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Ethan Elkind’s Railtown – How Planning, Engineering and Mostly Politics Shape L.A. Rail

Railtown:

Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City, published by UC Press, 2014

The UC Berkeley Faculty Club meeting room was packed on Tuesday evening with people who came to hear Ethan Elkind talk about his book, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.

Elkind, who holds a joint appointment as Climate Policy Associate at the UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools, entertained the crowd with a wry, rapid-fire summary of some of the complex political forces that quite literally shaped the current and future Metro system.

Like many contemporary cities, L.A. originally grew along streetcar lines. Then, as cars became more ubiquitous, it spread out into interstitial areas and beyond, becoming an “endless expanse of subdivisions.” A map of the oversized extent of Los Angeles County (“the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined….Why does Delaware get to be a state?”) gave an idea of the vast areas overseen by only five county supervisors, with huge and varied constituencies. The mottled shape of the city of LA showed the relatively minor power base of its mayor.

Federal money for transit helped start the conversation. “If the city could put up 20% of the cost of building an urban rail system,” said Elkind, “then the federal government would pay 80%–this was a very enticing deal.” Terrible air quality and bad congestion added to a general frustration with the existing transportation in LA, helping set the stage for rail.

He showed a slide with an overhead photo of the city (“That photo cost me some money,” he said—which is why Streetsblog didn’t post it here). It showed an endless cityscape, and jutting up were tall buildings clearly outlining the Wilshire Boulevard corridor.

“If you’re going to build rail,” said Elkind, “This is where you should do it, along the most densely populated corridor in the western U.S.”

Read more…

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Have You Ever Been Harassed on the Bus?

(Note: When Streetsblog first launched, we were taken to task by the writing team at The Bus Bench for reporting about the dangers of cycling and harassment from drivers, but never the risks taken by transit riders, especially those riding after hours. We’ve gotten better on this issue, Sahra Sulaiman’s piece on THAT GUY and our ongoing coverage of the dangers posed by LASD Sheriffs only touch the issue. In the wake of a story of a group of women being assaulted on a bus in New Delhi, Dana Gabbard wonders how prevalent harassment is on Metro and other transit buses. If you have a story you’re willing to share, please do so in the comments section or you can do so privately by emailing me, damien@streetsblog.org. – DN)

Japan has "women only" rail cars because of rampant harassment on their subways. Rocket News

One morning last week while getting ready for work I was especially taken when hearing these comments on National Public Radio’sMorning Edition about the creation of women-only compartments on New Delhi’s metro system as a safety measure against inappropriate behavior by male passengers:

Male and female perceptions of the problem can differ widely.

Rajesh Kumar travels in the general compartment with his female colleague Manisha Murli. He says out of 100 men, “perhaps two or three” engage in Eve-teasing or unwanted touching.

But Murli disagrees. “It’s not that little,” she protests, putting it around 50 or 60 percent of the men.

It reminds me when looking over some online comments on my apartment building I ran across one in which a women resident complained that while working out in our gym that she noticed one of the male residents was looking her over in a way the creeped her out by being obvious objectification. Read more…

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Railvolution Kicks Off in L.A. with Calls for More Transit, Livable Communities

The Mayor Villaraigosa's image looms over hundreds of transit professionals and advocates at the start of Railvolution. Photo: Damien Newton

Just over a month ago, planners, advocates and political leaders from around the country descended on Long Beach for the annual “Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conference” to plan the next steps in the Livable Streets movement. This week, Los Angeles takes its turn on center stage as host of Railvolution, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was there to roll out the red carpet.

The tagline for this year’s Railvolution is “Building Livable Communities with Transit.” By holding the conference at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, across the street from the Hollywood/Highland Red Line subway stop, Los Angeles is able to showcase both the good and the bad of its Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) planning. On one hand, the stop allows for people to access many of Hollywood’s attractions and for tourists to access the rest of the city. On the other hand, the lack of advance planning before the subway was built led to expensive TOD developments that don’t always blend smoothly with the community.

Following short introductory pieces by Metro’s CEO Art Leahy and Board Chair Mike Antonovich, the mayor took the stage.

“Welcome to Railvolution,” he began, before launching into a laundry list of transit expansion projects and a call to support Measure J, the Los Angeles County sales tax extension on the fall ballot that would allow Metro to, in the mayor’s words, “build three decades of mass transit projects in one [decade].”

While Villaraigosa sounded upbeat about the ballot measure’s passage, and polls show it would pass narrowly, if a vote were held today, he also noted that there is significant opposition to overcome. Read more…

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First Look at Farmer’s Field Traffic EIR: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Earlier today, AEG announced the completion of the first draft of environmental documents for Farmers Field, the proposed football stadium for Downtown Los Angeles.  The document, available on City Planning’s website, is a mammoth 10,000 pages and the ceremonial handing over of the documents to the city at today’s event involved 13 overflowing three ring binders.

Of course, the EIR was already available on City Planning’s website.

With only 45 days to examine all 10,000 pages, the clock is running.  Here is our first thoughts on the transportation planning for Farmers Field.

Increasing Capacity on the 101

Be careful what you plan for. This graphic explains how building highways begets more highways in rural areas, but the conclusion is the same. Building a highway expansion creates a need to expand a highway somewhere else.

When the Daily News published its exclusive report on the transportation planning for the Downtown Stadium last night, it focused on a proposal to widen the 101 freeway from Downtown Los Angeles to Glendale Boulevard.  While the idea of eliminating a bottleneck probably appeals to car commuters from the Valley to Downtown and football fans alike, Caltrans and the other agencies who will spend AEG’s $2.5 million to study the project need to be vigilant.

Lat month, the Metro Board authorized a funding agreement (Item 8) with Caltrans of $100,000 for development of Project Study Report (PSR) for the “Highway 101 Auxiliary Lane Project” that appears to be the same project proposed by AEG.  It should take up to six months for Metro, Caltrans and other participating agreements to be ready for the study.

Increasing capacity on one highway in an area where it connects with so many other highways in such a short area is fraught with peril, even if one only measures a highway project’s success by traffic flow.  True, traffic may flow through the couple of miles that are bottlenecked now, but opening the flow in that area could encourage more people to drive to more destinations and increase congestion elsewhere.

Of course, the new traffic patterns will impact congestion, air quality, and life in general on a daily basis, not just on game day.  If the traffic study shows an increased amount of cars on the 101 and connected highways, and it probably will, officials will have to decide whether or not increasing the amount of cars on L.A.’s freeways is a cost the region is willing to pay to increase access to a special event’s center.

Blue Line Station Read more…

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Feuer Kicks Off Legislative Season with “Measure R Plus” and Fast Track for Rail Challenges

Bringing the band back together? Measure R never would have happened without Mike Feuer, standing to the left of Supervisor Yaroslavsky at this Measure R victory party. PhotoMetro Library/Flickr

Yesterday was the first day that state legislators could introduce new legislation and Assemblyman Mike Feuer wasted no time introducing a pair of bills designed to speed up Los Angeles’ rail expansion plans.  In 2008, Feuer introduced and tirelessly lobbied for legislation that allowed the Measure R transit tax to be placed on the ballot.

Feuer’s first transit speed-up bill, A.B. 1446, would allow L.A. County voters to vote on an extension to the Measure R transit tax which is slated to expire in 27 years.  This extension would enable Metro to bond against future Measure R proceeds and build those transit projects much sooner than originally contemplated, without relying on federal or state funding.

“If you like Measure R, you’re going to love Measure R plus,” says Move L.A. president Denny Zane in a phone interview.   Move L.A. led a coalition of transit backers, unions and other groups to support the Measure R transit sales tax in 2008 and rail planning acceleration for the last three and  half years.

In 2008, rail expansion advocates believed they had the perfect storm at the voting booth to earn the two-thirds support needed to pass a tax increase.  The same two-thirds super majority would be needed to extend the tax this year, but it remains to be seen if the same perfect storm exists.  In addition to the uncertainty concerning whether or note President Obama will turn out the same number of younger and transit-savvy voters that Senator Obama did is one factor.  The increasing unpopularity of High Speed Rail, which could also be on the ballot in some form, could also work against what one transit advocate termed “another train proposal.”

But Zane remains optimistic.  ”Tax extensions generally fare better at the ballot box than tax increases,” he notes.  ”In the past couple of years similar extensions have passed in Orange County, Riverside County and San Bernadino County and those areas aren’t as transit friendly as Los Angeles County.” Read more…

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Bev. Hills Courier’s Big Scoop: Metro Does Mailings

Century City Mailer for Web

The Beverly Hills newspaper of record, the esteemed Beverly Hills Courier, has been doing its best to rile the residents of the 90210 against the Westside Subway route that would take the Subway under Beverly Hills High School The paper all but declared the Mayor a traitor to the city for trying to negotiate with Metro. More recently, the paper has slandered the professors and other experts that weighed in on the geotechnical issues facing the subway.

But today, the paper has a big scoop, Metro mailed some fact sheets to people living near the tunnel area. From the Courier:

The Courier has learned that the Metropolitan Transit Authority will mail to each resident of Beverly Hills a four-page color brochure summarizing its case for a tunnel under Beverly Hills High School for its Westside Subway Extension. The Courier obtained an advance copy.

Must have been some cracker-jack journalism involved to discover that Metro had done a major mailing the day before. Or is it two days before? It’s hard to tell when a story is posted on “Thursday, November 18.”

The nefarious piece of Pravda propaganda is readily available on Metro’s Westside Subway website, but to make it really easy to find we’ve also embedded it above.

The pamphlet itself is pretty bland. It provides a summary of the two technical reports presented last month to the Planning & Programming Committee, notes that copies of the technical reports have been placed in the Beverly Hills and Westwood public libraries and also informs the public where they can find the reports and other information online.

This is the 13th fact sheet for this project since environmental planning began in 2007 and the 4th fact sheet produced during the current Final EIS/EIR phase. It is, however, the only fact sheet that covers a specific geographic portion of the alignment. Due to the interest in the results of the technical studies regarding the findings, Metro chose to complete this mailing in the impacted area to get their version of the story in the news.

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Cutting Train Budgets Could De-Rail Transamerican Routes

Senators in Appropriations have to ask, Who rides the train cross-country anymore? Photo: Pignouf

The idyllic cross-country train trips that many Americans still take could get derailed by today’s “slash and burn” federal budget policies. Meanwhile, fears for the safety of rail passengers in the post-bin Laden era are drumming up political support for costly security measures and raising, once again, questions about why the federal government funds rail routes without any promise of profitability.

At this morning’s Senate Appropriations hearing on budget requests for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak, the three senators in attendance were unified in their support for funding rail transportation. They’re working on the funding request for the FRA for 2012, not the rail piece of the overall transportation reauthorization. Still, with huge disagreements over spending levels in Congress still raging and a showdown looming over cuts as a quid-pro-quo for raising the debt ceiling, next year’s funding is a significant question.

So the three senators present wanted to know how they could be expected to defend rail funding without more transparency in the budget allocation process. They also asked pointed questions about what the administrators of the FRA and Amtrak were doing to keep riders safe from the terrorist attacks threatened by Al-Qaeda.

The FRA has taken on a greater role in the allocation of funding for rail projects over the last several years and senators appeared frustrated over a lack of clear information as to where the funding would come from. Indeed, some security projects appear in the FY2012 budget request but the FRA is also requesting a USDOT loan to for the same thing.

Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) was quick to commend FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo for his efforts, but called him out for not improving transparency about how, when, where and why projects are funded. “I support investments,” she made clear. “Now is the time to address critics head on. We must communicate with the people.”

Murray and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) presented a grim future for surface transportation if funding does not keep up pace with booming population growth. The only other senator to speak, ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine, agreed and reminded her colleagues that the ambitious national rail plan proposed by the FRA, including high-speed rail, has yet to be followed up with any cost estimates, for construction or operations.

Szabo, for his part, could only promise that studies to be released within “the next couple of months” would present the “broader business case” for funding both high-speed rail and individual projects across the country. Szabo, the first union railman to hold his position, was proud of what his agency was doing to keep hazardous freight secure – but admitted that there are still unimplemented security measures that date back to 9/11. He pointed out that for every $50 spent on aviation security, only $1 went to surface transportation.

Read more…

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Just for Fun: Vintage Culver City Footage in Rail Training Film


Via our friends at Culver City Living, comes this 97-year-old training film for Pacific Electric rail car conductors.  The eight minute video isn’t just a fun piece of transit history, it also provides some old views of Culver City.

The sequence from 1:00 to 1:35 was filmed at the corner of Venice and Sepulveda. Look all those trees!

And here I thought the most interesting part of that intersection was that it was home to a Kwik-E-Mart.

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Government Shutdown Would Be a Punch in the Gut to Transit Agencies

A powwow between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner last night failed to yield a compromise that would put a budget in place before the government shuts down at midnight tonight. The failure of yet another attempt to negotiate makes a government shutdown all but inevitable.

A government shutdown could empty out the D.C. metro system. Photo: Examiner

Just a month ago, AASHTO sounded the warning that the transportation sector could lose up to $100 million a day in case of a shutdown. However, Congress’s extension of SAFETEA-LU through the end of the fiscal year (September 30) has put their minds at ease. Now, AASHTO spokesperson Tony Dorsey says spending for federal highway programs will continue unabated, despite a shutdown. “At this point,” Dorsey said, “we’re not anticipating any issues.” Still, he said, they’re hoping that “should there be a shutdown, it will be a very, very short one.”

But that’s not the whole story. According to a detailed DOT shutdown plan, the vast majority of the Federal Transit Administration would shut down, keeping only 54 out of 575 positions working. Already-awarded stimulus grants would continue to receive oversight and the Lower Manhattan Recovery Office would continue to function. The $270 million that the FTA normally remits to transit agencies every week would cease.

Jeff Rosenberg, government affairs director for the Amalgamated Transit Union, says the SAFETEA-LU extension only continues government’s authority to pay for transportation programs. But “if the FTA isn’t authorized to open the door,” he says, those payments will cease. That could be especially damaging for smaller metros that receive operating assistance, not just capital funds, from the feds. However, he’s hopeful that a potential shutdown would only last a couple of days and would just be “a blip on the screen.”

What else can you expect to happen if the government does shut down as of midnight tonight?

  • At least 800,000 federal employees would be furloughed immediately. That would cause a massive drop in transit ridership, especially here in D.C., where Metro is predicting a five to 20 percent drop in case of a shutdown. Michael Perkins of Greater Greater Washington estimates that this would result in a loss for Metro of a quarter million dollars a day.
  • Amtrak’s federal subsidies – up in the air for months now anyway as Congress debates whether to eliminate them, reduce them, or maintain them – will stop. However, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman recently assured employees that the rail operator can keep going on ticket revenue alone in the short term.
  • The Federal Highway Administration will stay open, with no positions furloughed, according to the DOT shutdown plan. The FHWA is funded with contract authority and has enough funds available to operate in that way for about a month.
  • Read more…

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A Call to Plan Cities for Tomorrow, While Bracing for Transit Cuts Today

USDOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari kicked off the Transportation Equity Network’s “One Nation, Indivisible” conference yesterday with a call to think long-term. By 2050, he said, we can expect the U.S. population to grow by 100 million people, and nearly all of them will live in large urban centers. Problems like crumbling infrastructure, inadequate transit systems, grinding traffic and pollution will be much worse then if we don’t start acting today.

“Are we doing right by the next generation?” Porcari asked. “We know we’re not.”

Echoing President Obama’s “winning the future” rhetoric, Porcari framed the administration’s push for a six-year, $550 billion transportation bill as a potential watershed that can reform a transportation system which has become increasingly burdensome for lower income Americans. “If you make between $20,000 and $50,000 a year,” he said, “odds are that transportation is your number one household expense, higher than housing.”

With the GOP-controlled House making noise about a much smaller reauthorization bill than the one Obama has proposed, better days for affordable transportation are not here yet, nor are they necessarily around the corner. Transit agencies have already been through a couple of years of widespread service cuts and fare increases. The brunt of these cuts have been felt by people of color — who make up at least 60 percent of public transit ridership.

So in addition to not doing right by the next generation, our current policies are not doing right by today’s generation.

Read more…