Community Organizing Wins the Day: Skills and Enthusiasm of Many to Build Expo for All

Behind the May 20 opening of the Expo Line to Santa Monica lies the untold story of dozens of dedicated volunteers who worked for decades to make this line happen.

Few people know that Expo Line light rail was a glimmer in the eye of Santa Monica city officials as early as 1989. That year they convened a group of citizens to advocate for purchasing a former Red Car right of way from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. They envisioned providing a fast, comfortable, and green light rail line along this route.

Historic Red Car on today's Expo Line. Photo via Friends for Expo
Historic Red Car on what is today the Expo Line. Photo via Friends for Expo. See also historic red car video.

Among that group was Darrell Clarke, who, growing up in Los Angeles, had often talked with his parents about that city’s large network of red and yellow streetcars and their demise in 1963. When, as a UC Berkeley student in 1974, Clarke rode the first public BART train from the East Bay to San Francisco, he thought about his hometown. Why, he wondered, couldn’t Los Angeles have great mass transit too?

Fifteen years later, Clarke joined this Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way.

The decades-long campaign to build Expo Line had begun.

Grassroots Organizing Begins

Launched on the initiative of Santa Monica city council members Christine Reed and Denny Zane, the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way convinced Los Angeles Metro’s predecessor to buy this route, originally built in 1875 as a steam railroad by Santa Monica founder Senator John P. Jones. Dubbed the “Air Line,” it was later electrified and carried passengers until 1953 and freight until the mid-1980s. The freight train was noisy, and when the family of Presley Burroughs, another member of the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way, moved into a new home in Baldwin Vista in 1968, Burroughs – who would become an urban planner – remembers his father telling their new neighbors, “If you put passenger rail there, you’ll get a sound wall.”

But not everyone in Los Angeles wanted a passenger line on Exposition. Homeowners’ groups in Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park opposed it. That didn’t stop the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way. Clarke, Burroughs and Russ Davies, a retired IBM marketing manager, documented the economic and social sense of a light rail line on Exposition the line, and pleaded their case by petitioning door to door and tabling at shopping malls.

Planning began after the right-of-way purchase, then halted, then restarted in 1998 after the cancellation of new subway extensions left federal money on the table for mass transit to the Westside.

Meanwhile, then-mayor Richard Riordan and County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Burke traveled in 1999 to Curitiba, Brazil, known for a successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. That trip planted the seed of Bus Rapid Transit in the heads of several key players in the city.

The following year, longtime community organizer Kathy Seal, facing both an empty nest and a growing concern about the environment, wondered if a light rail line to Santa Monica would help. “I was worried about the environment, especially climate change,” she remembers. “And personally, I couldn’t stand the traffic gridlock.”

“Call Darrell Clarke,” counseled her husband Jim, a transportation consultant.

“When do we meet?” Clarke answered when Kathy proposed starting a mass organization to fight for light rail on Expo.

Told about this idea, Kathy’s fellow community activist Julia Maher came on board. “We wanted to use the pressure of grassroots support to make the Expo line happen,” remembers Maher, who worked in her local neighborhood association and the newly-formed SoRo (South Robertson) Neighborhood Council. “I realized that a light rail line would change the way I felt about Los Angeles.”

Open to volunteers of any political persuasion, Friends 4 Expo Transit was born.

The group quickly attracted new activists, many of them women who were not typical rail buffs, but who emphasized the social and environmental impact of a future Expo line. “We saw this project as a way to bring people and communities together rather than dividing them,” remembers attorney Faith Mitchell (who’d married both Burroughs and Expo in 1994). She suggested “Connecting Neighbors” for the F4E slogan, as the activists pointed out the sociability of riding a light rail train, the boon it would provide for teenagers and the elderly, and the increased access for everyone – especially the disadvantaged and car-less – to the community’s valuable resources.

“We saw it as serving Westside and downtown jobs, a ladder of economic opportunity giving residents greater access to the rich economic, educational and spiritual centers throughout the Los Angeles region,” says Clarke. As fighting against climate change rose on the national agenda, the activists stressed the environmental benefit of clean, speedy, high-capacity light rail.

Early Friends4Expo promotional image.
Early Friends4Expo promotional image.

Outreach and Organizing: Solidifying the Voice of the Majority

Dozens of enthusiasts joined and Friends4Expo went to work, presenting slide shows to schools, senior centers, churches, a mosque, chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs, Neighborhood Councils, unions, and neighborhood groups flanking the right of way. They gathered thousands of signatures at farmers’ markets, neighborhood festivals, outdoor malls, and citywide events like the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. They lobbied Los Angeles, Culver City, and Santa Monica city council members, and members of the Metro board. Representatives of constituents along the proposed line took note. As one elected official told the activists, “You start the parade and I’ll walk in front of it.”

Which is what F4E did. In addition to their broad community outreach, which produced a long list of supporters, the activists reached out to community newspapers and met with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Two community colleges endorsed the project, as did the Music Center and the University of Southern California. KNX 1070 radio and the Times editorialized in favor of light rail on Expo.

Relying on an email list of 2,500 and their website, F4E members brought supporters to attend Metro board meetings and public hearings, including one especially boisterous meeting in the spring of 2001 at the Veterans Administration auditorium. Ken Alpern, a leader in the Westside Village Neighborhood Association led a large crowd who testified, one after the other, that they wanted light rail on Expo. The huge and passionate support for Expo light rail surprised even the longtime activists, who for the first time sensed victory emerging: even if a minority feared it, they realized, the great majority of Angelenos wanted the Expo light rail line.

In addition to community organizing, F4E members contributed technical analysis to the project. Schematics and census tract data, for example, provided by Clarke to refute opponents’ low density and low ridership arguments, influenced the Expo Line’s environmental impact reports. Gökhan Esirgen, a USC physicist, developed a Wikipedia page.

Although F4E concentrated on harnessing the enthusiasm of ordinary citizens, the activists also worked closely with allies among elected officials. Metro staff – used to fearful residents crying, “No, not in my community!” – gladly answered F4E’s requests for information. As Expo Construction Authority CEO Rick Thorpe would later say, “This is the first time in my career that I’ve experienced a group that is FOR something.”

Allied projects sprung up: bicycle enthusiasts lobbied Metro for a bike path and pedestrian walkway next to the light rail line. Jonathan Weiss, who’d belonged to the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way, tirelessly promoted the Westwood Greenway at the Westwood/Rancho Park Expo stop. Now under construction, that project will clean water before it reaches Santa Monica Bay.

But the idea of a Curitiba-style BRT still dominated some minds. A critical step for faster, cleaner, higher-capacity light rail was in March 2000 when Metro board member John Fasana amended a motion to only study Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the Expo right of way by adding Light Rail Transit. Despite then-mayor Riordan’s opposition, that amendment passed and the board approved the full motion 11-1. (The slower speed and lower capacity of the San Fernando Valley Orange Line BRT, which opened in 2005, would justify F4E’s preference for rail.)

On June 29th, 2001, after 56 people spoke in support, the Metro board unanimously approved the first half of the Expo Line as light rail from downtown L.A. to Culver City.

Friends4Expo members leaped from their seats in the board room and hugged each other with the joy of their victory. Their unifying message had won the day.

In 2003, the line gained further traction when then State Senator Sheila Kuehl introduced legislation to create a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to award and oversee final design and construction contracts for completion of the line. Governed by a board of elected officials of the three cities along the line as well as the two county supervisors for the area, the JPA would prioritize and speed up construction as well as promote efficiency and community input, while keeping the project from getting sidetracked.

Organizing Cheviot Hills

But despite approval of the segment from downtown L.A. to Culver City and the new JPA, a barrier to extending the line to Santa Monica remained: several homeowners associations for Cheviot Hills and nearby Rancho Park strongly opposed it (and would later fund a lawsuit against this second segment, as Neighbors for Smart Rail.)

At that time Friends4Expo member Karen Leonard, who belonged to the Light Rail Committee of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Association (CHHOA), felt frustrated as one of only a handful of 30-plus committee members favoring Expo. When the committee chair ramrodded through a resolution against the line without notice or discussion, Karen decided to act. She founded Light Rail for Cheviot (LRC) in January of 2007, asking Sarah Hays, a pro-rail neighbor, to co-chair. Jonathan Weiss, who had long promoted the Expo Line in CHHOA, quickly joined and put up a website for the new group. It included data showing that property values along rail lines rise rather than fall, as opponents feared.

Following the example of F4E, the 35 LRC members did extensive grassroots education, organized neighborhood meetings, met with politicians and their staffs, and testified at relevant Metro board, school, and city council meetings. They wrote letters and emails to individuals, groups, and representative bodies and leafletted 1400 houses several times over the next few years.

They also prepared a packet for realtors working in Cheviot Hills, touting the many advantages of the rail line, and they set up a Facebook page, Hello Expo, to pump up neighborhood enthusiasm. To combat local opposition, they visited a school and a Buddhist Temple on the Eastside near the Gold Line to confirm that neither had problems with train noise. Most crucially, LRC succeeded in showing politicians that neighborhood support for the Expo Line outstripped the opposition.

Funding for the second segment remained shaky, but in 2008, building on the popular support developed for the Expo Line, Denny Zane – now leading the transit advocacy coalition Move L.A. – and then-assemblyman Mike Feuer proposed Measure R, to raise sales taxes to provide money for big ticket transit projects like Expo. It passed in the middle of a recession with a resounding 2/3 majority, clearing the way for the second half of the Expo construction – all the way to Santa Monica – to begin, with no need to wait for federal money.

Groundbreaking for the Santa Monica segment took place in 2009, and three years later the Expo Line opened from downtown L.A. to La Cienega Boulevard. Two months later the line extended to its current terminus at Culver City. The following year the California Supreme Court ruled against the Neighbors for Smart Rail lawsuit.

Expo Line ridership has exceeded expectations. Parking lots near rail stations are full to overflowing and riding the light rail line has afforded pleasure, comfort, and connection to hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, while safeguarding the environment.

Taking advantage of the many opportunities for democratic expression in Los Angeles, F4E’s dozens of volunteers played a major role in bringing tourists, business travelers, and the more than 800,000 people living within two miles of the Expo Line an alternative to our region’s world-record traffic. Residents and visitors will now enjoy a fast, comfortable, quiet, exhaust-free, high-capacity transit line—with landscaping, a bike path and public art— serving their economic and cultural needs from downtown to the sea. Community organizing won the day.

Kathy Seal is the Co-chair of Friends4Expo Transit.

 

  • Jake Bloo

    I can only imagine the relief and joy all these people feel now that the Expo Line is actually opening all the way to Santa Monica. Congratulations to all of them for keeping the spirit alive and having a long term view.

  • effron

    “Speed, Comfort, Capacity” ?!
    When Expo opens in two weeks it offer none of these.

  • Neal Broverman

    Way to crap on the parade. It’s a great addition to the city.

  • effron

    It will be when Metro finally gets their act together.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Yes, it is a great addition to the city. But…

    It will be a year until Metro has enough rail cars to operate three-car trains at ten minute intervals.

    Then we will have the comfort and capacity covered.

    Remember, you never get a second chance at a first impression. A crowded, standing room only, two-car train with a 15 minute wait may discourage the interested rider from ever giving the Expo Line a second chance. (And he will bad-mouth it to other potential riders.)

  • scottmercer

    Nice opinion. From one person. That’s all it is.

  • scottmercer

    People have short memories. Once they improve things, it’ll be fine. I’d rather have it packed than have empty cars. (It’s never good to anti-rail zealots. If the trains are packed, it’s crappy service. If the trains are lightly filled, then it’s a waste of money. Please, enough.)

  • effron

    Opinion? Let’s break it down with facts.

    Speed? Metro has posted the “official” travel time from Santa Monica to DTLA as 50 minutes. So depending on when you step on the platform or if your train is full and you must wait for the next, your trip could be up to 62 minutes end to end at peak hours. That is of course if you aren’t hung up in traffic by a red light along the way. Faster than a commute? That depends. How long did it take you to get to the station in the first place and then how much longer to your destination?

    Comfort? Well that all depends on whether you score a seat on the over-crowded 2-car train and if you do, great!, but let’s hope there isn’t someone’s ass in your face or bike jabbing your thigh. If you’re boarding around Culver City going either direction you’re gonna be S.O. L. In other words, the long-time loyal riders of Expo are about to be thoroughly boned.

    Capacity? 2-car trains. 12 minute headways. Not going to change appreciably for at least 12 months.

    Not nice.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Metro is receiving about one Kinkisharyo train car per week. It took 5 weeks before the Gold Line Foothill extension went from only 2-car trains to running some 3-car trains. The Expo Line should be running some 3-car trains before the end of June, judging by what happened on the Gold Line, and every month thereafter will add more 3-car trains until the first order of Kinkisharo train cars is complete in early 2017. Metro is not going to be running only 2-car trains on the Expo Line for a year.

  • The Expo Line opening to Santa Monica is exciting. It’s interesting to contrast Expo’s progress with the progress of the Purple Line. The Purple Line is a better service in terms of speed and capacity, but since underground construction is so expensive, it’ll be decades before we see it get anywhere close to the sea.

    LA’s model of partially grade separated light rail and BRT is good in that it can provide service that works better than street-running buses at a much lower cost than full blown subways. People will ride in places with good walkability and expensive parking, even if driving is faster.

  • effron

    You are equivocating. Running “some” 3-car trains is not running 3-car trains. It’s not only Expo and Gold, Blue is also running 2-car trains right now, single-car trains even. It’s fantasy to suggest that Expo will be running in any dependable fashion 3-car trains within 5 weeks of its opening. This problem will persist and it will persist for a good long while.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Metro is running 2-car trains on the Blue Line on weekends, not weekdays. There are far fewer boarding’s per hour on the weekends compared to weekday commute hours.

    You seem to believe that Metro shouldn’t be providing the train service of Gold Line Foothill extension or the Expo Line extension until they have enough train cars to run only 3-car trains during weekday commute hours.

  • calwatch

    Now I would like the same attitude to upzone the area around Expo stations, drop the mandated parking, and allow property owners the freedom to convert their single family homes to duplexes or triplexes to get more density. Right now too few people are given the opportunity to live near Expo, which is a shame.

  • Bob P.

    Metro is running 2-car trains during weekday peak hour service on the Blue Line, typically it’s the Willow turn-back train.

  • Brian Howald

    I remember that meeting back in 2001. At 13-years-old, it was my first foray into transit advocacy.

  • Matt Kelly

    Congratulations to Kathy and all the Friends 4 Expo Transit advocates! I also remember those early meetings when we were still deciding what to call ourselves. Expo Line Now? Citizens for the Expo Line? Exponents?

  • DarrellClarke

    I remember you, Brian — thanks for posting!

  • Brian Howald

    I remember you, too, Darrell. Thanks for bringing this to fruition!

  • Brian Howald

    Also, I’ll be coming out there to celebrate the opening!

  • marshmallowbudgie

    BHHS embezzled $10M of its own money to block the Purple, including a professionally-produced video of their students being detonated by methane fireballs; SM, BH, and Westwood pour millions into rent-a-radical services like the BRU and Damien “LRT is genocide!” Goodmon to keep transit out of the Westside

  • Elleni

    Thanks for this thorough summary of the history of the Expo Line! Margaret Mead said it best: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Congratulations to all of you; see you on opening day!

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