NIMBYs, Design Flaws, History, and Rail Transit

Where Do We Go From Here?
Where Do We Go From Here? | Public domain source

Even as the Los Angeles Times -- and plenty of transit riders -- celebrated the opening of the first leg of the Expo Line toward Santa Monica, unknowns lingered for rail transit in L.A.

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There are unknowns at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's headquarters. Mayor Villaraigosa's term as chairman of the Metro's board is ending. His replacement in July will be Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a skeptic of the mayor's and Metro's priorities for rail transit.

In April, Antonovich called the mayor's funding plan for future projects "gang rape" because the sales tax extension Villaraigosa supports -- to build 30 years of improvements in 10 years -- would, according to Antonovich, fund projects that benefit the city of Los Angeles more than the rest of the county. Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas -- also a Metro board member -- have made similar objections.

There are unknowns in the new Expo Line. On Sunday, the Times expanded its earlier investigation into problems with the Expo Line/Blue Line junction at Washington Boulevard and Flower Street. A tight curve, unusual wear on tracks and train wheels, and the potential derailment of trains cast doubt over what is already the most heavily traveled component in Metro' rail system.

There are unknowns in the communities to which rail may come. Beverly Hills' opposition to the routing of the Purple Line subway has had the most attention, reminding observers of the decades-long feud between Caltrans and South Pasadena. But La Palma in Orange County also has lined up against trains -- in this case, light rail along a corridor that is essential for making Metro's rail network truly regional.

From 1901 until 1961, Pacific Electric cars ran from central Orange County through southeast Los Angele County along a diagonal from Santa Ana to Watts Junction and the industrial district south of downtown. That right-of-way -- or considerable stretches of it -- still exists, angling through one of the most densely populated parts of Southern California and still a center of manufacturing jobs. Since 2005, La Palma City Council members have opposed bringing rail transit through their neighborhoods. Other cities may raise similar objections after Metro concludes a "scoping" process for reuse of the right-of-way.

Their opposition may force Metro to give up any reuse of the trans-county right-of-way, leaving southeast residents poorly served by rail transit.

But there are unknowns for any expansion of light rail. For one, we're running out of the abandoned or disused rail lines that have been cheaply and quickly repurposed for light rail. The network we have -- except for the unusual circumstance of the Green Line -- is mostly built on the footprint of 19th-century steam railways and early 20th century electric lines. Then, most of the interurban rail lines in Los Angeles County fanned out west to the ocean from downtown, north to the San Fernando Valley, and northeast to Pasadena and Monrovia. Despite the need for better, faster transit in those neighborhoods, hardly any of that rail network is available for reuse. And the costs -- political as well as financial -- would be high.

Metro's rail network isn't where it needs to be, but where it can be. Too much of it pokes along at bus-like speeds on city streets, stopping at every station and most red lights. Some of it was built fast and cheap, and the effects of that have already begun to show. Future replacement costs aren't discussed when opening day ribbons are being cut.

After the celebration is over, we have the rail network that history, politics, NIMBYs, and the changing enthusiasms of federal funders have given us.

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