessary (if cartoonish) performance. Distracted Los Angeles drivers needed all that ballyhoo to turn Carmageddon into a day of rest rather than a day of chaos. The resulting non-event is now firmly tied to Yaroslavsky, as is the after-glow of a traffic-free weekend.

The real work, of course, was done by the LAPD, the Highway Patrol, the Caltrans planners, the city PR people, and the crews who took the Mulholland overpass down well ahead of schedule. But Yaroslavsky looked and acted like a leader in the weeks leading up the freeway closure, particularly, notes Bebitch Jeffe, in comparison to Mayor Villaraigosa.

It also helps that Yaroslavsky is a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency board. Should he run, he will benefit from being connected to a governmental agency with charismatic projects and a guaranteed revenue stream: Measure R, the half-cent sales tax initiative passed by voters in 2008. As a consequence, Yaroslavsky is recasting himself as a populist transit advocate with the goal of building out the Measure R-funded projects in the MTA's "30/10" plan.

His enthusiasm includes the extension of the Purple Line subway from its terminus at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue to the Westwood campus of the Veteran's Administration. In answer to a questionnaire posted at Streetsblog LA, he nominated the extension of the subway as the next mayor's most important goal:

The first priority for any mayor of Los Angeles must be to extend the Wilshire subway to the West Los Angeles V.A. The traffic logjam on the east/west thoroughfares between Santa Monica, downtown and points east are legendary. The gridlock, especially between the 405 and the ocean, degrades the quality of life, especially for those from throughout the county who commute long distances and long hours each day to get to work in the job rich, western part of our county. It also makes residents of the area virtual prisoners in their own neighborhoods. Finally, it fundamentally threatens L.A.'s economic vitality in that this economically important part of our region increasingly finds itself isolated in a sea of traffic in which it is practically drowning.

It's hard to square this ardor and the roadblock to subway construction Yaroslavsky built into the MTA Reform and Accountability Act, which he wrote and carried to victory in 1998. The measure banned the use of Los Angeles County sales tax revenue for subway tunneling. (It's Yaroslavsky's belief that buses on fixed guideways - like the Orange Line in the Valley - are generally more cost effective and environmentally responsible than subways.)

If Yaroslavsky runs for mayor on a transit platform, his initial doubts about subways will doubtlessly be forgotten by affluent Westside voters, charmed by Carmageddon, who will hope to benefit themselves by having other people take public transit.

But will he run? If the past is any guide, it's just as likely that Yaroslavsky will sit this one out, as he has since 1988. But as Bebitch Jeffe points out, "In a potential field that includes the City Controller, one or more Councilmembers, a State Senator and a couple of multi-millionaires, Yaroslavsky would enter the mayor's race as the likely front runner - given his recent high visibility and his formidable fund-raising clout."

Yaroslavsky has the reputation of being the "front runner" who never runs. But 2013 is different. Yaroslavsky will be termed out of his seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2014.

With time running out and political clout about to evaporate, 2013 is possibly Yaroslavsky's last opportunity to lead Los Angeles (if Los Angeles can ever be led).

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user peopleofcalifornia. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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>Gridlock "makes residents of the area virtual prisoners in their own neighborhoods."
I applaud the coming of the subway - we'll do the right thing when we exhaust all other options, right? - but the Supervisor forgets that there is liberation in the offing for many of those "prisoners." It's called a bicycle.
Routinely I pass long queues of frustrated motorists on Wilshire, SM, Olympic and Pico Boulevards as I glide my trusty Trek at several times the speed of crawling traffic. I can be home in Beverly Hills by the time that some motorists in that queue pass under the 405. And I love it.
Transit investment, yet. Disincentives to motor, yes. Two wheeled, human-powered travel, most definitely.