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SGV Connect 113 Transcript : Joe Linton on the Regional Connector

OPA Update 6/22/23: City Council Debates Adult-Use Cannabis, SMDP Profiles Main St Farmers Market, SaMo Pier 360 Beach Festival & Other Things To Do This Weekend

"Please, stand clear. The doors are closing."

Chris Greenspon (CG) : So I'm here with Joe again. And Joe just went to the big Regional Connector Grand Opening whoop dee doo at Union Station. 

Joe Linton (JL) : The celebration was at Little Tokyo at the Japan American National Museum. And it's pretty awesome. The station is named after Norman Mineta, who was mayor of San Jose, was one of the first Asian elected officials in big cities in the United States and was the Transportation Secretary, and his kids were there and the station was named after him. So there's a lot of real important ties to Little Tokyo. So the opening was at Little Tokyo.

CG : And it is kind of, despite how the disparate regions that it connects, it is more of a main attraction. I would say for me out in the San Gabriel Valley, I'd rather go to Little Tokyo than Long Beach or Santa Monica combined. 

JL : You never know. So this new project called the regional connector, Metro has been building this for a decade. And yeah, it really does open up a lot of one seat trips for the San Gabriel Valley. And actually, it's kind of fun, the San Gabriel Valley is now the home of the longest light rail line in the United States, perhaps the world, at 50 miles. The Metro A line which used to be called the Gold Line, the Gold Line's gone away forever for now at least, and the L line which it became is gone, but it's now called A Line anyway. So the line's 50 miles, you can get on a train in Azusa, and you can get off the train in downtown Long Beach, and all points between. You can get to the soccer stadium in Exposition Park and all kinds of places. 

CG : Yeah, now watch Eric Garcetti come back out of the woodwork and rename the San Gabriel Valley San Gab a la South LA. So we talked about what this is, how long has it taken? How long has this been in the works? And I know Streetsblog is in the backstory of this whole thing. 

JL : Yeah, we can't take too much credit. But I think you know, Streetsblog started around 2008 I think, and the Regional Connector was being planned at that time. It had... early on it was going to be like surface running light rail ultimately it became a subway through downtown LA. 

And really, there were controversies and planning meetings and, you know, resistance from let us say, billionaires by the name of Eli Broad that nearly sabotaged the whole project that Streetsblog was a big part of that early planning process. And that big planning process was an early part of Streetsblog. 

And Damien Newton can talk about that someday on another pod but... So today it opened and now let me just talk about what it is. So it's a two mile subway through downtown Los Angeles, costs $2 billion, I guess $1.8 billion, but about $2 billion, took about 10 years to build. Tunnel boring machines making their way through downtown LA. There's three new stations in downtown LA one is behind the Broad Museum, serves the Disney Hall and whatnot, the museum and entertainment district on Grand Avenue.

One is right behind what was the LA Times building in historic Broadway at Spring and Second, and one in a new station, an underground station in Little Tokyo. And it seems for as small a project as it is - about two miles - it's actually really transformative in that it...there were a bunch of metro lines that basically ended in downtown LA and now those metro lines all run through downtown LA. 

So instead of having to get from you know, USC to little Tokyo, you would have had to make two transfers and transfers are kind of the worst part of commuting on transit is when you're on a bus or you're on a train and it's moving you feel like you're getting toward your destination when you're sitting there at a station waiting for that train that was supposed to come a minute ago that hasn't shown up yet, you're sort of stressing and waiting and frustrated and stuff. 

So trips that would have been one or two transfers are now zero transfers. So it really helps. I think people who ride transit in LA are gonna notice that they're just getting around, making connections through downtown LA is just going to be easier, just less friction and less waiting and sort of less hassle. 

And I don't think... it's not going to get people who live in Pacific Palisades out of their cars, but it is going to make a lot of trips a lot faster and a lot easier. 

CG : So who do you think is going to benefit the most from this?

JL : I think what's great is that the benefits really are going to go to people who are riding transit. There, there's a lot of philosophy at transit agencies and transit wonks, that there's two kinds of writers: there's a thing called a captive rider. And there's a thing called a choice rider, which is to say, there's a poor person who can't afford anything but to be on transit, and there's a rich person who is in a car and transit agencies, you need to woo that rich guy. 

And there's a thinker who I like, his name is Jarrett Walker, who says that the choice of captive rider duality is a myth and a harmful myth. And he says better to focus on the middle 90%. When transit agencies make transit more frequent, more convenient, more legible, easier to use, serving destinations better, transit ridership grows sort of incrementally, and you don't pull in that choice rider who says "I'm a driver, and I'm never gonna get out of my car," but you serve the people who are using it. And you make it a little more attractive for that next layer of person who rides once a week might ride a couple times a week, that person who rides once a month to get to the soccer game, is going to make it easier. 

And I think even I like to think that somebody in Pasadena who's going to see the Angel City soccer game at the Exposition Park Stadium, is going to take a trip and go, "Oh, wow, that was easier than I thought it would be." You know, and so I don't think it's going to be... Yeah, it's not going to get everybody in LA out of their cars tomorrow, but I think it's gonna make trips easier, faster. And you're gonna think, "oh, yeah, that wasn't so hard. Maybe I'll try that for this trip for this destination that I'm going to." 

But I think it is important. Again, on that sort of choice, captive rider thing - agencies can try to spend a lot of money on things like micro transit to try to be like Uber and Lyft and stuff, to try to draw these drivers out of their cars. But I think projects like this really do serve people who are already riding transit. And that grows transit, and it gives people who are dependent on transit, people who use the Gold Line, now the A Line, it gives them back their lives, they'll get from home to work 10 minutes, five minutes faster every day. And that adds up over a person's life. Metro is really giving people back their time, their day.

CG : Yeah, so that would be a good place. To wrap up, though. I have one more question and we can slash it if it goes nowhere. So you know, you've been writing about transit and cycling for so long... I'm sure you've heard to death, two opposing viewpoints about Metro expansion in LA. And neither side really wants to hear the other's point of view. 

You've got anti-gentrification activists who only want to hear that this is a gentrification machine. everything it touches turns to gold or some other substance, depending on your politics. And then you've got urbanists, who never want to hear that under any circumstances. What do you think is the finer truth in the middle about Metro expansion? And how does the Regional Connector apply to it? 

JL : Yeah, well I have to say both of those conflicting truths are true. I think the train serves low income folks who don't have other ways to get around. And I think the train also helps spread gentrification, especially into neighborhoods near Los Angeles, like where we're sitting now and Boyle Heights, and I think we're seeing a huge amount of gentrification... and I, for a long time, I was the LA River activist and you get the same question on the LA River. 

And I think that LA is seeing gentrification in places, you know, in far flung parts of the San Gabriel Valley and neighborhoods that are served well by transit, and neighborhoods that are served poorly by transit. I think we need to be investing more public resources in affordable housing. 

I think we can do that at locations like transit oriented development around stations. And I think the forces of gentrification are gonna love to jack up rents, because the trains are better. But I think we need to work on community land trusts and building housing, that's affordable and building housing that the public invests in. 

CG : So it sounds like what you're saying is you're not expecting constructive things to happen on their own. That's my perception. 

JL : Well, I think Metro has a Transit Oriented Communities Program. When they build a rail line, they often buy a little bit of property to stage that construction, and they buy property to build stations, and those sites Metro makes available for what they call joint development of affordable housing. There is a struggle of what's the percentage and you know, how affordable is it and whatnot, and there's some great projects and there's some marginal projects around Metro stations. And I think this mean, this project is a little bit tricky, because there's less sort of transit oriented development opportunities, but I think Metro plays a positive role in A) providing transportation for people who need it to get around to needed to get to jobs and stuff and in a way that it doesn't suck up people's wallet, the way that gasoline and car payments and insurance payments do. And I think that Metro does a fairly good job of being a partner on a lot of affordable transit oriented development projects.