Op/Ed: Yes on Downtown Streetcar

(We’ll resume our Measure J op/ed series tomorrow. During our one-day break, enjoy this piece by DTLA Rising author Brigham Yen’s view on the vote on the Downtown Streetcar funding measure. You can still vote by mail before November 28. – DN)

Image:##http://www.streetcar.la/##Streetcar L.A.##

The deadline to register to vote for the L.A. Streetcar in Downtown L.A. has passed. Now registered voters within Downtown will be mailing in their votes by mail – to ensure the ballots are received on time, they should be mailed in by November 28. What direction future developments will take in Downtown L.A. will depend on whether residents see the value of the streetcar circulating pedestrians around town — promoting a walking culture and decreasing our dependency on the automobile — or allowing the status quo to remain perversely slanted toward a car-oriented mentality. This is L.A. after all, right? Wrong. I believe that most Downtown residents embrace the idea of urbanism and its car-lite or even car-free tenets.

While voting “yes” for the streetcar is a no-brainer for the vast majority of Downtown residents, a small number have questioned why the private sector should have to pay anything for a public transit project. Let’s face it, and it bears repeating again: The average condo owner would fork out about $60 in tax assessments for an entire year. That’s about half the price of a Disneyland ticket where revelers can ride in, basically, a full-sized toy train looping around the theme park for one whole day. Why wouldn’t you want a real train that takes you to where you need to go for the other 364 days in the year — for half the cost?

Have we not already spent billions and billions more on supporting a car-oriented infrastructure that has gotten us into this mess to begin with? The unending traffic, the incessant lack of parking, the unhealthy dependency on our cars, etc. If you ask me, downtowners spending $62.5 million, in addition to bond issuance costs, of course, is an absolutely tiny price to pay for the tremendous amount of benefits this new streetcar would bring.

The knee jerk reaction I have heard from the few skeptics out there who still view the streetcar with unfounded wariness is “Why do we need a streetcar when we have buses servicing Downtown L.A.?” That’s a valid concern about service redundancy, but the reality is these are two very different beasts: buses on rubber wheels and the streetcar on fixed rail alignments. The pink elephant in the room refuses to leave no matter how hard we wish more people would just get on those buses. 

The fact is, not only is the streetcar going to be more successful at attracting a higher ridership per mile, but its economic development potential cannot be ignored. Especially by the many property owners who obviously want their property values to increase over time. It’s already been proven in cities like Portland, Oregon, that the streetcar attracts investment and fuels urban revitalization. In fact, a Portland study found that $2.28 billion was invested within a few blocks from their streetcar.

Given the status of L.A.’s global position as the country’s second largest city, we can safely assume that the streetcar will attract that kind of investment – if not much, much more – to our city center. And that’s exactly how a streetcar would be completely different than the current DASH system that operates throughout downtown. The streetcar, with its permanent rail tracks in the road, has a much stronger identity, and consequently, a much broader appeal to the masses. Also, think of the visitors who are completely unfamiliar with L.A. who have no idea how to navigate the city by bus but will be able to understand quickly how to get around Downtown L.A. due to the streetcar.

As far along as Downtown L.A. has come, those of us who pay attention to Downtown development also realize there is a lot more to be done before we can sit back and say “we’re finally there.” There are still huge swaths of dilapidated buildings that the streetcar route plans to go by. Think of all the undeveloped potential in South Park, the Fashion District, Broadway, and along 11th Street that could become the next hot spots, but without the streetcar, will continue to exist on “the fringe” of Downtown for the foreseeable future. The streetcar would put these fringe areas on the map because eyes and bodies would constantly ride by, which is conducive to future developments.

And let’s not forget that the streetcar is relatively easy to expand. Yes, Downtown L.A.’s first route is only the beginning. Once we set the precedent that the system works well, we can begin to expand it to other parts of Downtown L.A. such as the Arts District and even Chinatown over the freeway. Eventually, I see the streetcar emanating out of Downtown L.A. like it once did when the Pacific Electric Red Cars connected neighborhoods like Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz along Sunset Blvd. Imagine a future where you’ll be able to go between Los Feliz and Downtown LA and everywhere in between, car-free, all because we made the right decision to start with the L.A. Streetcar in Downtown L.A.

  • Britnay

    I’m all for a streetcar but if it’s as slow as the Expo Line along Flower St., then it’s really not going to work. 

  • Tlantanu

    i live downtown.  thanks for not telling me about this until after the deadline….

  • PC

    “That’s a valid concern about service redundancy, but the reality is these are two very different beasts: buses on rubber wheels and the streetcar on fixed rail alignments. The pink elephant in the room refuses to leave no matter how hard we wish more people would just get on those buses.”

    In case anybody missed it, there’s the entirety of Yen’s argument right there: Downtown needs a streetcar, at the expense of every person living in Downtown, because *some* people in Downtown hold themselves too precious to step on to a bus.

    Oh, but did I say the entirety? That’s not quite accurate; there was also this:

    “The streetcar would put [Broadway, South Park, etc.] because eyes and bodies would constantly ride by, which is conducive to future developments.”

    …you know, because it’s not there are any eyes or bodies riding along Broadway or through South Park now.

    And that’s the entirety of Yen’s argument. And this actually ran in Streetsblog LA.

  • PC

    …it’s not LIKE there are any eyes or bodies…

    (Editing!)

  • PC

    But just think, Britnay–if this catches on, some day you could “go between Los Feliz and Downtown and everywhere in between, car free”! You sure can’t do that now, here in this parallel universe where the #2 bus doesn’t do that 24 hours a day!

  • MarkB

    If you live Downtown AND read this blog BUT this is the first you’ve heard of the streetcar vote, welcome back from whatever planet you’ve been on for the past year.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Streetcars were one of the options being studied for the East San Fernando Valley Transportation improvement project study that Metro is now undertaking.  It was dropped as a option for further study because in terms of mobility, getting people from point a to b, a streetcar would have to move in the same mixed traffic as buses and sense it is unable to move around obstacles, it would be even slower and less reliable.

    Los Angeles already has Dash buses downtown. The residents and businesses of downtown LA will probably not see how taxing themselves to get a streetcar will improve their situation.

  • Corner Soul

    My only qualm with the streetcar is how do they plan on running it down 7th st (a pretty busy arterial) when LADOT plans on adding bike lanes. Crossing trolley tracks can be dicey (at least that’s been my experience in SF) and I just don’t see the city continung the road diet thriugh downtown.

    I’m not so worried about Fig because that will probably get cycle paths, and 11th is low traffic / one way so they should be able to work out bike lanes independent of the tracks.

  • Joseph E

    Don’t worry, it won’t be as slow as the Expo line… it will be MUCH slower! The current plan has the streetcars running in mixed traffic, with cars sharing the lane, from what I can tell. In Portland, this leads to ridiculously slow average speeds, along with closely spaced stops. I liked the idea of streetcars, until I came to Portland and tried to use one. LA would be better off with improved bus service thru bus-only lanes and better bus stations downtown.

    If we do get a new surface rail line downtown, it needs to be in transit-only lanes, and have stations no closer than 1/4 mile apart, so it can be at least a little faster and more reliable than the current buses. Otherwise, this is merely an amenity to promote development, not an improvement in the transit system.

  • PC

    “Dicey” is putting it mildly. Streetcar tracks are the worst for cyclists because they run dead parallel to the direction of travel but must be crossed as perpendicularly as possible to keep them from eating the bike’s wheel.

    Since the apparent point of this exercise is to provide a deliberately quaint mode of short-hop travel within DTLA for people who think they’re too good for the bus, how about hansom cabs? I can bunny-hop over horseshit (being able to recognize horsehit when I see it helps…).

  • Juan Matute

    I prefer trolleybuses or European Rubber-tyre trams to streetcars.  However, Brigham makes a compelling case for the streetcar bringing downtown together with one identity.  He knows downtown’s transition as well as anyone.  If the residents want it and are paying for half of it – by all means they should have it.

  • 40 year Tax

    Mr Yen and a majority of people in favor of this have not done their due diligence in assessing the true cost to the property owners.  The figure of $60 per year has been floating around and not fact checked.  If you look at the City documents the rates per square foot seem to put it closer to 200 – 600 per year.  Additionally the term of the tax is 40 years which is a long time considering they have not found an operator nor the funds to operate the trolly.  And once they do find an operator they are only committed to a 20 time frame.  So you are paying for something for 40 years that may not be around in 30. 

    People tout Portland as a model but they are having issues keeping the operations funded.  They now have 20 min headways on weekends, not something a streetcar should have.

     Like all LA projects this thing is bloated and has been mismanaged from the start.  People should really look into the financial commitments and true cost before they blindly believe a real estate agent who doesn’t do his research and reprints a press release from the LA streetcar website.

  • 40 year tax

    The aforementioned city documents in case someone wants to refute my claims:

    http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2011/11-0329-S6_CA_07-31-12.pdf

  • The key to Yen’s argument is indeed that the streetcar will attract higher ridership per mile than a bus. I hear a lot of people resenting that, but not refuting it with any kind of evidence. In urban planning, you can only expect people to conform to a certain extent. You can certainly affect people’s behaviors by providing incentives, but you don’t control it. You can judge people for not wanting to ride on a bus (with poor people on it!), but judgment doesn’t change the reality that a streetcar will attract more riders. Another justified resentment (but not an argument) is that white-collar riders come at a premium over the working class. The middle and upper classes have too much power in our society, but unless powerful people are using public transit, cars will continue to dominate. This seems like a clear step in the right direction if you want a transit culture in LA

  • Wanderer

    All of the streetcars now being developed using economic development as their primary justification for federal funding. In places like Tucson and Atlanta, they didn’t try to argue that the streetcar would provide much mobility improvement. But streetcar proponents only talk about Portland or Seattle in terms of economic development, they don’t talk about the streetcars that didn’t spark it, like Tacoma or Little rock.

    DASH buses average 9 mph. The Portland Streetcar averages 6 mph. A fast walk is 4 mph. A Downtown LA Streetcar might do worse than Portland because traffic congestion  is greater in LA. Travel times would also be worsened because part of the streetcar route is a one way loop, making trips more circuitous.

    From a mobility standpoint, wouldn’t making DASH an 18 hour a day, 7 day a week system be cheaper and faster to implement, and provide better service?

  • Anonymous

    You just need to be a registered voter in the area (which is not all of downtown, but just the area a few blocks distant from the proposed route).  There’s not a special registration required, in case that was unclear.  If you are a registered voter in the assessment area, then you will be getting a special ballot in the mail soon.

  • Corner Soul

    Interesting, I get the same numbers. I wonder if the city could spur the same amount of development and private investment via complete streets (sidewalk widenings, cycle tracks, landscaped medians/islands, street furniture, better lighting, etc.) for a fraction of that 80 million?

  • Anonymous

    You’re misreading the tax apportionment.  The tax in that document is assessed based on parcel square footage (i.e. total land area not total floor space).  Most of the affected buildings (especially the residential ones) have more than a few floors across which that land-based tax will be distributed.

  • Anonymous

    While I’m very much for this project (and am in the assessment zone), I think it’s largely a mistake to think of it as a transit project, since the area is already well served by generally more efficient modes of non-auto transit (including trains, multiple bus services, and bike lanes).  On the other hand I think it has a great deal of promise as an economic development project; as a result, it’s only reasonable that those who would benefit most (property owners in the ares) pay the costs.

    The ubiquity of bus service in the area is blessing for regular commuters and other people with regular routes, but can be tremendously confusing for people who only use the service(s) occasionally (tourists, shoppers and many residents).  As a result, I do think it will see reasonably high use as transportation, even if it is less efficient than existing means (given that it’s a one-way loop running in a non-exclusive right of way).  This is also why I think the arguments for direct connections to Union Station (and perhaps even to 7th Street Metro Center) are misguided, since much more efficient means for people looking to make transit connections are already available.

  • 40 year tax

    @AlecMitchell:disqus After reading a few times and doing some math on buildings in the area it makes sense now.  Thanks for the clarification.  But I am still concerned as a property owner how this thing is going to be funded for operations.  I am sure LADOT or Metro will be selected as the operator, but they are not going to do it for free, so really that is more tax $ used to fund this thing.  

  • 40 year tax

    This Article incorrectly states the bond we are voting on is 62.5 million.  It is in fact on the Ballot as $85 Million.  

  • 40 year tax

     Putting that into perspective, $85 Million at say a conservative 5% bond rate over 40 years will cost the property owners $196,736,212.80.  Does that seem like a bargain for a trolly?

  • PC

    Refuting *what* with any kind of evidence? There’s nothing to refute yet. Yen simply asserted (in a nod-and-wink sort of way) that a streetcar in DTLA would attract riders who otherwise wouldn’t put their dainty feet on public transit; he provided no evidence other than “something kind of like this worked in Portland.” And if that’s your standard for evidence, then you have to admit that refutation has already been provided by the commenter who pointed out that sonething kind of like this didn’t work in Tacoma. And the commenter who pointed out that the Portland streetcar averages 6 MPH, compared to LA DASH’s 9 MPH. And maybe even by the poster who suggests that “complete streets” could be implemented in the area at less cost but with similar positive livability effects, although nobody’s chimed in yet to fact-check that.

    Overall, the conversation seems to be going pretty well.

  • Alain

    Whatever the yearly assessment cost turns out to be ($60 is understated as are all government programs), the article laughably argues that the benefits of the streetcar is only “half the price of a Disneyland ticket…”

    There is a huge difference Mr. Yen!  Only people who go to Disneyland pay the admission price, they have a choice in the matter.  But people who live in downtown who will never ride this streetcar & thousands of others who are not even living in downtown right now, will have to pay for this project for the next 30 years.

    Suppose
    a theater chain wanted to open up in downtown, it can also tout the
    same “benefits” as economic development, building a sense of community,
    tax generating revenues for the city, jobs creation, etc. But suppose
    they also said that everyone within a 5 square mile area would have to
    subsidize them for the next 30 years, regardless of whether they ever go
    to that theater; “and don’t worry the average cost will only be $70 – $100 per year depending on the sq footage of your residence.” Would you be in favor of that???
    If you vote for this streetcar, you are giving your approval to force
    millions of people to pay for this 30 year bond – think how many will
    move in/out of downtown during that time. People who never had a say,
    never even knew about the streetcar project they would one day be
    charged for. If you vote for this streetcar, you are only kicking the
    can down the street, you’re not helping, you’re not being responsible.If
    a business cannot operate in the black without taxes extracted from
    people who don’t use the service, then that tells you something very
    important: it’s not economically viable.