Los Angeles Times

Monday, March 22, 1982

Decision May Be Near on County Rail System

By LEO C. WOLINSKY, Times Staff Writer

The setting was a subway station in downtown Los Angeles, abandoned in 1955.

Mayor Tom Bradley and then county-Supervisor Baxter Ward told reporters gathered inside the musty tunnel that the old mile-long route curving under Bunker Hill could be part of a low-cost light rail transit system.

The new operation could be built and running in four years, they said.

That was May, 1975. Now, more than six years and several unsuccessful attempts later, a similar plan has once again leaped off the drawing boards and into public debate.

Backers of the proposed system—a modern-day version of the nostalgic Red Cars that disappeared from the Los Angeles landscape in 1961—claim it can be built in five years using existing rail rights of way and without relying on uncertain federal aid.

Initial Focus

Although officials hope it will evolve into a network of streetcars serving the entire county, the focus has been on an initial 22-mile segment that would link Los Angeles with Long Beach, cutting through some of the county's most depressed communities. It appears very likely that the route will get approval for preliminary engineering this week.

The project would be financed through a combination of gasoline taxes and diverted to transit under a 1975 ballot measure along with a smaller of sales tax allocated by the state Legislature. The fund now totals almost $70 million and $30 million must be spent by the end of fiscal 1983 or be returned to the state.

Proposed Light Rail Routes

  Millions of 1982 Dollars Millions of Annual Passengers Number of Miles/ One-way Trip Time
L.A.-Long Beach $194 6.4 22.5 miles/ 67 min.
Exposition Blvd. $130 5.7 17.8 miles/ 49 min.
Santa Monica Blvd. $182 5.3 11.1 miles/ 28 min.
San Fernando Valley $385 6.1 33.2 miles/ 69 min.
L.A. Airport $399 6.8 17.4 miles/ 39 min.
Firestone Blvd. $195 6.4 25.3 miles/ 54 min.



The proposal, backed by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, whose district would be served by the line, appears to be riding a wave of popularity. But others have begun to question its feasibility and whether another route might not prove a more practical starting point for a regional network.

Bradley Reluctant

Bradley, in the midst of his campaign for governor, has been reluctant to endorse any single route to the exclusion of lines that serve other parts of the city. And Deputy Mayor Ray Remy, who represents Bradley on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, said he will support Hahn's plan only if he is assured that it will not compete for funding with Bradley's highly touted proposed Wilshire subway.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles city planning officials, who will play a key role in routing the line through the central business district, argue that the city needs "rapid transit, not a slow streetcar."

Hahn, with backing from most of the commissioners and other public officials, has angrily denounced the criticism as "a smokescreen" put up by San Fernando Valley and West Side interests who want a transit system that serves their more affluent communities.

The controversy will climax Wednesday when transportation commissioners consider whether to begin preliminary engineering on the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach route or any of five less popular routes that serve widely separated parts of the county.

The decision will be made against a backdrop of warnings from transit commission officials that some type of project is needed to dispel "the impression that Los Angeles is dragging is feet on rapid transit." Commissioners have also been told that the county stands to lose $2 million by the end of this year and another $28 million the following year unless it is spent on transit.

Some critics charge that those factors have weighed so heavily on the minds of commissioners that they proposed the light rail line as a matter of political expediency rather than good planning.

"They are doing it because they have some money and they have to spend some money on rail and this is an area that is politically desirable," said City Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, one of the project's most outspoken critics.

The commission's own consultants fueled these suspicions by pointing out that the new streetcars—similar to San Diego's successful trolley to the border—will be slower than the buses that travel the same routes. Furthermore, nearly all of the riders expected to board the new system will be drawn from those same buses, not from the cars that crowd local freeways and streets.

Route Controversy

Those concerns aside, any of the routes ultimately chosen will have to overcome historic opposition from the Southern Pacific railroad, which controls the abandoned Pacific Electric rights of way. 'They've refused to even talk to us," said Rebecca Reardon, a commission spokeswoman.

Still, the arguments are not over whether to build a system but which route will get the first infusion of funds.

The newest light rail proposal actually was the brainchild of Assemblyman Bruce Young (D-Cerritos), chairman of the lower house Transportation Committee. Young, unhappy over Los Angeles' inability to complete a mass-transit project, authored a bill allowing Caltrans to purchase portions of the rail right of way and begin engineering for its own project.

Under pressure from Caltrans and admittedly embarrassed by the apparent success of San Diego's streetcar project, the commission last September hired the Santa Ana consulting firm of Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade and Douglas to undertake its own study of the Long Beach line and eight other routes.

The consultants eventually narrowed the study to six routes and concluded that two of those—a line to downtown Los Angeles via Exposition Boulevard and one from downtown to La Mirada along Firestone Boulevard—were as plausible as the Los Angeles-Long Beach line.

The Exposition route, in fact, was estimated to cost $130 million, far less than the $194 million projected for the Long Beach line. Even so, none of the alternatives has garnered as much support as the Long Beach line.

John Zimmerman, a Norwalk city councilman and the only commission member to favor the cable system, claims nostalgia is behind the push for the Long Beach line.

"The L.A.-to-Long Beach was the last of the old PE cars to be discarded," he said. "It's a sentimental thing that is bringing it to the forefront now."

But Steve Lantz, a Culver City businessman who has demanded equal treatment for other routes, charged that politics has played a major role.

"They're saying, 'Let's do the political route, the route people who initiated the study want,'" Lantz said. "There's nothing wrong with that but we don't want a decision disguised through a consultant's report as the best route when, in fact, it is not.

That criticism has been echoed by Hamilton, who supports an admittedly more expensive grade-separated rail system along Santa Monica Boulevard. Such a system could eventually be linked to the Wilshire subway and would serve such busy activity centers as UCLA, Century City, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Los Angeles City College and County-USC Medical Center, he said.

While Hamilton conceded that the Long Beach line would serve a higher concentration of poor, transit-dependent people, he claims that few South Central riders would use the line since there are relatively few blue-collar jobs concentrated along the route.

Politics Charged

"From the point of view of service to the public, this is not the best route," Hamilton said.

Even the NAACP, an organization that has supported Hahn on most issues, has complained that the consultant's ridership projections are inaccurate and that the Long Beach light rail line is too far to the west to serve the bulk of transit-dependent South-Central Long Angeles residents.

"The project seems to be politically motivated," said Dave Waters, transportation chairman of NAACP's Long Angeles branch. "Someone there, and I don't know if it's Hahn or someone else, wants to get something running in the next two to three years."

Hahn brushed aside Waters' criticism, saying, "I never even met the man before." While Hahn concedes that his plan may not be perfect, it is a start, he said, and is the only line with an open right of way extending the entire length of the route.

But Hahn, who has backing from Caltrans, a host of Long Beach officials and others, saved his strongest criticism for Los Angeles city officials who, he charged, "want to hold out a carrot for the Wilshire subway."

"They're playing games there," he fumed. "You could build another space shuttle before you build the Wilshire subway. It won't happen in my lifetime."

Hahn said the Long Beach route is the only one that will serve the poor who really need transit. "In Beverly Hills everyone has a car and a chauffer and they only need (transit) for their maids and gardeners," he said.

Still, Hahn held out a peace offering to his critics, saying that the Long Beach line is only the first in what will be a network of streetcar routes throughout the region.

But the cost—ranging from $130 to $385 million, depending on which route is chosen—is still a major problem, transit officials concede.

So far, the commission has banked nearly $70 million in rapid transit funds. But nearly all of that was set aside to match federal grants for the construction of the Wilshire subway.

Transportation commission officials argue that it is likely there will be no more federal money for the subway for at least several years and that it would be foolish to wait while inflation eats away at those funds.

To ease the fears of subway advocates, the commission will ask the federal government for assurances that money spent on the light rail line will count as the local match for the Wilshire project. But they concede that those assurances may not come and that it is likely that subway funds will have to be tapped.

Deputy Mayor Remy, who has vowed to protect the Wilshire subway, said the impact on that project remains an unresolved issue. "If we move forward we will be authorizing preliminary engineering only and not a commitment that the line will be built," he emphasized.

But Remy said it is likely that the commission will agree to begin preliminary engineering on several routes in hopes of gathering more widespread support.

Even with solid backing from the commission, transit planners admit that this newest attempt at mass transit may meet the same fate as the city's many previous transit proposals.

The proposed system that Bradley and ward expressed such confidence in during that 1975 press conference, for example, fizzled when local officials were unable to reach a consensus on routing the system through downtown Los Angeles and when questions arose about light rail's ability to handle demand.

Ward, frustrated over the delays, eventually turned his attention to a massive commuter rail service. That proposal was defeated at the ballot box in June, 1976.

Donald H. Camph, the commission's transit development coordinator, recently told commissioners in a candid report that developments on the federal and state level may not leave the county with enough funding to complete even one line in five years. 

But uncertainty, he said, is no reason to delay the project. 

"Almost all decisions are made with some degree of uncertainty," Camph said. "About the only thing that is certain is that today's uncertainties will be replaced by tomorrow's."

Copyright 1982 Los Angeles Times

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