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Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City

Ethan N. Elkind
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The familiar image of Los Angeles as a metropolis built for the automobile is crumbling. Traffic, air pollution, and sprawl motivated citizens to support urban rail as an alternative to driving, and the city has started to reinvent itself by developing compact neighborhoods adjacent to transit. As a result of pressure from local leaders, particularly with the election of Tom Bradley as mayor in 1973, the Los Angeles Metro Rail gradually took shape in the consummate car city.Railtownpresents the history of this system by drawing on archival documents, contemporary news accounts, and interviews with many of the key players to provide critical behind-the-scenes accounts of the people and forces that shaped the system. Ethan Elkind brings this important story to life by showing how ambitious local leaders zealously advocated for rail transit and ultimately persuaded an ambivalent electorate and federal leaders to support their vision.Although Metro Rail is growing in ridership and political importance, with expansions in the pipeline, Elkind argues that local leaders will need to reform the rail planning and implementation process to avoid repeating past mistakes and to ensure that Metro Rail supports a burgeoning demand for transit-oriented neighborhoods in Los Angeles. This engaging history of Metro Rail provides lessons for how the American car-dominated cities of today can reinvent themselves as thriving railtowns of tomorrow.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95720-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvii)
  6. [Maps]
    (pp. xviii-xxii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    IN SEPTEMBER 1985, one person controlled the fate of the Los Angeles Metro Rail subway. After more than a decade of planning, numerous political compromises, and millions of dollars’ worth of studies, final legislation to fund half of the subway’s initial construction costs was pending in Congress. But in a sudden turn of fortune, a powerful liberal congressman from Los Angeles stood ready to vote against it. Henry Waxman was both the local representative and the gatekeeper for wealthy Los Angeles political donors. His opposition would be fatal to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.¹

    Up until that...

  8. ONE An Eighteen-Month Promise
    (pp. 12-33)

    IN SOME WAYS, THE LOS ANGELES Metro Rail began with a misstatement. At least, that is how Tom Bradley described it. On May 23, 1973, Bradley, a Los Angeles city councilman, was in the midst of a bitter campaign for mayor in a rematch against incumbent Sam Yorty. A week before the election, Bradley called a press conference to emphasize his transportation agenda for the city. In this famous car town, transportation had become a dominant issue. Angelenos were facing higher fuel costs, traffic nightmares, and hazardous smog, and many viewed rail as the solution to these problems.

    Bradley shared...

  9. TWO The New Mulholland
    (pp. 34-49)

    SUPERVISOR KENNETH HAHN WANTED a rail system to serve the whole county, and he wanted it to happen quickly. While Mayor Bradley and other rail boosters waited for the federal government to decide whether or not to fund a starter line, Hahn made plans to finance a complementary system. Like Baxter Ward, Hahn wanted regional rail and felt no particular attachment to an expensive, downtown-oriented subway on the edge of his South Central Los Angeles district. Although he watched three sales tax proposals go down to defeat in twelve years, he was willing to try again with the hope of...

  10. THREE Bureaucratic Paper Shuffling and Jurisdictional Squabbling
    (pp. 50-78)

    WHERE WOULD THE FIRST MODERN RAIL transit line in Los Angeles go? It was the question that Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) rail planners now found themselves in the fortunate position of asking. Budget analysts projected that the Proposition A victory would bring the commission about $225 million in revenue during the 1981–82 fiscal year from the sales tax increase,¹ with roughly $100 million of that amount for rail transit.² Rail leaders also expected to leverage even more money from the state and federal government.

    The Proposition A victory, coupled with the Urban Mass Transportation Administration’s (UMTA) decision...

  11. FOUR Henry Waxman’s Hot Air
    (pp. 79-100)

    THE EXPLOSION THAT FOREVER CHANGED the course of Metro Rail had its roots in a turn-of-the-century dairy farm. In 1901, Arthur Fremont Gilmore owned a 256-acre farm near West 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, at a time when the Fairfax district in Los Angeles consisted mostly of bean fields and cattle pens. He set out to dig a water well on his property, but in trueBeverly Hillbilliesfashion, Gilmore accidentally struck oil.¹ His discovery prompted an oil exploration boom, and his property later became part of the Salt Lake Oil Field with over four hundred oil wells.² This field,...

  12. FIVE Tunnel Stiffs, Fires, and Sinkholes
    (pp. 101-121)

    “HISTORY REMEMBERS THE BIG SHOTS,” Art Lemos told theLos Angeles Timeson September 28, 1986, as he and his construction crew from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began the actual groundbreaking for the Metro Rail subway. At the corner of 5th and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles, Lemos’s crew set about jackhammering the pavement in order to install underground utility pipes that would run through the future subway tunnel. His crew would be the first of roughly two thousand construction workers who would physically implement the grand transit vision of elected officials and the voters....

  13. SIX The Wish List
    (pp. 122-144)

    IN 1989, the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads offered a deal that would tantalize Los Angeles rail leaders. The railroads wanted to sell three freight train rights-of-way that crisscrossed valuable urban real estate in Los Angeles: the State Street–Baldwin Park Line, the West Santa Ana Line, and the Exposition Line. But the timing was not great for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC); by the end of the 1980s, money for rail was running out. The light rail lines had cost substantially more than initial estimates, draining Proposition A sales tax funds well before the transit agency...

  14. SEVEN A Knife in the Seat
    (pp. 145-157)

    THE BEGINNING OF THE END for the two Los Angeles transit agencies, the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC), came on December 18, 1991. That day, the LACTC board made what seemed to be an innocuous decision on a rail car contract, voting seven to three to award a Green Line job to Sumitomo Corporation of America, a company with a history in Japan dating back to 1630.¹ In doing so, the commissioners rejected the bid of Morrison Knudsen, a venerable Idaho-based construction firm that helped to build the Oakland–San Francisco...

  15. EIGHT Of Race and Rail
    (pp. 158-175)

    AT 12:45 P.M. ON JULY 13, 1994, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board of directors met for a contentious and politically charged vote that would ultimately haunt rail advocates. The issue involved whether or not to raise bus fares to cover the agency’s debts. The down economy had reduced the bus budget, which had begun running an operating deficit of $126 million. MTA leaders hoped a fare increase would generate an additional $15 to $20 million to help stem the losses.

    The threat of a fare increase immediately riled bus riders and their advocates. For many of...

  16. NINE Switching Tracks
    (pp. 176-200)

    LOS ANGELES COUNTY SUPERVISOR ZEV YAROSLAVSKY wanted to stop spending money on the subway. He believed, with reason, that the subway would drain funds for cheaper, aboveground transit lines, such as a potential light rail route in his San Fernando Valley district.

    Despite the Bus Riders Union (BRU) lawsuit and settlement and the dire fiscal conditions plaguing the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), however, powerful leaders both on the MTA board and in Congress were loath to give up the opportunity to bring subway and light rail service to their communities. By 1998, subway expansion plans included an...

  17. TEN Subway to the Sea
    (pp. 201-216)

    FIVE YEARS AFTER CONSTRUCTION ENDED, subway advocates were eager to get their train going again. They found a new champion in 2005 mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Ironically, Villaraigosa did not start his career as a subway proponent. As an appointee of Supervisor Gloria Molina to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board in the 1990s, he had been a strong advocate for bus riders and low-income residents who did not feel they would gain from increased rail expansion. He had also been a supporter of the Bus Riders Union (BRU) lawsuit against the MTA. In fact, Manuel Criollo...

    (pp. 217-228)

    WHEN SUPERVISOR KENNETH HAHN PRESIDED over the opening of the first modern rail line in Los Angeles, he told the crowd: “The Blue Line is here, now use it.”¹ Angelenos responded. Although overall system ridership is less than hoped for (and promised), Metro Rail has achieved some notable successes. The Blue Line light rail is the busiest in the country, connecting the two largest cities in Los Angeles County and helping to bring new development and urban amenities to neighborhoods along the route, such as downtown Long Beach.² The subway lines have helped spur the revitalization of neighborhoods like Hollywood...

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 229-276)
    (pp. 277-280)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 281-292)