At the entrance to the MTA’s library is an old transit map showing rail
lines blanketing the region and running down dozens of city streets. Like drive-in
movies, that kind of thing is gone forever. Since World War II, transit officials
have tried, with varying degrees of success, to revive rail transit in Los Angeles.
Here are some of the starts and stops along the way.
WHEN THINGS STOPPED WORKING
The Red Era
The legendary Red Cars and (less known) Yellow Cars used to go everywhere. By
1914, 5 cents got you to San Bernardino, Balboa Island, Santa Ana and San Fernando.
Other lines went to Hollywood and Santa Monica. At their peak in the 1920s,
the trains carried more than 100 million passengers a year on more than 1,000
miles of track. But they were rarely profitable and survived on the kindness
of their owners’ land development operations. They died after they were
bought up by some dummy companies tied to the automotive industry.
Scenic River Route
The original MTA was formed after World War II to put a monorail along the Los
Angeles River. The river idea was soon abandoned, but the MTA couldn’t
let go of monorails. “It was part of the whole sci-fi, Ray Bradbury city-of-the-future
thing,” said MTA librarian Matthew Barrett. “They were obsessed with
monorail. They had a one-track mind.”
PLANNERS BECAME VISIONARIES
By 1960, MTA was still high on monorail, especially on routes running to the
ocean on Wilshire and going north to the Valley from Long Beach. As with the other
space-age transit ideas, this plan went nowhere. Hey, Zev, imagine one running
along the 405 — it could draw as many riders as Seattle's short line. For
now, the only monorail in Southern California runs from Tomorrowland to the Disneyland
All Aboard: Incoming
Pulling back for the moment on grandiose plans, transit officials hawked a more
modest 22-mile “Backbone Route” from El Monte to the new Century City.
The subway portion of the route, running under Wilshire, was designated as a
nuclear fallout shelter, presumably to catch some of the Kennedy-era homeland
security pork being thrown around.
Togetherness? No Thanks.
After the 1965 Watts Riots, the RTD tried to sell a comprehensive plan for trains
on five corridors with numerous feeder bus lines. The Wilshire subway would
take 20 minutes to go from downtown to Westwood. Even a squad of cutie “Transit
Maids” couldn’t convince voters to approve a sales-tax hike to pay
for the system. Besides the cost, many Hancock Park and Westside residents favored
L.A.’s segregationist ways and didn’t want to make it easy for “those
people” to come west.
VOTERS GREW ANXIOUS
L.A. adopted a general plan built around “The Concept,” in which concentrated
urban “centers” are connected by rapid-rail transit lines. The centers
grew but the transit never came.
The County Board of Supervisors took their shot at selling a transit system,
pitching a massive 280-mile “Sunset Coast Line” of subway, light rail
and monorail. Promotional literature promised that the system would “break
up any love affair” between drivers and their cars, and “create a
whole new romance for commuters.” Riding the trains would be the commuter
equivalent of good sex with strangers. “They’ll like themselves in
the morning,” the pamphlets cooed. Voters rejected the full-cent sales-tax
increase for the plan.
RACIAL WORRIES RULED
Derailed by NIMBYS
With the support of former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and former Mayor Tom Bradley,
voters passed Proposition A, which set a half-cent sales tax to help pay for
a modest rail transit system.
Political and funding pressures reduced the Prop. A plan to a twisted “Starter
Line” going to Fairfax and then turning right through Hollywood to the
Valley. The subway plan triggered a lot of NIMBY resistance in the Hancock Park
area. One neighborhood group called the proposed Wilshire/Crenshaw station “an
unwarranted assault on our neighborhood.”
AND CONGESTION GOT WORSE
Too Good to be True
The guerrilla group Heavy Trash (the same people that recently built viewing
platforms to peer into gated communities) erected eight signs announcing the
construction of the Aqua Line, a 15-mile subway “connecting downtown to the
Westside.” The prospect of the subway line, starting at Western, brought grateful
calls to the MTA from traffic-choked Westsiders.
To read “The Subway Mayor” by Eric Berkowitz in this issue
of the LA Weekly, click