The Way Ahead for Transit, Mixed-Use Development Isn't Clear

The Road Less Traveled
The Road Less Traveled | Photo: Metro and Chris Yunker | Flickr: Creative Commons License

No Expo? Despite grumbling from impatient riders, the Expo Line from downtown to Culver City hasn't yet been given a start date. Behind the fog of assurances from Metro and speculation from everyone else is a stark fact: trains on the Blue and Expo lines are supposed to run minutes apart on the same track from the 7th Street/Flower Street station to Flower and Washington Boulevard, where the two lines diverge.

Switching trains on the common line and a tight turn for Blue Line trains at Flower and Washington create a substantial risk of collision. And Metro isn't sure that all the technical problems have been solved.

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Fitting two trains on a single track that was designed 25 years ago and within a limited right-of-way was one problem, solved (but just barely). Less sure is the capacity of automatic switching equipment to separate the two lines smoothly and safely. To get the system to work, Metro probably will have to reduce both the speed and frequency of trains through this congested junction, reducing overall efficiency.

No Connection? The Regional Connector is the solution to Metro's biggest problem: the region's light rail and subway lines are not an integrated system. Blame how and why they were approved and funded for the disconnection, which now needs a $1.4-billion fix.

Metro's solution, given the limitations of the city's street grid, is to link light rail and subway lines via a 1.9-mile tunnel under downtown. The connection could be completed by 2020, but push-back from some of the city's most powerful landlords has pushed further action on the Regional Connector off the table, at least for now.

The connector's routing has been questioned already and by the city's biggest player, Eli Broad. This new challenge is over construction methods. Changing them would increase construction costs substantially and delay completion.

No In-Fill? Increased public transit use, the abandonment of private vehicles for commuting, and denser neighborhoods are goals of the California Legislature (under SB 375 and AB 32). Getting there ties expansion of the region's light rail network to speculative real estate development (just as in the days of Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric system).

And that's having predictable results.

In Santa Monica, the proposed Bergamot Transit Village is the transit-oriented reuse of an abandoned factory site adjacent to a future Expo Line stop. Across the border in Los Angeles, the Bergamot Transit Village is a big (766,000 square feet) and tall (five buildings, five to seven stories) generator of traffic congestion.

The members of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council have objected, and with other community organizations, they urged the Los Angeles City Council to call for further review of the project's impacts. The city council agreed. Typically, that leads to a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit and a lot of complications for both Santa Monica city officials and the developer.

Projects like the Bergamot Transit Village are precisely what the California Legislature had in mind to urbanize the state's suburban neighborhoods. Politicians see the "juice" in their new role as development deciders. Real estate developers, contractors, and property management companies see the dollar signs. Environmentalists see apartment dwellers on foot, on bikes, and on public transit (not in demon automobiles). Drivers hope to see wide open freeways and uncongested streets.

And homeowners who live next to proposed in-fill projects see threats to their neighborhood quality of life, unwanted change to their routines, the arrival of "outsiders," and (always) traffic congestion.

The contest of values in transit-oriented development won't be solved by Santa Monica or Los Angeles. But the Legislature has a fix: Relaxed environmental standards for in-fill development, limits on CEQA protests, state-mandated land use goals, and the transfer of policy decisions from city councils to regional planning bodies.

But some wonder, as do I, if that's the best way ahead.

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