Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country, and the county that includes it, with over ten million inhabitants, is larger than New York. And yet this growing metropolis is served by little more than a skeleton of a transit network, with two short metro lines, three light rail lines, three busways, and a decent rapid bus system. A relatively small percentage of the population lives within a half-mile distance of a transit stop, which is generally considered the longest walk people will take to get to a station. And huge sections of the city – including some of the city’s most densest, most culturally important, and most trafficked – are simply not served well enough. How did this come to be? What have L.A.’s transportation planners done in recent decades to try to solve the problem? And what will this year’s Measure R accomplish if voters approve it in just six days?
Los Angeles was once the center of the nation’s largest concentration of streetcar lines. The Pacific Electric “Red Cars” and the “Yellow Cars” traveled throughout the region, providing adequate – though certainly not fast service. Beginning in the 1940s, bus companies, using brand new General Motors buses, bought up the lines, tore out the tracks and overhead catenaries, and replaced them with bus lines. Some transit advocates are convinced that this was a conspiracy, designed to prevent L.A. from having good public transportation. But the truth is that the Red and Yellow Cars were bought openly by bus companies and the city government sat by passively as the streetcars were replaced by buses. People at the time genuinely thought that buses would provide better service than the streetcars, because they had fewer mechanical problems, held more passengers in a more modern environment, and could travel on L.A.’s freeways. People at several levels of government, as well as in the elements of the private sector that would profit saw a benefit to the implementation of bus service.
It is also essential to point out that during the 1930s, the country’s other big metropolis, New York, was busy building the massive Independent Subway System, which produced new lines running on 6rh and 8th Avenues on Manhattan, as well as extensions to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. These subways provided markedly better service than either buses or streetcars. What was the “conspiracy” in L.A.? That no one in the government got it together enough to implement and build a new rapid transit system. If that had happened way back in the 1930s, L.A. would not have the traffic nightmare it has today.
In 1951, the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority was formed in order to consider a monorail line for the region; in 1954, it was authorized to begin planning for the whole region. By 1960, it proposed a 75-mile monorail plan, but this was immediately opposed by people who quite reasonably didn’t want elevated rail lines in their backyards (note: at the same time, New York City and Chicago were actively trying to replace their elevated lines with new subways). So the proposal was reduced to a subway between Santa Monica and downtown on Wilshire Blvd, and an at-grade line to El Monte. This route remained the backbone of L.A. transit plans for thirty more years.
The MTA was replaced by the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1964, which was provided with taxation and eminent domain powers; the RTD immediately took over several failed bus lines and became the main operator of transit in the region. It was buoyed by the creation the same year of the Urban Mass Transit Administration by the Johnson Administration; the UMTA would provide funds directly to cities for transit expansion and modernization.
RTD recognized the potential for mass transit to reduce congestion, which had already begun to expand on the region’s highways. So in 1968, 1974, and 1976, it proposed massive metro-based plans that would provide huge transit systems to compete with New York for transit supremacy – by ’76, the plan was articulating a vision of 230 miles of metro. But in each year, voters, who were asked to tax themselves in order to pay for the network, rejected the projects in referendums. A combination of factors led to the programs’ failure: an increasing sense that L.A. was a different kind of city, where people got around by car; a growing anti-tax mentality in California as a whole; and a coalition of powerful business, newspaper; and nonprofit interests that campaigned repeatedly against the transit plans on the basis of their “high” cost. The constant assumption was that L.A. inhabitants simply “would not take” mass transit. This remains the basis for the most anti-transit arguments today.
Another fundamental problem with the 1968 plan (but which was admittedly improved in ’74 and ’76) was that the program was very much centered on downtown. Urban planners wanted the redevelopment of downtown L.A., and saw a metro system leading people there (rather than anywhere else) from all over the region as an essential component to their plan. So the 1968 plan proposed an initial plan of five lines, running to San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, El Monte, LAX, and Long Beach. (Download a PDF of this and the other plans discussed here.) Other, future extensions were envisioned but could not be financed by this tax. But downtown L.A. was assuming a decreasing importance in the metro region as a whole, especially since the 1940s, when mass transit was largely replaced with automobile commuting and as the Westside grew in power and wealth. So it makes sense that voters would see little reason to sponsor a project with so little consequence to their lives.
Nonetheless, RTD did manage to build the El Monte busway along a highway with federal grants, and in ’74, California Proposition 5 marked some highway funds for mass transit, providing more funding for the agency. Meanwhile, the state in 1976 formed a competing agency called the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, whose mission was also to develop transit plans for the region, but also work to improve roads. The competition between the two agencies probably made it more difficult to implement transit improvements, and led to some cognitive dissonance for the public: which agency was making the plans? Which plans were the right ones?
But the CTC was successful in 1980 when it proposed Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax, completely devoted to transportation and with 35% allocated to rail. The difference this time was several fold: it had become increasingly apparent that L.A. highway system wasn’t “working,” in that congestion was rampant; the businesses and newspapers that had opposed previous plans were now mostly silent; and the fact that most of the revenues went to roads probably felt like an acceptable compromise to most people. The plan presented to voters was vague, but envisioned an extensive system that would provide most areas of L.A. County with adequate access to transit – and it wasn’t downtown-centered. Using the new funding, the agencies began planning new lines, CTC developed what would become the Blue and Green light rail lines, running from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach and running from El Segundo to Norwalk, intersecting in Compton. RTD began planning a metro subway under Wilshire, running to the Westside, the route that has always been the center of L.A.’s plans.
But in 1985, a methane gas explosion under a Ross Store in the midst of the Westside ignited peoples’ fears about the subway line. Would building transit on the Westside result in more explosions? Was L.A. made for subways? RTD, sensing extreme opposition to its plans, began building the subway through downtown, designed so it could run either down Wilshire or up to the San Fernando Valley, or both.
In 1990, voters faced another referendum – Proposition C, which would again provide some some of its half-cent tax revenues for transportation. Prop A was not providing nearly enough money for transportation improvements, but Prop C, which wouldn’t be completely devoted transit, wouldn’t either. So the vision people were expecting to be achieved with A and C revenues (C was passed successfully as well) was a fantasy. There simply was not enough money at the time to make the giant plan that was envisioned happen. This paved the ground for this year’s Measure R.
Even with massive cost overruns, especially on the downtown subway (Red Line), the three lines opened partially by 1995. In 1993, the competing agencies were merged by the state, making today’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), which controlled the county’s roads, rails, and buses. This was ultimately a good move for the county, because it ensured a decrease in inter-agency competition and made the allocation of revenues possible. Also, the fact that a unified authority managed both roads and transit – but which has always had a pro-transit bent – meant that revenues could be expended in a more equitable way.
The subway’s route to North Hollywood was completed by 2000 and a new Gold light rail line to Pasadena was finished in 2003; meanwhile, the Harbor transitway was build in 1998 and the Orange line busway in San Fernando Valley opened in 2005.
On the way, however, Metro experienced a number of problems in its implementation plan. For one, the gas explosion and considerable opposition to mass transit on the Westside (the area that needed mass transit the most) convinced Congressman Henry Waxman, a powerful member of the House, to push through a bill that would prevent using federal funds for new L.A. subways. This was a major problem, because any serious transit expansion in L.A. would need money from Washington to be financed realistically. In 1998, voters passed a referendum that prevented the funding of any “new subway” in L.A. with Proposition A or C revenues. These two efforts effectively closed off the dream of the line down Wilshire Blvd.
Simultaneously, an organization called the Bus Riders’ Union (BRU), which was effectively an group of bus drivers – sued Metro with the argument that rail lines were discriminatory, because they sucked up too much money for improvements for a small percentage of the overall riding public. Their arguments made some sense: L.A. has over a million bus riders everyday, but only a few hundred thousand rail passengers. As a result, Metro was forced to significantly build up bus services, which resulted in the creation of the successful Metro Rapid system, which “speeds up” very slow buses to slow speeds. The investment in local bus service may have been a good idea, but ultimately it simply resulted in more people spending more time commuting. The buses clogged already clogged roads, and people on buses can never escape the ever-increasing traffic, because the rail system, lacking funds, couldn’t expand enough to provide a real alternative to road travel. So the BRU made a vision of rapid transit in L.A. impossible, even as it was campaigning for the “rights” of transit riders (note: the BRU now opposes Measure R). In interim, however, Metro did have the capacity to begin construction on a Gold Line extension to East L.A., which will open next year, and the Expo Line, a Light Rail line to Culver City.
The election of Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005 to the mayor’s seat changed the equation a bit. Running openly on behalf of a “Subway to the Sea” – that extension down Wilshire to Santa Monica that’s always been an element of transit plans – the mayor won over Westsiders who now saw that they might actually benefit from a better transit system. His victory also forced Metro to open look into the possibility of expanding down Wilshire once again, as he became the head of Metro’s board. When Metro investigated, it found no cause for concern – the methane gas “problem” wasn’t one. This year, Congressman Waxman, whose constituents had had a change of heart, removed the ban on federal funding for subways in L.A.
And this, after all, is where this year’s Measure R comes in. Though Metro has some money through Prop A and C to continue funding expansions, rising costs, as well as increased fuel costs, are making that kind of expansion increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, the Subway to the Sea, which is the main – but unsaid – point of Measure R, cannot be funded using those revenues because of the 1998 initiative.
So Measure R will impose another 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation, making L.A. the most transportation-taxed of any place in the country. The vast majority of these revenues will be devoted to rail expansion. And Measure R’s revenues will not prevent subway expansion, so they will go straight into the new subway, which under a new plan will be a two-part affair, with lines extending down both Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds from the existing Red (and Purple) lines. This project is expected to attract more than 300,000 people a day.
Although Measure R will, again, because of construction cost increases, not actually fund everything its proponents claim, it will provide sufficient funding for at least some transit improvements. Other than the Subway to the Sea, it proposes to expand the currently-under-construction Expo line all the way to Santa Monica. It will push forward the Crenshaw transit corridor and create a transit connection between the Westide and San Fernando valley along the I-405 highway. It will connect the Gold line to the Blue and Expo lines by building a light rail connector downtown. It will expand the Gold line on its northern and southern ends. And it will finally connect the Green line directly to LAX airport.
What voters have in front of them is a significant plate of mass transit improvements that will finally allow for the implementation of plans going all the way back to 1968. If voters pass the referendum – a so-so chance because it requires a 2/3 majority – they will get an integrated system that will radically improve the ability of most people to get around L.A. People, desperate to get out of traffic, will take these trains.