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A Weekly roundtable discussion on the future of transportation in Los Angeles (that is, on the future of Los Angeles)

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Over the past few months, the official transportation policy of Los Angeles has abruptly lurched to a halt. The nation's most costly program of rail construction has been stopped, leaving long-promised rail lines unbuilt; work continues only on the Red Line to North Hollywood. To be sure, the great freeway machine continues to grind ahead, with the extension of the Long Beach Freeway into Pasadena tentatively slated to proceed. But with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subjected to withering criticism over rising costs, its neglect of bus riders and years of chaotic decision making, its ambitious plans to provide an alternative to the auto have been placed on hold.

Whatever else it may accomplish, the pause in rail construction gives L.A. the opportunity to rethink its transit and land-use policies - which is another way of saying, a chance to rethink the kind of city we wish to become, to posit alternatives to a future of endless sprawl and equally endless commutes. To that end, and to inaugurate a series of roundtable discussions on various issues of arts and politics that the Weekly will be publishing on a more-or-less monthly basis, we convened a panel of experts and activists to examine the problems and opportunities confronting transportation in Los Angeles. The participants were:

Rita Burgos, an organizer for the Bus Riders Union, which is a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center;

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Rick Cole, Southern California director of the Local Government Commission, and a former mayor of Pasadena;

Denise Fairchild, president of the Community Development Technologies Center;

Keith Killough, deputy executive officer for countywide planning at the MTA;

Jim de la Loza, executive officer for regional planning at the MTA; and

Gloria Ohland, Southern California project manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

The participants met with Weekly editor Sue Horton, executive editor Harold Meyerson and news editor Charles Rappleye on the afternoon of Thursday, March 5.

Harold Meyerson: Let's begin with something concrete and immediate. The Red Line that is burrowing its way to Universal City, is this the last subway L.A. is going to see? And if so, is this a good or bad thing?

Jim de la Loza: I don't think it's the last subway. I think rail transit will be an important part of the transportation system. There is, however, an effort right now to re-evaluate the schedule, to rethink how fast we build rail. I think that what you're seeing is a pause, for the time being, to looking at more immediate ways to address our transportation needs, to looking at completing the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane program, at putting more resources into the bus system, and at a shuttle system that could possibly be used to augment the buses.

Rita Burgos: Well, I do think that the subway system is dead. In October 1994, we filed a lawsuit against the MTA in which we demonstrated that there has been a frankly racist allocation of transportation funding, that it has been disproportionately directed to more affluent communities and to massive rail construction that was never intended to benefit the truly transit-dependent population. In 1996, we agreed to a consent decree that mandated that the bus system and transit-dependent people would be given the highest priority in transportation funding. We cannot afford to both build subways and improve the bus system. In fact, trying to even proceed ahead with the Red Line is a further violation of the civil rights of bus riders in this city.

Meyerson: Since we have this pause at the moment in subway development, what should we be looking at in terms of the process? Is the process by which we make transit decisions flawed?

Rick Cole: The issue really isn't what mode of transportation we should build, but rather what ends should be served. If we start from the assumption that we want a transit system for the 10 percent of the population who don't have a car in their household, that suggests one answer. If we start from the assumption that we want to design a transportation system that serves 100 percent of the people, that prompts another answer. I don't think you ever get full agreement on any one vision, but without even discussion of what the ends ought to be, all you get is pitched battles over which projects get funding, because any project can eat up the money.

Gloria Ohland: There is no right technology. There's no silver bullet. We can build rail lines and they won't work, or we can build busways and they won't work, because we are planning in a vacuum. Transportation planning needs to go hand in hand with land-use planning. We could do the kind of land-use planning that would make a rail line work. The kind of land-use planning we're doing means we build highways, and consequently we have a city that's very, very spread out. But first we need to decide what kind of city we want to live in. From 1970 to 1990, the population of this region grew by 45 percent, and the amount of developed land grew by 300 percent. We're spreading out to Las Vegas, and that's a very expensive way to grow. It costs a lot of money to build the infrastructure to service those new communities, and then all of the new investment goes out to those new communities. We're building new sewer systems out there; we're building roads out there. It's very expensive to link up such spread-out communities

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