How a bus-only politician — and a car-obsessed city — are learning to love the underground
published: August 18, 2005
Photo by Ted Soqui
In March 1985, a worker punched a time clock at a Fairfax-area Ross Dress
for Less and ignited a basement full of odorless methane gas. The freak explosion
shook the earth and ripped through the building, blowing off most of the roof
and throwing burning debris hundreds of feet in the air. Four square blocks of
shops on the south edge of the Farmers Market were evacuated.
For the next few days, TV viewers in Los Angeles watched in amazement as fiery cracks in the earth opened near the explosion site. It looked as if the city, poked with hundreds of gaseous, oil well–size holes for a century, was about to be consumed from within. The fires soon died down, the seeping gas was vented, and the injured were treated and sent home.
As the methane story receded from public consciousness, it left behind an unwitting victim: a long-envisioned, citywide mass-transit system. The explosion was one in a series of setbacks that broke the Metro Rail system’s spine before it was even born, ensuring that many of the burdens of America’s most polluted and traffic-congested city would remain unsolved — right up to today.
The derailing of a state-of-the-art mass-transit system did not begin or end with the 1985 explosion. Indeed, the methane eruption merely gave cover and impetus to a more subterranean drive to block the subway system Los Angeles so much needs. Blame for the failure to build such a network rests on the shoulders of some of the city’s most powerful politicians, past and present, and on inept institutions, from sloppy subway contractors and a bumbling Metropolitan Transit Authority to opportunist politicians pandering to racist Westside NIMBYism, to a tiny pressure group like the Bus Riders Union masquerading as a tribune of the poor, to former Mayor Richard Riordan, who capitulated to the BRU’s pressure, and to a recently departed Jim Hahn, who dozed at the wheel as L.A.’s hideous traffic continued to snarl.
In this saga of missed opportunities and conscious denial, some of the most progressive faces in local politics have hindered, rather than led, the charge for traffic relief. To placate his wealthy constituents’ fears of “those people” riding trains into their neighborhoods, powerful Westside Congressman Henry Waxman stopped the subway at Western Avenue, blaming his lack of support for a Wilshire Boulevard subway on fears of another methane fire. Claiming to speak for poor transit riders, the BRU argued that rail transit should be abandoned because it is racist. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky channeled the public’s frustration with the MTA’s mismanagement into a countywide vote banning local funds for subways. Liberal icon Tom Hayden joined the fray, attacking the subway as a gravy train for developers and contractors.
Through all the noise, one message came through loud and clear: In this gridlocked city, it somehow became politically correct to hate the subway and embrace buses as the only solution to crawling traffic. Two decades later, it’s now clear that a huge increase in bus service — with more than 500 buses added to a fleet now topping 2,000 — hasn’t solved anything, and Los Angeles flounders along with a subway-and-rail transit system that is irrational, misshapen and inadequate. The naysayer Hayden gloats: “We’re stuck with what we’re stuck with. It’s what we deserve for supporting mindless growth without leadership.”
Just as the city’s traffic seems to be getting worse by the hour, the landslide election of Antonio Villaraigosa comes along to fortuitously scramble the ideological lines of the transit debate. Now, finally, after decades of balking, Los Angeles might have a shot at building the subway system it needs. Endorsed by many of the key subway opponents, including Waxman and Yaroslavsky, Villaraigosa talked of a “subway to the sea” during the campaign and staked a big chunk of his political capital on a promise to expand the rail system. “It would be the most utilized subway in the nation, maybe the world,” the mayor recently said. “It would also be the most cost-effective public-transportation project in America.” Villaraigosa took the first step by assuming the helm of the MTA. Now, the question is whether he will have the clout to move the political mountains required to get Los Angeles the transit system it deserves.
The changes in Villaraigosa’s own views on transit reflect the journey of a politician
coming to terms with the city’s genetic traffic ills. In the early 1990s, a young
Antonio stood with the subway detractors and argued for cuts in rail funding.
Villaraigosa also backed the BRU’s civil rights lawsuit against the MTA, which
alleged that rail serves wealthy whites at the expense of “transit-dependent”
people of color. But that was before a 10-year, $1 billion investment in buses
failed to unclog L.A.’s streets or attract new riders. By championing the subway,
the mayor has recognized the shifting mood of commuters, who have become downright
hostile about the logjams. He sees that the anti-rail movement is weakening in
the face of 24-hour gridlock.
Before one more foot of subway tunnel is in place, Villaraigosa and his new rail coalition must conquer the demons that have derailed L.A.’s most ambitious transit plans, even before the smattering of subway and light-rail lines were built. For decades, battles have been fought over transit policy in Los Angeles, and mountains of dollars spent designing space-age systems that never got built. The lessons of the past may help a new leadership finally deliver a more complete rail-and-subway system.
“This isn’t going to happen in four years,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to start building a consensus around a plan for the next 20 years. . . . To me it’s just common sense. As things get worse, people realize we can’t put our heads in the sand. We have to be open to doing what other great cities in the world have done.”
Street Reds: L.A.’s
past holds a lesson or two
for transit planners.
THE RACIST PAST
The mayor is taking on an abundance of forces — political, economic and social — in attempting to jump-start L.A.’s subway system. He will need to undo years of racially based transit decisions that have both ignored traffic problems and kept apart rich and poor neighborhoods in deference to powerful suburbanites.
In the 1940s, the streetcars served disadvantaged areas well enough, but they lost money and were flattened by the postwar freeway boom. The last line to go was the Long Beach Red Car, which went from downtown to Watts until 1961. No one wanted to pay for mass transit when gas was cheap and traffic relatively light.
While L.A.’s car culture flourished, South-Central was left to rot and heat up like a backyard compost pile. In the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965, the governor’s commission pinned some of the blame on the area’s poor public transportation, which it said “had a major influence in creating a sense of isolation, with its resultant frustrations.”
Inadequate transportation would be both a cause and an effect of the riots. One of the chief byproducts of the unrest was the embrace by the wealthy and white middle class of the city’s de facto segregation. Whether it’s called NIMBYism, racism or neighborhood preservation, a lot of people were in no mood after the riots to make it easy to come to the Westside from East and South L.A.
The year 1968 was a rough ride for large American cities, especially L.A., where a dark-skinned man with a peculiar name killed Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. Against a backdrop of riots in 100 cities, the hapless Rapid Transit District tried to sell a target for more culture clashes: an ambitious $2.5 billion plan for a new mass-transit system. The “five corridor” layout featured rail lines running from downtown to El Monte, Long Beach, LAX, West L.A. and Reseda, and new bus lines feeding the trains. The plan had few takers.
“The Hancock Park people were mortified that the same population that rioted in 1965 could come and have immediate access to their neighborhood,” said James Watt McCormick of the Coalition for Rapid Transit, a subway advocacy group. “The imagery used at the time was the guy hopping off the subway and grabbing your TV out of your house and disappearing on the subway.”
County voters had developed an allergic reaction to cohesion. As smart as the plan was from a transit perspective, it was just what the fearful and divided region didn’t want. The RTD deployed a squad of hottie “Rapid Transit Maids” in “bright red-orange dresses with matching brown accessories” to promote the plan, but this clumsy appeal didn’t persuade voters to (as the RTD put it) “make the necessary commitment for public transportation while there’s still time.” In the same election that put Richard Nixon in office on a “law and order” platform, the county’s last chance for a functional mass-transit system went down in flames.
It would take 12 years of rising gas prices and increasing congestion before voters would sign on to regional mass transit, and a much more modest plan. This time, rail had a pitchman from South L.A. who knew how to sell, former Supervisor (and Jimmy’s dad) Kenneth Hahn. “It was a promise he made to the Watts community after the ’65 riots,” recalled Roger Christensen, vice chairman of the MTA Citizens Advisory Council. “I remember Hahn taking people to the top of City Hall, pointing to his district and saying, ‘I’m going to put the trains back.’ ”
With Hahn’s passionate support, Proposition A passed in 1980, setting a half-cent sales tax to help pay for a regional transit system. The plan that accompanied the initiative showed 10 transit corridors, with the Wilshire subway line the “cornerstone,” said former RTD planning director Gary Spivak. Nevertheless, Hahn made sure his district got the first dollars for a light-rail line on the old Long Beach Red Car route. It “was my baby,” he said. “I said that line has to go first because I wrote Prop. A.” The Blue Line, as it is called, is now the most heavily used light-rail line in the country, carrying more than 75,000 riders a day.
Taking the poor from Watts downtown with local money wasn’t inflammatory. But bringing them west in a much pricier subway, and using billions of federal dollars to help pay for it, was. Hahn’s transit plan would shrivel in the face of familiar social hatreds, the federal government’s hostility and, eventually, everyone’s exasperation with the MTA.
By 1983, funding pressures had pummeled the rail-system plan down to a gnarled “starter line” running from Union Station west on Wilshire and then turning north on Fairfax before heading over to the Valley. At a projected cost of $3.3 billion, the plan had few friends in Washington. “[Ronald] Reagan was against mass transit and new rail starts, so we had an uphill battle with the feds,” said former RTD president Nick Patsaouras.
That was fine with many Westside residents who objected to the Wilshire subway. The Fairfax Jewish community fretted about its main street being torn up. The bunkered-in homeowner groups in and around Hancock Park were also apoplectic about a subway station planned for Crenshaw and Wilshire. “They didn’t want ‘those people’ coming into Hancock Park, low-income people,” said former RTD board member and Hancock Park resident George Takei. “The Hancock Park people clearly were making their opposition known to Henry Waxman.”
The South Brookside Homeowners’ Association (a NIMBY posse guarding the Highland-Wilshire area) was candid: “While we recognize the need for mass transportation in Los Angeles, we are unable to accept what appears to us to be an unwarranted assault on our neighborhood.” The Boulevard Heights Homeowners’ Association (covering the Crenshaw-Wilshire area) put it in existential terms, complaining that the subway station would “destroy the surrounding neighborhoods which are the only high-quality single-family neighborhoods close to the city center.”
As far west as Beverly Hills, McCormick recalls, residents opposed the Wilshire subway “on the same notion — alien invasion.”
my way! In 1948, the
Red Car running just fine
at Hollywood and Highland.
One month before Ross Dress for Less blew up in 1985, the fledgling Metro Rail was already so ill that Yaroslavsky diagnosed it as being “in critical condition.” The blast put it into intensive care. Unfortunately, Henry Waxman was the doctor on call. “He was generally skeptical about the subway to begin with,” said Yaroslavsky, “and then the explosion happened.” Methane gave Waxman, whose Westside district included some of the subway’s most fearful opponents, a good pretext to keep the subway away.
“I never believed, and none of our building experts ever believed, that there was an issue of safety,” Yaroslavsky said of the underground gas. “You need to vent it, you need to take precautions, but it’s totally mitigable.” Patsaouras recalled that when the explosion happened, the city was already burying a sewer line “within feet” of the planned Wilshire subway tunnel. Additionally, the past two decades have seen intensive development up and down Wilshire, and lots of digging, with no serious methane problems. In 2003, the Grove went in across the street from Ross Dress for Less.
To this day, Waxman insists that safety is the central issue. A 1985 city task force on the explosion marked 400 square blocks straddling Wilshire in his district as a “methane zone.” The task force didn’t address tunneling safety or the fact that much of L.A. is also a methane zone. But Waxman didn’t fuss with such details. He had enough to stop the subway, or at least keep it from coming west.
Waxman was an unlikely poster boy for the stop-the-subway movement. Representing one of the country’s most liberal congressional districts, and closely associated with progressive causes like the environment and fighting tobacco companies, he might have been expected to champion rail transit. Early on, he had concerns about the subway route. “I didn’t think the subway line was well thought through, and I didn’t think it was the best use of our money,” he said. “I sat down with the people from the MTA, and asked, ‘What is your thinking on this route?’ ” Waxman said he was told “they’ve got to take the line out to the Valley, and they’ve got this political pressure and that political pressure. It didn’t make sense to me.” That said, however, in opposing the subway as he did, Waxman also pandered to the fears of his well-heeled constituency.
Waxman found an unsavory ally in his anti-subway push, former U.S. Representative Bobbi Fiedler (R–Northridge), who had established her right-wing credentials fighting school busing in the San Fernando Valley. Patsaouras said Fiedler was already “slamming Metro Rail” to support a possible Senate run. As an “implacable adversary to the subway,” Fiedler and her unlikely association with Waxman “just gave him that much more strength,” Takei said. Waxman said he “came to the conclusion that Fiedler was right” after discussing the political pressures on the subway route with transit officials and learning of the methane explosion.
As it turned out, Waxman not only got the NIMBYs what they wanted, Fiedler said he also betrayed her.
In September 1985, a transportation appropriations bill, which included the first major tranche of federal Red Line money, was before the House. Fiedler and Waxman were working together to eliminate the money for the Red Line. Patsaouras went to Washington with Mayor Bradley and RTD general manager John Dyer to beg Waxman for mercy. “We were afraid with a Republican and Democratic alliance we would lose everything,” he said.
They worked with the late Julian Dixon, the pro-transit congressman whose name is on the Seventh Street subway station, to “act as a broker to find a solution that Waxman would take,” Patsaouras said. Dixon, whose congressional district was just south of Waxman’s, saw opportunity in Waxman’s intransigence. Sitting in Dixon’s office, they improvised a plan to divert the subway south of the methane zone — right into Dixon’s working-class district. “I and John Dyer took a pencil and a napkin and drew a map of the methane zone,” he said. They then drew a line running down roughly to Pico and San Vicente. “Waxman took that.”
Patsaouras said Waxman then went down to the House floor, where debate on the transit bill was about to begin, to tell Fiedler he’d changed his mind. “Fiedler was there with her beautiful green dress, like a big peacock,” Patsaouras recalled. “Waxman went up to Fiedler and whispered to her, and she turned white. It was like two generals going to war and at the last minute one of the generals says, ‘I’m out.’ ”
What was also out was any remaining sanity in the subway system. Its existence was saved, but it lost its Wilshire backbone. And with Waxman’s continued hostility to the subway, the system would never straighten up.
Fiedler said Waxman double-crossed her. “Those things happen in politics,” she said, but “it would have been more courteous to let me know before the bill came to the floor.” Waxman responded that Fiedler has “faulty recollection” and that the House passed the transportation bill despite their joint opposition. His compromise with Dixon came afterward, he added.
No matter that diverting the subway meant trashing $150 million in plans and years of delay, or that the detoured subway would still run into underground gas, or that a straight shot down Wilshire made the most sense. Waxman had kept alien invasions out of his district. In what became known as the Waxman-Dixon compromise, federal funding remains barred if the subway crosses the methane zone.
Regardless of exactly how Waxman stopped the subway, its loss has been bitter for the more than 1.5 million people living west of downtown. By 2030, that number will grow by 300,000, a human jam-up certain to make even the shortest car trips dreadful. Wilshire never had a rail line because the real estate hustlers who designed it had cars in mind. But they never imagined that more than half a million cars would use the street (between Centinela and Vermont) each day and that about 15 percent of the area’s residents would take transit to work. The Wilshire buses have the highest use in the county, carrying more than 80,000 riders daily.
Not that the bus service actually works very well. With all the traffic, the Wilshire “Rapid” bus generally goes a pathetic 14 mph, which is still such an improvement over the local that bus ridership has gone up 40 percent. Considering that half of the area’s other major bus lines cross Wilshire (generating about 60,000 daily transfers), there is a huge demand for fast, high-capacity rail transit that’s being ignored.
Soon after the Waxman-Dixon compromise, Waxman wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed piece that the subway system was “seriously flawed” and “unlikely to ever be completed.” At the same time, he called for an end to the project on safety grounds. Despite his efforts to stop the subway, ground was broken downtown on the Red Line in 1986. Faced with the reality that some kind of subway system was coming, Waxman made sure it stayed out of his district. His efforts worked. RTD’s Spivak said they had no choice but to view the Waxman-Dixon compromise as a wall across Wilshire.
The subway to the Valley would be diverted up Vermont, but the issue of how to run the line west remained political theater of the absurd. For years, Waxman refused even to consider studying the Wilshire subway line. In 1987, when he learned that the RTD was looking at the route, Waxman sent Dyer a letter accusing the RTD of “evading the meaning and intent of a Federal law” and demanding “a complete accounting” of all public funds to examine the tunneling, including all funds supplied [to RTD board members] by lobbyists.”
In sending the letter, Waxman was saying, “You’re going to resist me? I’m going to blow you apart. I’m going to cause you so much gastritis you won’t even want to play,” said McCormick. The city backed down. For the next several years, Waxman remained “absolutely adamant that if [transportation officials] took the risk of studying Wilshire as an alignment, he would become their opponent in Congress,” McCormick added. “He wasn’t going to have them . . . provide data that would have made his objections appear foolish.”
Waxman doesn’t specifically recall the 1987 letter, but confirmed that he learned L.A. transit officials were still “talking about making plans” for the subway after his prohibition went into place. “I was wondering what was going on,” he said.
Eventually, the southern detour fizzled because engineers discovered hydrogen sulfide underground, a truly toxic gas that escapes from old oil wells. Barred from Waxman’s district, the Red Line made it only as far west as Western.
McCormick said it would be a mistake to view Waxman’s actions in isolation. “He had the highest leverage point, so he was able to actually make the decision to stop the thing,” but Waxman just reflected popular sentiment, and at least 50 percent of his constituents were “absolutely against it.”
Waxman said he “didn’t get any NIMBY pressure” against the subway. “My only issue was the safety of tunneling in the area. I got more pressure from developers that wanted to build in the area and citizens who said the subway was a good idea.” He added that he has been fighting the Bush administration’s efforts to cut long-term federal transportation funding for the region, which would have been devastating to rail projects in Southern California.
By the mid-1990s, subway opponents no longer needed methane to attack the system. Instead, they got a big assist from the MTA itself, dubbed by some the “Money Train Authority.”The agency’s wild cost overruns, construction errors, internal bickering and incompetence put the subway under attack from all sides.
In 1993, the public learned that more than 2,000 feet of subway tunnel wall, built by well-connected contractor Tutor-Saliba Perini, was about half the required thickness. At the same time, government investigations into construction fraud and bribery were getting a lot of public attention. So was the agency’s practice of paying contractors millions of dollars to fix their own screwups, and additional millions to the consultants who oversaw the faulty work. “In the 1990s, we just let the contractors ride roughshod over us,” said Yaroslavsky. Responding at the time to the investigations, contractor Ron Tutor said, “Let them investigate . . . the truth will always come out.”
Not really. Twelve years later, the MTA and Tutor-Saliba Perini are still locked in mortal combat. The court hit Tutor-Saliba Perini with a $63 million judgment (including more than 1,000 instances of false payment claims and unfair business practices) after it learned that the contractor withheld evidence until trial. The appellate court reversed the judgment, ruling that Tutor-Saliba Perini was denied due process, said Fred Cohen, the contractor’s lawyer. The court also reinstated the contractor’s slightly more than $10 million claim for unpaid bills. The lawsuit is back at square one.
Just as the mismanagement of subway construction came into stark relief, the reconstituted MTA moved into a new downtown headquarters building — nicknamed the Taj Mahal — that was so plush and overbuilt it looked like a pile of graft. Bitter rancor among MTA board members, and the giving of contracts to friends of MTA officials, didn’t help the agency’s image. At one 1996 MTA board meeting, Richard Alatorre accused Gloria Molina of trying to influence the award of a big Eastside tunneling contract. Molina countered that Alatorre was trying to steer the business to his cronies: “This is an accusation that is being made to throw blame on me by a very corrupt politician who has got his bloody fingerprints on this whole thing!” Riordan and Yaroslavsky joined in the chaotic bickering. Alatorre later pleaded guilty to tax evasion for accepting money from people trying to influence him in his roles as councilman and MTA board member.
Waxman called for more federal probes, and Yaroslavsky gained political ground by promising to end the MTA’s “unmitigated embarrassment to the county” caused by “cost overruns, questionable contracting practices, delays, shoddy subway construction and collapsing streets.”
When an 80-foot chunk of Hollywood Boulevard caved in above a tunnel near Barnsdall Park, any remaining good will for the subway or the MTA collapsed with it. An op-ed piece in the Times called the sinkhole “a metaphor for the MTA itself — an agency so awash with problems it can’t possibly retain enough political support to finish the subway.”
SUV drivers have found
streetcars of desire?
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
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
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,”
Patsaouras was blunt: “Riordan is an ignoramus. Riordan fucked it up with the
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
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,
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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