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All aboard the case for an all-pervasive Metro

By Joel Epstein, Contributing writer

February 23, 2011 | 12:43 pm

Photos: Metro ©2010 LACMTA

Photos: Metro ©2010 LACMTA

With all of the recent focus on Los Angeles Metro’s expansion plans and the 30/10 Initiative, it seems timely to consider what Metro’s ambitious plans mean for L.A.’s Jewish community. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Metro is moving forward with several important projects that will bring rail lines closer, if not all the way, to the synagogue door. Metro is working hard to win Congressional approval for the 30/10 Initiative, so named because it would accelerate financing for transit construction, allowing the agency to build 30 years of public transportation projects within a decade.

So here is a fifth question for the kids to ask at your Passover seder: “Is Metro’s expansion good for the Jews?”

How does one assess the merits of Metro’s plans, and where can we look for guidance? As the observant among us know, it is helpful to look and perhaps pray to the East. And in Los Angeles, east is where most of Metro’s existing transit lines have been built over the past 20 years. These critical rail projects all emanate from downtown — the Red Line to North Hollywood, the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western, the Gold Line to Pasadena and East Los Angeles, the Blue Line to South Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the Expo Line Phase I to Culver City — are, for the most part, east of today’s large L.A. Jewish communities. Until now, Metro rail lines have largely skirted or ignored Hancock Park, Fairfax, Pico Robertson, Westwood, Encino, Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills, although arguably it could be said that it was vocal opponents in those communities who kept out Metro trains, rather than the other way around.

One public transit exception to the Jewish rule about Metro expansion is the widely lauded Orange Line, a dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) project that opened in 2005 and runs across the San Fernando Valley from North Hollywood west to Woodland Hills. For the uninitiated, the term BRT can refer to a variety of rapid bus programs designed to speed commuters along dedicated bus lanes. The Orange Line, which passes several synagogues and other Jewish institutions along Chandler Boulevard, raised quite a ruckus when it was being planned and built. With hindsight, given the line’s current success, and the popularity of the adjacent landscaped bike path, the thought of opposing this critical project seems unimaginable.

Now, think about Metro’s building over the last 20 years, and put it on steroids. The agency’s next act includes a number of projects that would cut right through L.A.’s Jewish neighborhoods. Metro’s plans include a Wilshire BRT from MacArthur Park to the Santa Monica City Line at Centinela Avenue, Expo Line Phase II from Culver City to Fourth and Colorado in Santa Monica, the Wilshire subway extension from Wilshire and Western to the Veterans Administration in Westwood and, in the San Fernando Valley, a better north/south transit solution along Van Nuys Boulevard and an Orange Line extension north to Chatsworth. Metro is also building a light rail line on Crenshaw Boulevard, the downtown regional connector, and is expanding both the Gold and Green lines east and south respectively. All these projects are sure to happen in some form or another, and, in many cases, have already raised the ire of some members of the tribe, including card-carrying Neighbors for Smart Rail (NFSR) supporters from Cheviot Hills. For several years, NFSR has been fighting the Expo Authority’s plan to run the light rail line at grade along an existing Metro right-of-way through Cheviot Hills, which is within the Los Angeles Community Eruv.

But it is important not to confuse Jewish opponents of particular aspects of Metro’s plans with Jewish community opposition to public transportation. Indeed, the 1985 methane gas explosion at a Ross Dress for Less in the Fairfax District, which gave long-term Congressman Henry Waxman cover to ban the use of federal funds for tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard, will long be remembered as one of the more shameful uses of bad news to kill a critical public transportation project. Fortunately, today the association of Jews on the Westside with not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) opposition to public transportation is fading like the memory of a quick ride home on the freeway. Though the resistance of some Beverly Hills residents to potential subway tunneling under a portion of Beverly Hills High School to bring the Wilshire line to Century City has led some pundits to call the residents NUMBYs — for “not under my backyard.”

Greater Los Angeles’ natural population growth and demographic shifts, which have brought thousands more jobs west of the 405 Freeway, have worsened everyone’s commute. And the resulting jam-ups have, in turn, made more of us aware of the need for public transit solutions that aren’t at the mercy of freeway traffic. How bad have things gotten? In 1965, the 405 at Olympic Boulevard carried 100,000 vehicles per workday. Today, the 405 Freeway carries 300,000 vehicles each Monday through Friday, making it, according to The Source, Metro’s year-old transportation news Web site, one of the busiest roads in the United States. 

The fact that, in November 2008, Los Angeles County voters passed Measure R, a half-cent transportation sales tax, speaks to just how much attitudes about public transportation in Los Angeles have shifted in recent years. While some voters no doubt liked the fact that the freeways will get 30 percent of the money raised by Measure R, a full 70 percent, the rest of the sorely needed largess, will go toward mass transit. Indeed, the increased volume of news coverage of Metro and 30/10 has made many of us into transit policy wonks, ready to debate the merits of a BRT line versus a light rail or subway project.

BRT lines are typically less costly to build than light rail and subways. Light rail generally has a lower capacity and lower speed than heavy rail, but higher capacity and higher speed than traditional street-running tram systems. Metro’s existing light rail lines include the Blue, Green and Gold lines.

With the subway currently going through its final environmental planning process, and some in Beverly Hills concerned about what route the tunnel will follow, the meetings have been lively, including a particularly rowdy one I attended at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills.

Los Angeles today actually has good mass transit bones. Transit corridors date from a time when the city had an extensive streetcar system. Thanks to those still-existing rights-of-way and railroad easements, many of which were never relinquished by the agency, Metro is now building out projects like the Expo Line, due to open in phases beginning later this year.

Of course, transportation planning in this town often remains a game of politics, one that has killed many worthwhile ideas, including the earlier effort to build a subway to the Westside.  But the argument now is no longer Us versus Them in the most sectarian sort of way. Instead, Metro commuters, business owners, car commuters, bicyclists and pedestrians are now recognized as equals in the messy business of hammering out a transit solution that can serve the greatest number of Angelenos with the least disruption to homeowners and businesses. All of these parties are constituents whose concerns deserve a hearing before the Metro board and sometimes before the court of public opinion.

Twenty years into L.A.’s ever-expanding modern transit program, the fact that more of us have grown up with good transit options in the form of the subway, the Rapid buses, the Orange Line and the Gold Line has no doubt helped dispel the bubbe meise that Metro is only for L.A.’s poor and working class. Indeed many of our buses and trains already carry the rainbow of races, ethnicities and religions that live in this diverse city. But many seats still go empty on some lines, as commuters opt for the car, even when it means a long, stressful ride to and fro, and too much time idling in traffic.

Because some are skeptical that Jews ride public transit in Los Angeles, I conducted an unscientific survey.  Here is what I found:

Adi Liberman, a public affairs and communications consultant from Northridge, regularly rides the Red Line from North Hollywood to downtown. Still, Liberman said, “It’s stupid that you can’t find parking at the North Hollywood station,” because there aren’t enough free spaces, and it’s difficult to get a permit for one of the pay-to-park spaces. As for riding the bus from Northridge to the Orange Line BRT to the subway, Liberman notes that it just doesn’t make sense, as that would involve a two-hour commute by bus and rail.

Rebecca Epstein (no relation to this writer), a New York transplant and 40-something resident of Westwood who doesn’t own a car, regularly rides the Metro Wilshire 720 and 920 Rapids, as well as the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and Culver City buses. Last year, when she was working in Glendale, she commuted on the 720 or 920, connecting to the 780, which dropped her off close to her office.  When she worked downtown, she regularly commuted on the Red and Purple subway lines.

Neal Payton, an architect with Torti Gallas and Partners Inc. in downtown Los Angeles, rides the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus 10 Express from his home in Sunset Park. Payton also likes to take the Crosstown Ride and the No. 3 Big Blue Bus to LAX.  His 17-year-old son is not interested in getting a driver’s license any time soon, as he can get everywhere he wants by bus and on foot.

Donald Spivack, a resident of downtown L.A., regularly rides the 16, 20, 26, 51, 52/352, 66, 70/71, 81 and 200, mostly for work and access to medical appointments, as well as the Red Line and 720 Rapid.

Another downtowner, L.A. Department of Water and Power Commissioner Jonathan Parfrey, regularly rides the Red and Blue lines, Metro Bus 81 and 83, the downtown DASH and the No. 10 Santa Monica Blue Bus. A fan as well of the Union Station FlyAway Bus to LAX, Parfrey calls downtown Los Angeles the most transit-friendly area in Southern California. You can get almost anywhere quickly via bus or subway. “I don’t think twice about taking the [subway] to meetings in Hollywood, Long Beach and North Hollywood; it’s much quicker than driving,” he said. “Especially during rush hour.”

Indeed, changing attitudes about riding public transportation in Los Angeles benefit from the city’s traffic congestion and demographic shift. The needle is clearly moving on mass transit, and this is true as well of even the most observant of L.A. communities. Any halachic prohibition against riding Metro has now been lifted.

Take, for example, the current battles raging over a Wilshire Purple Line subway station at Constellation Boulevard in Century City and Metro’s plans for a Wilshire BRT. While no one should underestimate the concerns of the handful of Beverly Hills opponents about a station at Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars, which would require tunneling under part of the Beverly Hills High School property, Metro Board members, including L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, have been unflinching in their preference for the Constellation option. And it is not just Yaroslavsky who publicly supports the idea. The Century City Chamber of Commerce, normally not among the most activist of constituencies, recently added to its Web site a page called “The Top 10 Reasons to Have the Subway Station at Avenue of the Stars and Constellation.” Unless the engineering suggests it is not feasible to safely tunnel under the high-school property, I am betting my pushke that that station will be built.

The Wilshire BRT is another critical project on which expected mayoral candidate and Metro board member Yaroslavsky has supportively chimed in. The BRT, too, is likely to happen, unfortunate as it is that Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Condo Canyon — the Wilshire Boulevard stretch between the Los Angeles Country Club and Westwood Boulevard — exceptions have been carved out of the dedicated bus lane project designed to improve bus travel times on the busy Wilshire corridor.

With 80,000 daily bus boardings along Wilshire Boulevard, and rush hour traffic conditions on our streets abominable,  Metro’s environmental impact report estimates that the BRT will decrease run times for buses by about 12 minutes. And while the project is not without its detractors, the public, including many Westside Jews and the American Jewish Committee, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and others, recognize that Los Angeles needs transit solutions like the BRT to move more people efficiently and cost effectively than private cars. Half a loaf of challah is better than none, and the fact remains that politics and partisanship have failed to kill the important project.

Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park communities’ opposition to Expo Phase II, which uses an existing train right-of-way to bring light rail from Culver City to Santa Monica, has also been muted relative to the support the project has received. To date, both the courts and the public appear to have seen through the critics’ disingenuous arguments that the line will pose a danger to children and unduly disrupt traffic at critical intersections like Overland Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard.

That said, Jewish Angelenos, as well as our non-Jewish neighbors, should not expect any miracles of biblical proportion to wash away the traffic even once these projects are built. Traffic is a fact of life in Los Angeles and in other big cities that already have the transit system we can only dream of. That is a result of population growth and the reality that many of us will always want to get to the same places at the same time — during rush hour. Mass transit should be seen as what it is best at being — a fast, convenient and cost-effective way of getting from point A to point B when you choose to ride, or when you have no alternative way of getting where you need to go.

Without a doubt, certain memories and attitudes linger about the way Los Angeles used to be. Many, for example, find it hard to believe that it has been decades since they went for pony rides at Beverly Park Kiddieland, on the spot where the Beverly Center has long towered over an otherwise nice neighborhood. And when was the last time you ate at the Brown Derby or spent the night stargazing at the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel? But finding an old timer who accurately remembers when you could get anywhere fast in the car is not getting any easier. Likewise, the use of “Westside” as code for “Jews,” is in decline, as well it should be. Curious about the actual religious character of the Westside, I contacted California State University, Fullerton, political science professor Raphael J. Sonenshein, who said that Jews make up only 40 percent of the City Council’s 5th District, which boasts the city’s heaviest concentration of Jews.

Thanks to the region’s population growth, as well as Metro’s considerable expansion, the view that many of us now hold is that transit has a critical role to play in the future of Los Angeles, even when it goes through, or under, our backyards.

The fact is, Metro is not your parents’ Los Angeles MTA, and L.A. is not the public transit-starved city it was long known to be. We all have our preconceived notions of the way things are, and, thankfully, often enough we are proved wrong.

So, with that, I will close with an anecdote. “Funny, you don’t look Jewish”: As a fair-haired, blue-eyed member of the tribe, I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have been taken for Irish, and not in a James Joyce Leopold Bloom sort of way. About transit, it has taken a while, but it seems as though L.A. is finally at a place where Westsiders, some of them Jews, no longer express surprise when they see their friends and neighbors riding Metro.

Sometimes, things really do change. Take me, for example. It has been months since anyone has said to me, “Funny, you don’t look like a Metro rider.” But then again, maybe I am wrong. Maybe it is just the gray in my hair and the New York in my step. After all, everyone rides public transit in New York.

Joel Epstein is a Westside resident, Metro customer and strategic communications consultant focused on transportation and other critical urban issues. For more about Epstein, visit joelepstein.com.

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