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;
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
De la Loza: Putting a subway line in from downtown to Santa Monica was as much a land-use decision as a transportation one. A subway is probably more influential than anything else in shaping land use. It allows you to densify in a way you can't with any other mode, since transportation is no longer impacted by the flow of traffic. Building that subway was a decision by the city of Los Angeles that the corridor along Wilshire will be a dense urban environment.
Keith Killough: Some 20 or so years ago, former L.A. city planning director Calvin Hamilton came up with the concept of developing focused growth around centers and connecting those centers with a high-capacity rail system or other systems, including busways. The idea was embraced by planners and elected officials in the urban core, but the public and suburban elected officials did not cooperate. Los Angeles sprawled. The growth was not concentrated solely in the urban core that would have supported such a system. Los Angeles is famous nationwide for its lack of land-use control.
Burgos: We have a plan that is not operating in a vacuum. We believe that long-term transit planning in this city must be, first and foremost, based on the needs of the most transit-dependent, the low-income communities of color in this city. I don't have a particular love of buses over other transportation modes, but when we're talking about issues of transit racism, when we're talking about the fact that 94 percent of the transit consumers in Los Angeles are bus riders, then it becomes obvious how we should use money.
Denise Fairchild: I feel like we're missing fundamental issues. We have to examine the role transportation policy has played in urban poverty, in the abandonment of urban areas. I think highways contributed to urban poverty in that they allowed for business to run out. We need to first promote economic growth in the inner city, and then we need a transportation system to support that. We need a system that addresses what's wrong with our city.
Burgos: What's wrong with L.A. is that this is a racist city that has expropriated public funds to steal from poor people of color. That's what's wrong with L.A. What we're trying to do is put the money back where it belongs.
Fairchild: What's wrong with L.A. is that it's sprawled out. That creates high investment costs for highways along with high environmental and social costs that come from the use of highways. People are isolated, segregated from each other. We've got to fix that in a way that people don't have to drive.
Ohland: If you really look at where transportation money is being spent today, it's going to highways. The Southern California Association of Governments' draft Regional Transportation Plan – which sets out guidelines for transportation investments in the region over the next 20 years – includes money for 150 miles of HOV lanes, 250 miles of new highways, 425 miles of truck lanes. My problem with the Bus Riders Union is that, while I totally agree that the number-one priority should be providing service to transit-dependent people, I don't think that rail is the problem. What we need to do is look at the whole transportation investment. Most people in L.A. County think that the MTA funds public transit, and that Caltrans builds highways. But in fact, the MTA funds highways, so it shouldn't be simply a bus-vs.-rail debate.
Cole: My argument with the Bus Riders Union, despite my enormous respect for them, is that while the highway lobby is walking out the front door with bags of cash, they're screaming about the far less costly excesses of rail. The Long Beach Freeway extension will cost $1.4 billion to build six miles of highway through a mostly minority neighborhood. But while the Bus Riders Union is at every single MTA meeting protesting the Blue Line and the Red Line, they're not out there opposing these other projects. If the goal is to get more buses, to reduce overcrowding on buses, to put the money where it will benefit the people who are most in need of it – if that's the goal, then you shouldn't be blind to something like the Long Beach Freeway extension. It's a gigantic boondoggle, and it's the same pot of money. If the MTA tomorrow voted not to build the 710 extension, that $1.4 billion could be channeled to buses, it could be channeled to rail, it could be channeled to all kinds of things.
Burgos: We called for transferring money from HOV to buses. We demanded that money be transferred. But what I'm saying is that even if this highway money opened up, even then the transit-dependent are lowest on the priority list.
Sue Horton: I want to talk about pork-barrel politics. Not long ago, we had a legislator in here who was talking about the Eastside rail line. It was purely about pork. His point was that the Valley got its subway, so we deserve ours. How much does that kind of thinking drive transportation policy?
Killough: As professionals striving to improve transportation for all residents of the county, we in the planning unit of MTA are certainly aware of pork-barrel politics. The professionals are tilting against that windmill, but not always successfully. Consequently, not all our recommendations to improve the transit situation are adopted.
Ohland: I think that with the MTA board, you can see that. The board is so politicized that it is no longer about professionals insulated from the political environment determining what kind of transportation system would best serve the county. What it becomes is Zev Yaroslavsky doesn't want to play ball anymore because he's not going to get a rail line in his district, and somebody else doesn't want to play for another reason.
Charles Rappleye: I want to know why highway money is not part of the debate. Everybody is aware of the debate over bus and rail, but we hear nothing about highways.
De la Loza: I've always believed that a city should be dense, but let's face it, 97 percent of the population here moves by automobile.
Ohland: Yes, but why is it that at MTA board meetings, a for example, when we debate where the investment is going, we end up only debating the bus vs. rail, and we don't end up debating a bus vs. rail vs. highway? I asked Julian Burke, the MTA's interim CEO that question when he came to talk in South Pasadena about the Blue Line, and he said, “Well, there is money that's earmarked for rail, there's money that's earmarked for buses, and there's money earmarked for highways.” But that isn't true. I mean, almost all of the funding is flexible. So when we're trying to decide on the right balance of investments for this city, I don't understand why the perception is that it's bus vs. rail.
Killough: It is true there's flexible money, but for the most part the MTA has committed all of its flexible money to buses.
Ohland: And HOV lanes.
Killough: Remember that some of the funds for the Pasadena line came from the HOV program. That was a conscious decision by the board to move money out of the HOV program into the Pasadena line.
Cole: We should forget the HOVs. They don't work, and they send the wrong message anyway. We should be stepping back and asking, What kind of Los Angeles
do we have, and what kind of Los Angeles do we want? Then we evaluate what is the best way to serve the transportation needs of the city we want. There are more options than are on the table.
Fairchild: I agree. Without that sense of where we're heading, we get into pork-barrel politics, because it becomes strictly a question of equity, a sense of “So much is being spent, and I want my share.” These are major public investments, so it becomes, “What did my community get? What is the transit-dependent population getting? What is the Valley getting? What is Orange County getting?” And those aren't the right questions. What we have to come back to is the question of what makes sense for all communities and how we create a high quality of life served by our transit modes.
Burgos: Are you saying it's important to go ahead with a nearly $1 billion rail project and say buses can wait?
Ohland: I really believe that rail is also about economic development. I believe that rail can focus and attract economic development like no other kind of transportation investment. You have to look at how this city is sprawling and at the larger threat that sprawl poses to poor people in the form of disinvestment in existing communities, and jobs moving out to the suburbs. Given all that, yes, making that rail investment is very important to improving quality of life for poor people.
Burgos: I think what you guys aren't acknowledging is the fact the most transit-dependent people are lowest on the priority list. I don't hear people in this discussion saying, yes, bus riders should take highest priority. But there's a federal consent decree that mandates they take highest priority. The Blue Line cannot be completed until the $1.5 billion is found to bring bus service up to the standard mandated by the consent decree.
Cole: Do you think we ought to widen the highway to Lancaster before we spend the $1.5 billion on buses?
Burgos: No, I don't think we should widen the highway to Lancaster.
Cole: I think bus riders ought to come first, too. If we could all agree that we're going to put the bus riders first, ahead of everybody, I'm on that page. But if we're going to say, well, we're going to put the bus riders ahead of rail and put highway ahead of the bus riders, I'm not on that page. I agree bus riders ought to come first, but we ought to build rail instead of widening the highway to Lancaster. That's where I would take the money for rail. I wouldn't take it from buses, I'd give more money to buses.
Burgos: But when pots of highway money opened up, you pushed for that money to be allotted to rail.
Ohland: There's no question that the inner city isn't getting its fair share of transit money, but it's not just buses. We're not building more inner-city rail lines, and we're not building busways. We're not making that big public infrastructure investment our city needs. Instead, we're making the infrastructure investment out where it's going to benefit developers, and not here in the urban core. Whenever you make that significant public investment in an inner-city community, it leverages other investment, it attracts private investment, and it attracts more public investment. In the end, it makes that community more livable; it creates jobs around that investment. But that's not what's happening, because we're not making that kind of investment. Instead, we're making investments in the highway system to serve outlying suburbs. In a region of the country that has the worst air quality anywhere in the nation, and that has the worst congestion, it doesn't make any sense to make that kind of an investment in a highway system. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence suggests that adding HOV lanes, that increasing highway capacity in any form, actually induces more traffic.
Killough: The HOV program is an attempt to modify personal travel behavior, to encourage ride sharing. Rather than build additional mixed-flow freeway lanes, we wanted to encourage people to ride-share, to make better use of the facilities we already have. What's missing is the public-policy support and parking management and actions to encourage ride sharing at the destination.
Meyerson: Have the HOV lanes succeeded or failed in encouraging ride sharing?
Killough: The HOV lanes carry approximately a million people a day now – as many as the bus system.
Cole: But it's a miserable flop, because it hasn't changed people's behavior. It hasn't reduced the number of cars on the road.
Ohland: Yes. A date is not a car pool!
Cole: I call it the family lane, because when I have my 1-and-a-half-year-old son, I get to use the HOV lane, and when I don't have him, I can't. I'm not modifying my behavior when I take my son. It's not as if we agreed, the two of us, that we're going to car-pool. But I get to use the lanes.
Killough: That's because the implementers of public policy will not let us go to HOV lanes for three or more at this time.
De la Loza: We at the MTA are committed first of all to buses, but we cannot turn our back on the rest of the transportation system in the county. Only 3 to 4 percent of the trips in the county are mass-transit, and we cannot ignore that. We need to work toward expanding the transit share while continuing to meet the needs of the 96 percent who are not using transit.
Meyerson: Let me ask this, though. We have become what geographers call a polycentric city, a city in which under 5 percent of the work force works in the downtown area. Is it really possible for a fixed-rail system of any kind to work in such a polycentric city?
Cole: The problem is that if you design around the automobile, mass transit won't work. It won't work for rail, it won't work for buses. We live in a disaggregate city in which you can't take the bus from one destination to another, because there's no two destinations that everybody can agree on. If you want to get anywhere, you've got to transfer, and wait for another bus in the cold or in the heat and dust, three feet from speeding automobiles. And that's if you want to go just one place. If you want to drop off your kids on the way to work and stop off at the dry cleaners and do some grocery shopping, it just doesn't work. You've got to have a car to do all of those things, which is why anybody who can put $200 together gets a junky old car. So the key issue is to begin to re-aggregate – not in one single downtown, L.A. is too big for that – but to re-aggregate at the neighborhood level, and at the center level, and at the regional level, to re-aggregate so that transit can compete with the private automobile.
Horton: But what you're describing can't happen with just the MTA planning or with just the city planning. It takes a much broader governmental structure.
Killough: Two years ago we tried to mobilize just such a structure when we started our current update of the Long-range Transportation Plan. We held a series of focus meetings to which we invited all elements of the community, from the Bus Riders Union, to labor organizations, to businesses, to environmental groups, to academics. We asked them to tell us how best we should develop our transportation plan. We got a lot of good input, and we relayed it to the board, and they were attentive. Then we got derailed by the MTA's financial problems, and we still need to get back on track with that long-range plan development.
Cole: We now have a pause in rail construction that is going to last at least six months, probably longer. So we have the opportunity to re-engage that process, and at the same time bring in land-use players from around the county. Let's have an open discussion about how we can make those links. In the average household, transportation is the second most expensive thing people spend money on. It used to be food. Transportation is not an abstract issue. And it is not an issue over whether the bus riders win or the rail boosters win. People are deeply concerned about health care; they're concerned about education. But when we voted to increase the sales tax in this county by a cent, did we spend it on health care? Did we spend it on education? No. We spent 100 percent of that new tax money on transportation. So it better serve a real goal, because we've put a lot of our eggs in the transportation basket, and we've starved health care and education and a lot of other worthwhile things in the process. The money is in transportation – a trillion public and private dollars in Southern California over the next 20 years. We need to spend it wisely.
Killough: At the time those sales taxes went up, transportation was in the top two or three of public issues. It's not even in the top 10 anymore. The share of people who use mass transit has been on a 100-year decline. Why? The first objective for the people on that bus is to get off the bus. Nobody here will deny that, even the Bus Riders Union.
Fairchild: It will take a generation, maybe two generations, to generate a culture of “Let's stay on the bus; let's not get off.” But we're never going to create a transit culture unless we develop a transit plan in conjunction with land-use policies and economic-development policies. We need to frame transportation in a way that people will understand that it has something to do with economic development. We have to make people realize that transportation policy affects where they live in the future, whether their communities have jobs and much more.
Burgos: I do see transportation directly connected to economics, but it's wrong to think that somehow rail is the only thing that can economically revitalize communities. We can have bus-transit corridors along Vermont that connect shopping centers. That is a form of environmentally sustainable, ecologically sustainable, community-sustainable development that can actually provide jobs as well. The only people who've gotten jobs out of this rail-construction plan are a few workers who've been able to build rail for about three, four years, and then there's no more job afterward.
Fairchild: I agree that transit should supply job opportunities, and not just with buses. I'm a New Yorker whose whole family made it into the middle class as subway motormen – and women. I was floored by the talk here of building heavy rail and then having driverless trains. It just boggled my mind. Having drivers on those trains is a way to create a middle-class growth opportunity.
Horton: I have one final thing. Over the last decade, we've put together an elaborate plan and started building and spending billions on subways and light rail. But now we've come to a point where we're having to say, “Whoops, I guess we can't do this after all. At least for now.” How did that happen?
De la Loza: Well, let me just point out that it's not like these have been wasted efforts. The Blue Line from downtown to Long Beach is the most successful light rail in the country. The existing Red Line, which will run from downtown to North Hollywood, is also very important. But any transit program has to constantly re-evaluate and look at what money is available and what is needed and make adjustments accordingly.
Cole: I think that what happened was we started out building a transit system to serve the county, and then it became the largest public-works project in the history of the United States, and therefore the biggest public-works project in the history of man. Rail became an end in itself rather than part of a transit system. So they did maniacal things like raise the bus fare to pay for rail. That's where they lost their way. They began to spend money for the sake of spending money, and forgot about why they were spending the money. It was a horrific mistake. Now that we've got the year 2000 staring us in the face, we all have to be asking what we want for the 21st century. What kind of communities do we want? What kind of economy? What kind of education system? What kind of health-care system? What kind of neighborhoods? It's those fundamental questions that need to shape our transportation planning.