By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
Outta my way! In 1948, the
Red Car running just fine
at Hollywood and Highland.
DERAILED BY BUSES
If it were just a question of mismanagement or corruption, the subway wouldn’t differ from any other sleazy government project. But a small group of activists calling itself the Bus Riders Union re-introduced racial politics into the transit debate in the mid-1990s. If it were not for the disharmonic convergence of graft, bad bus service and a weak mayor, the BRU would be a footnote in L.A.’s transit history. But those problems allowed the BRU to use race baiting as a tool to gain power. Ever since Riordan signed a deal giving the BRU a large measure of control over the MTA, L.A. commuters have been beholden to a tiny group of idealogues with no expertise in fixing the city’s transit problems.
The Bus Riders Union was, in reality, a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which describes its mission as “committed to building democratic, internationalist, left social movements and challenging the ideological, economic and political domination of transnational capital.” The Center and the BRU were the brainchild of ’60s veteran Eric Mann — an activist who knew a lot more about Maoist theory than traffic patterns. Though the BRU’s stated goal was to create a more equitable transit system that would favor lower-class bus riders over more middle-class train commuters, its founder saw the fight over transit as little more than a skirmish in his grander vision of socialist revolution.
“Few of us would do all this work . . . if the struggle was only about buses,” Mann wrote when he formed the BRU, in 1993. “We quickly became excited about the positive ‘objective conditions’ that buses provided for organizing,” Mann wrote. “Public transport is one of the few remaining public spaces over which there can be effective contestation.”
They chose a good issue to contest. By the mid-1990s, bus service was in sad shape. “The city had bought a whole bunch of buses in the 1980s to spruce up for the 1984 Olympics,” said MTA lawyer Steve Carnevale. Buses last about a dozen years, and just as the MTA’s financial problems were getting a lot of press, they were breaking down. What buses remained on the road were crowded and neglected.
When the MTA announced a bus-fare increase in 1994, the BRU filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that the entire transit system was racist and demanding that more resources go to buses instead of rail projects.
The ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund represented the BRU. City of Quartz author Mike Davis, who wrote that the “MTA walks and talks like a military industrial complex,” lionized the BRU as a bulwark against “transit apartheid.” Tom Hayden also weighed in. Admitting now that his own transit solutions, paying employers to stagger workdays and requiring the city to make some of its employees work at home, were “complete nonstarters,” he supported the bus-only solution, dismissing the lure of light rail. “Politicians were mesmerized by their childhood images of rail transit and also huge campaign contributions by developers,” he says now.
While the BRU was being showered with accolades from the left, it was relying upon anti-rail libertarians, who favor doing away with public subsidies for transit agencies, for intellectual support. “We’re odd bedfellows,” said USC transportation-engineering professor James Moore, who, in addition to consulting for the BRU’s lawyers, works for the conservative Goldwater Institute and the libertarian Reason Foundation. “The case put people who really see the world quite differently on the same side.”
Through this chorus of anti-rail voices, and the MTA’s inability to do anything right, “it became accepted wisdom that rail was being built on the backs of people of color whose civil rights were being abused so white people could ride the train,” said Christensen. “And then it became liberal chic to be against it. Rail lost a major liberal base. Because it was now racist to build subways.”
Ironically, the BRU, which claimed to be blocking rail in defense of the poor, was being bankrolled primarily by comfy liberals on the Westside, most of whom would never in their lives step on a city bus to go to work every day.
After two years of bruising litigation and $7 million in attorneys’ fees (some to Riordan’s old law firm, which represented the MTA), Riordan capitulated to the BRU and signed a 10-year consent decree committing the MTA to improve bus service and reduce overcrowding. Good enough, but a costly Trojan horse lurked in the document’s legalese: the “load factor” requirement that the MTA add buses to a line when too many passengers are forced to stand. Riordan didn’t think the MTA would have to add buses every time the load factor is exceeded, but that’s how the MTA says the special master (the lawyer who oversees the decree) is enforcing it. The result is a big outlay of money for a lot of empty buses.
While the special master has ordered a one-third increase in the size of the bus fleet, “the actual number of people we carry on the bus has remained flat,” said MTA CEO Roger Snoble. (The BRU says bus ridership has increased about 1 percent per year.) “We’re not taking cars off the street. In fact, we’re adding buses to the streets, which is causing more traffic jams,” said Snoble. Since it costs about $200,000 per year to operate a bus, and most buses are only about 30 percent full, something isn’t working. Unconcerned, and despite $1 billion spent to comply with the consent decree, the BRU continues to push for even more bus purchases, doubling the size of the fleet to 4,000 buses, and a ban on all rail construction.
Riordan now regrets signing the decree. “Quite honestly, I was misled by the staff. I should have known better because I didn’t think they were very bright,” said Riordan. “I kick myself, but I’ll take some of the blame. I thought the load-factor requirements could be met by the ongoing MTA budget.”
Christensen was at the consent decree’s signing ceremony. “The mayor and the MTA were so freaked out about the subway scandals. They wanted to change their image. There was this scene with all these BRU people wearing yellow shirts with messages about fighting transit racism. Riordan hugged them all and said this was the beginning of a new day and we’re going to make buses a priority. Eric Mann came up to me later and said Riordan didn’t know what he signed,” he said.
Patsaouras was blunt: “Riordan is an ignoramus. Riordan fucked it up with the consent decree.”
Sitting in Eric Mann’s smart office suite high in the Wiltern building, above the westernmost point of the subway, BRU spokesman Manuel Criollo didn’t seem like a struggling union organizer fighting The Man. As he looked out at the city, he appeared more like a self-satisfied entrepreneur from the ’90s who made quick money on an offbeat idea. “The MTA now sees that we are a power player,” he said as he recalled the BRU’s success in diverting money to buses from other transit projects.
But now the BRU is hammering its bus message just to keep that power. The consent decree has done its job of improving the bus service, and the fleet has been replaced with natural gas–burning buses. While most say it is clearly time to end the litigation and go home, the BRU continues because the lawsuit is its main reason to exist. The MTA is required to pay the BRU’s attorneys’ fees, which gives the BRU a further incentive to press its attack on all rail projects as racist (even though almost two-thirds of Metro Rail’s riders are minorities) and keep pounding for more bus purchases, regardless of need.
While Mann refused to be interviewed for this article, Criollo said the BRU will “most definitely” ask the court to extend the consent decree past its expiration in late 2006. What better forum to pursue Mann’s goal “to go beyond narrow ‘trade union’ or ‘bus’ consciousness to build a movement based on a more transformative, internationalist consciousness”?
The BRU is out of step with its members in one important area. From 2002 to 2004, Mann and his wife, Lian Hurst Mann, a project director with the Labor/Community Strategy Center, were paid an average combined salary and deferred compensation of $204,500 a year. Half of the Metro Rail riders — the ones Mann says are too well-heeled to deserve transit dollars — have family incomes of less than $25,000.
Criollo is easily set off by talk of more subways. If Villaraigosa “advocates for more rail, then we are willing to have open struggle with him in court, in the boardroom and in the streets. We’ll fight him every inch of the way.”
Villaraigosa won’t say where he stands on extending the consent decree past 2006. He’ll say only that he’ll “have to make a determination whether we should extend the consent decree or continue to make bus service a priority without it.” Subway and rail advocates hope that the mayor opposes the extension. The BRU’s relentless push for bus purchases has made an integrated, multimodal transit policy impossible. Government by special master is bad enough. “He [Mann] has more power than the board,” said Snoble, but it’s especially counterproductive since the consent decree has degenerated into what the special master called a bus-vs.-rail “range war.”
When the consent decree was signed, the MTA was short on money and friends. Riding the swell of frustration, Yaroslavsky sponsored an initiative in 1998 that barred the use of county sales-tax money for subway projects. He described it as the county’s “last chance” to avoid “a regional transportation nightmare.” With no opposition on the ballot, it passed. That same year, the MTA suspended all new rail projects.
The Red Line’s extension to the Valley was completed in 2000. Jagged as a gerrymandered congressional district, and carrying a milelong spur from Vermont to Western, the $4.7 billion line is the most expensive 17 miles of subway ever built.
Since then, the MTA has opened the light-rail Gold Line from downtown to Pasadena and is at work on a “Gold Line Extension” to East L.A. Another extension, from Pasadena out to Montclair, is being discussed. In the fall, a 14-mile “guided busway,” called the Orange Line, will start to run from the North Hollywood subway station to Woodland Hills. The MTA also recently announced the first leg of a light-rail “Expo Line” to Robertson and Venice. (Snoble said he was worried about funding for this line, since state and federal money “may or may not be there.”)
The MTA also has put Rapid buses into service that are equipped with gizmos that keep traffic lights green when they approach. The service is generally considered a success, and the buses run faster as long as they don’t get stuck in the city’s perennial traffic miasma.
But while a partial transit system has been scratched out over the past couple of decades, the Wilshire subway has been relegated to the world of surrealist stunts. In 2000, the guerrilla art group Heavy Trash erected fake MTA signs on Wilshire announcing the imminent arrival of the “Aqua Line,” running from Western down Wilshire to the beach. The group was protesting the “not-in-my-back-yard mentality” that stopped Metro Rail expansion westward, its Web site said.
As soon as the Aqua Line signs went up, “I started getting calls from the Westside saying, ‘When are you going to build it? We’re dying over here from lack of transit,’ ” said former MTA spokesman Ed Scannell. “At this point, people are screaming because traffic is so bad.”
ROUGH RIDE AHEAD
Collective frustration with congestion is chipping away at Waxman’s wall around the Westside. The NIMBYism of past decades is being replaced by the agony of sitting for hours on the road staring at the back ends of Escalades. Rather than getting complaints about neighborhood invasions, the MTA now gets e-mails, such as one recently from Westwood resident Eric Sievering, saying that the Red Line “is the number one issue for the city.” The Westside's new councilman, Bill Rosendahl, talked up the “subway by the sea” during his campaign.
Christina Foster takes two buses and a subway every day to get her kids to school. She spoke on a cell phone while struggling with shopping bags on a bus stranded in traffic. “Rail is so much faster,” she said. “The buses take forever and the Rapid gets stuck. The rail is a straight shot.” Richard Harris, another daily transit rider, agrees: “The city is so big. It’s impossible to depend on buses alone. How anyone could be so shortsighted to oppose rail is beyond me.”
For politicians, ignoring shifts in popular opinion is risky. Unlike his dad, Mayor Hahn didn’t get too involved with transit. His mumblings during the campaign about traffic-light synchronization and reversible lanes sounded weak, and his carping that rail expansion was too expensive obviously didn’t resonate.
“Substantial expansion of the rail network will only become more feasible as L.A. County drivers become more frustrated by traffic congestion,” said Villaraigosa in response to a Southern California Rail Advocates questionnaire during the campaign. “We don’t have a lot of options here,” he added recently. “If we do nothing, Wilshire and the east/west corridor will be a parking lot from now until the future.” Already frustrated by the traffic parking lot in which they sit each day, the broad cross section of voters that put Villaraigosa in office want to see movement toward relief.
One of the last things Hahn did as mayor was put money in the city budget to fund an independent study of the safety of tunneling down Wilshire. The study, which was approved 11-2 by the MTA board, is part of an elaborate Kabuki drama to give Waxman cover to change his position. City Councilman and former MTA board member Tom LaBonge, who pushed for the study, went to Washington to make sure Waxman was onboard. Sensing a change in the political winds, Waxman said he “talked to LaBonge, Antonio Villaraigosa and Roger Snoble about this, and I indicated I would remove the federal prohibition if we could arrange a study to show that we could tunnel through the methane safely.”
LaBonge also lined up support from Yaroslavsky and leaders from Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Culver City. “People can’t get to stores and they can’t get to work,” said West Hollywood’s mayor pro tem, John Heilman. “There has been a change in terms of the NIMBYism. None of us are an isolated island.”
It’s unclear how soon the study will be completed, however. Waxman has not yet blessed the panel of experts the MTA will hire to conduct the study. “We’ve got to get him a panel he’s comfortable with,” said Villaraigosa.
Yaroslavsky stands by his 1998 prohibition against the use of county money for underground rail, and he still says subways are too costly. But he’s starting to sound like a cautious Red Line advocate. “If there’s ever going to be another subway in L.A., it’s going to be going down Wilshire, no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s got the density, and that’s where it was originally supposed to go. . . . Eventually, it’s going to happen because it’s the only way to move people east/west. You’re not going to do it with an elevated and you’re not going to do it at grade, so you’re going to have to go underground.”
Snoble agrees. “On Wilshire, we have a bus route that’s carrying 45,000 people a day. That’s incredible,” he said. “If you can do it faster, for example, on a subway, you could double that amount. You’ve got the mass. The demand is there to do it, so we ought to be doing it.”
Given that Sacramento has diverted more than $2 billion of local transit funding in the past two years to meet state budget shortfalls, and the Bush administration likely will continue to try to cut transportation funding, the subway will be a budget challenge even if Waxman and Yaroslavsky soften up. One possible solution is a 2004 state Senate bill, sponsored by Kevin Murray (D–Culver City), that lets the MTA put a temporary half-cent sales tax on the ballot to fund specified transit projects.
Under the Murray bill, the Red Line to Fairfax would get about $900 million over six and a half years, which “should just about pay for it,” Snoble said. The problem is that the tax has to be approved by a two-thirds vote. Under Hahn’s anemic leadership, it didn’t have a chance. But with Villaraigosa, who supported the Murray bill, that may no longer be the case. With the closest thing to a popular mandate this city can give, and with Yaroslavsky’s support for the measure, there may never be a better time than now for Villaraigosa to push for it.
In a recent interview, Villaraigosa wouldn’t commit to putting the measure on the ballot, saying only that he intends “to look at funding sources” for transit to relieve gridlock and doesn’t want to limit his options.
Villaraigosa’s challenge — and it’s a big one — is to communicate a vision that will inspire the city to endure the costs and disruptions of long-term transit projects.
“West L.A. is getting increasingly isolated and congested partially because of its resistance to transit,” said William Fulton, senior scholar at the School of Planning, Policy and Development at USC. “We should continue to squeeze as much as we can incrementally out of the roads, with extra lanes, light preferences for buses, etc.,” he said. “But the only way to substantially build transit capacity is to build more rail. . . . Rail won’t solve the problems of today as much as building the city of tomorrow. You need to do both. Don’t sacrifice rail for buses. You can’t sacrifice the future for the present.”
Transit rider Harris, who has little money to spare, said he would “gladly accept a half-cent sales tax for the Red Line. I’d do it in a second.” That’s good, but it’s probably not representative of the electorate. People meekly give oil companies record profits by funding a 40 percent boost in gasoline prices, but they seize up when the word tax is involved. The voters will need to be convinced.
Villaraigosa can’t count on bundles of help from Washington or Sacramento. The region was reasonably successful in the recent federal transit bill (though many complain that L.A. County got much less per capita than Kern County, and just $11 million of construction money is earmarked for the Expo Line), but money for a new subway project is a long shot even if Waxman comes around. Closer to home, our Hummer-driving governor won’t ever back such a project. The mayor will have to build local resolve to carry a substantial share of the load. He is confident that he can overcome all of the odds, and says he’s already starting talks with Waxman and Yaroslavsky. “I’m very optimistic,” he said. “First, we’ll have to determine with an independent study that it is safe. Then we’ll have to aggressively go after state and federal money.”
The Los Angeles Mayor’s Office is notoriously weak, but it can be influential. Villaraigosa controls four seats on the MTA board. It was a good sign that he took the chairmanship, and his high-profile advocacy for public transit is essential. He bounced LaBonge, the board’s strongest supporter of the Red Line, presumably for supporting Hahn in the election, and replaced him and two other board members with Councilman Bernard Parks, former state Transportation Commissioner David Fleming and former state Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz. The mayor’s deputy for transportation, Jaime de la Vega, played a similar role in the Riordan administration.
Katz and Fleming clearly know the field, and their appointments could give the mayor a boost in the restive San Fernando Valley, where they were active in the secession movement. Parks’ appointment highlights Villaraigosa’s commitment to the Expo light-rail line through Parks’ district, the MTA’s top Metro Rail priority.
So far, the Red Line is nowhere to be found on the MTA’s schedule of priorities. After the Waxman and Yaroslavsky prohibitions, “it’s not really on the radar screen,” said MTA spokesman Marc Littman. Villaraigosa said he intends to rectify this when the MTA prepares its new long-range plan in the coming months.
Blame abounds for the city’s sorry transit system, and the absence of a subway on Wilshire is far from the system’s only gap. Were it not for the various prohibitions that walled off the Westside, there would be a subway to Fairfax by now, and most likely also a train reaching the 405. During the campaign, Antonio Villaraigosa played to the city’s frustrations by promising large-scale traffic solutions. He’s even promised to take the subway once in a while. Now he needs to give the subway more places to go. “It can happen,” the mayor says. “Everywhere I go, whenever I talk about the subway to the ocean, people start clapping.”
To read a timeline that shows the highs and lows of L.A. rail through the years, click here.