Activists the Key in the 25 Year Journey Leading to the Expo Opening

Oct. 24, 1990.

As long as I've known Darrell Clarke, he's been willing to defend and promote the Expo Line to anyone who will listen. At the 2008 "Car-Free Wilshire" event on Earth Day, he manned the booths for the Sierra Club and Friends for Expo Transit. Photo:##http://www.flickr.com/photos/hercwad/##Wad/Flickr##

That is the date when the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, one of the predecessor agencies to Metro, purchased the right of way from Southern Pacific that the Exposition Line is being built on. The remarkable thing is among those commenting on the item at the LACTC meeting nearly a quarter century ago is Darrell Clarke. Clarke has been a stalwart advocate of the Expo Line whose role in making it happen cannot be overstated (as has been noted previously on this blog).

It all started with a vision shared by a small group of committed activists along the Exposition corridor. Under the name Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way they worked to convince the powers that be that the alignment, which Southern Pacific had ceased using for freight service in the late 1980’s, be purchased to save it for use for a light rail line linking downtown Los Angeles and the Westside. Clarke teamed with a rail buff named Russell Davies who also spoke at the 1990 meeting to build support for the purchase. Davies continues his involvement with advocacy to this day as a longtime member of Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Council.

In that pre-Power Point era they presented an actual slide show to officials, neighborhood associations, business groups and anyone else who might potentially influence the decision makers. By no means was winning the purchase of the alignment a slam dunk. You’ll note there was a gentleman speaking at the 1990 meeting against the purchase on behalf of what then called itself the Coalition Against Residential Rail, the precursor to what is now a coalition of Westside neighborhood groups known as Neighbors for Smart Rail.

The following year the advocates, re-named the Exposition Rail Committee, were at work continuing to answer the claims of the NIMBYs. In 1992, a Preliminary Planning Study was done of the right-of-way followed two years later by a refining Final Draft Phase I Summary Report.

The late 90s were a time of great upheaval at Metro. The consent decree between the agency and the Bus Riders Union which required certain bus level of service standards turned out to be far more expensive to implement than the Board believed when they consented to the decree. The Red Line extension west was stymied by a myriad of natural and man-made forces: Methane along Wilshire, hydrogen sulfite under the alternative routing to Pico/San Vicente, passage of Proposition A in 1998, and certain budget realities. The Eastside Subway Project was converted to light rail and still managed to keep its federal funding. Westside transportation needs in this period underwent numerous studies that took into account the emerging interest in Bus Rapid Transit. Its hard to believe, but there was once serious talk of having BRT along Exposition.

In 2000, Clarke and other concerned advocates formed Friends 4 Expo Transit to promote light rail on the Exposition right-of-way. After a lot of old fashioned grassroots organizing the light rail proponents prevailed in their quest to get Metro to support light rail on the corridor. On June 28, 2001 the Metro Board picked light rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative (agenda item #49B) for the Exposition Corridor from downtown Los Angeles to Venice/Robertson.

In the years after, there were all sorts of highs and lows. In 2003 legislation was signed by the Governor forming a separate authority to construct the project. There was also controversy over grade crossings at Farmdale and Exposition, adjacent to Dorsey High School and a long process to determine whether the line would stay on the right of way west of Robertson. And even as Phase I is about to open, there is still some uncertainty that  the environmental documents for Phase II of the light rail will survive a legal challenge, although most watchers predict the challenge willis in the midst of not succeed in stopping the project.

Through it all, Clarke and his fellow Expo Light Rail advocates have worked to promote their vision of a line linking L.A.’s westside with our emerging regional fixed guideway network. They were especially active on behalf of the passage of Measure R, without which it is hard to know when Phase II would have begun constriction much less opening. Instead (with crossed fingers) we can anticipate that event happening in 2015.  (I’m already hearing 2016 – DN.)

After 20+ years we are on the cusp of fulfilling the vision that motivated the saving of the right of way all those years ago. Many people made it possible (stakeholders, elected officials, agency staff) but let us never forget it was community activists who were the key factor in making it happen. Bravo! And on behalf of the thousands who will ride this line daily, I offer a heartfelt thank you.

Giving credit where it is due the timeline for some of the foregoing history came from this document. And I will readily concede this is a very truncated narrative and the actual full story of Expo’s tortured journey to opening could easily fill a space three or more times what I have here. But this gives a flavor of the epic nature of the journey.

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