Plagues

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The last couple of weeks have been pretty intense. The coronavirus is spreading in the US and a national emergency has now been declared. At the same time stock markets, in the US and around the world, have been plunging, with fears of another recession on the minds of many.

LA County declared a state of emergency earlier this month, and as concern has grown over the spread of the virus, local and State officials have been weighing their options, trying to figure out how to respond rationally without creating a panic. Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to close all schools. LA City Hall and LA County Courts are either postponing hearings or trying to find alternatives that don’t involve bringing lots of people together in a single room.

And in addition to all that, on Monday it was announced that former LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander was being charged by the Justice Department with obstructing a corruption investigation. The Feds have accused Englander of witness tampering and making false statements. While Englander stepped down from the City Council a while ago, this case could well have implications for people currently serving at City Hall.

So it’s been a wild couple of weeks. I have to say I feel kind of overwhelmed and confused. Of course the immediate concern is the coronavirus. I’ve been checking the LA County Department of Health web site every day. On Sunday they had identified 53 cases within the County, and officials were telling us to avoid non-essential travel and to stay away from public gatherings. Today the number is 144, and theatres, bars and gyms have been ordered to close. Restaurants can stay open, but only for take-out orders. As the news gets worse, you can feel a general sense of anxiety in the air.

On Saturday I was out of the house for most of the afternoon, and I’m realizing now that’s the last time I’ll be roaming around the city for a while. At that point it sounded like going out was okay, as long as you didn’t hug anybody and kept washing your hands. And I have to say I was curious to see what was happening on the streets. Remembering the photos I’d seen in February of deserted boulevards and public squares in Wuhan and Beijing, I was wondering if we’d gotten to that point in LA.

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That wasn’t the case on Saturday. People were still out and about. I went to the market to pick up a couple of things. The place was packed, and a number of items seemed to be sold out, but most of the shelves still held plenty of goods.

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Next I went to a coffee house on Cahuenga. There were about half a dozen people inside, which seemed more or less normal, but when I asked the woman at the counter how business was, she said “Super dead.” Also, when I asked for a mug, she said they were only using disposable cups. I assume that was to avoid transmitting germs.

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Based on the latest updates, it does look like life in LA was be pretty different for at least the next couple of weeks, but I imagine we’ll pull through. Humanity has dealt with contagious diseases in the past, and I feel confident we’ll eventually put this one behind us. But there’s another kind of plague that’s been afflicting LA for a while, and unfortunately it looks like it will be with us for a long time to come.

I’m talking about corruption.

Corruption is a disease that’s been with us since the beginning of time. It’s always present in one form or another, but in some cases it turns both chronic and acute. For the last several years in LA we’ve been experiencing a major outbreak among our elected officials, and I doubt we’ll see a cure any time soon. Citizens have been saying for years that members of the City Council are infected, but for the most part the Council is in denial. Local media has published a number of stories that seem to confirm that the disease is running rampant at City Hall, but the few efforts that have been made to rein it in don’t appear to have taken hold.

The Englander story is just the latest episode in a long and tawdry saga. The former Councilmember is accused of having accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a businessperson in exchange for facilitating connections with a developer. You might think that since Englander no longer serves on the Council that the problem has already been taken care of. No such luck. Englander’s seat on the Council has been filled by a former aide, John Lee. Lee apparently accompanied Englander on the trip to Vegas where much of the money changed hands. He claims he wasn’t aware of anything illegal taking place, but the Feds’ indictment refers to a “City Staffer B” who sounds very much like Lee. Apparently both Englander and City Staffer B sent checks to the businessperson to reimburse them for part of the cost of the trip. Unfortunately, both checks were backdated to August 4 in an apparent attempt to make it look like they were sent before the FBI started asking questions. If this is true, then Lee is also guilty of falsifying documents.

Then there’s Arman Gabay, co-founder of the Charles Company, which filed an application years ago to build a large project in South LA. Initially the project received strong support from Councilmember Herb Wesson, who helped the developer win millions of dollars in federal loans. Coincidentally, Gabay, his family members and associates, had contributed thousands of dollars to campaign and officeholder accounts associated with Wesson. But last year the developer was charged by the Department of Justice with having bribed a County official. The trial is still pending, but the project is dead. At some point after Gabay was hit with the bribery charge, Wesson decided he could no longer lend his support. Interestingly, a recent filing by the US Attorney in the Gabay case says that wiretaps captured conversations between the developer and public officials about permitting problems and government financing for a proposed project. According to the filing, Gabay was told he could resolve the problems if he made a $10,000 campaign contribution. Sadly, the filing does not disclose the name of the official who received the contribution. We can only guess.

And let’s not forget Councilmember Jose Huizar. In 2018 the FBI raided Huizar’s home and office, and apparently among the things they were searching for were records related to the Councilmember’s fundraising efforts. Would Huizar take money from developers in exchange for project approvals? The FBI won’t discuss specifics, but the LA Times reported that a campaign committee with ties to the Councilmember received $50,000 from Onni Group just two months before a key vote on a property where the developer planned to build.  No charges have yet been filed against Huizar, but the Feds aren’t the only thing on his mind. He’s also being sued by two former staffers. Among other things, the suits allege that the Councilmember was guilty of sexual misconduct, that he retaliated against those who voiced criticisms, and that he required staff members to engage in fundraising efforts during office hours.

There’s plenty more dirt to dish on the City Council, but you get the point. And actually, I could forgive a lot of things if our elected officials were just doing a decent job of running the City. But LA is falling apart. We’re in serious trouble. It’s not just that the development process has been completely poisoned by a pay-to-play culture. The way City Hall does business is inherently opaque and dishonest. A classic example is last year’s budget process. When the budget was passed in mid-2019, elected officials were patting themselves on the back and claiming that the City would see a surplus of $30 million to $70 million annually over the next four years. What a shock when six months later we were told that the City was now facing annual deficits of $200 million to $400 million over the next four years. What happened? Apparently when the City Council passed the budget they neglected to mention that they were negotiating contracts with city employees that would blow a huge hole in the City’s finances. They decided not to inform citizens about the cost of the contracts until it was done deal. Everything was done behind closed doors. Once again the public was shut out.

Our elected officials talk about addressing homelessness, but the number of people on the streets continues to rise. Renters are getting thrown out of their apartments because they can’t pay high housing costs. Streets and sidewalks are crumbling, and even with record revenues City Hall can’t find the money to maintain them properly. The urban forest, crucial to replenishing groundwater and keeping the air clean, continues to decline due to years of neglect. The Mayor blathers on about getting people out of cars and onto transit, but DASH ridership has fallen from 25 million trips in 2014 to 19 million trips in 2019. (I won’t mention Metro’s depressing ridership stats. They’re a County operation.)

And with another recession just around the corner, it looks like things will only get worse. If the Mayor and the City Council couldn’t put this house in order when times were good, what’s going to happen when the bottom falls out of the economy? The culture of corruption that pervades City Hall has fostered a secretive and opaque decision-making process where deals are cut behind closed doors and the public is kept in the dark.

This is the real plague that’s taking LA down. We’ll survive the coronavirus. It’s City Hall that’s going to kill us.

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Coronavirus and Short-Term Rentals: Who’s Looking Out for Tenants?

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The Ellison apartment building is on the left.

Last night I got an e-mail from a guy I know in Venice. He’s been living for decades at the Ellison, a beautiful old apartment building. In recent years the landlord has been turning vacant units into short-term rentals, to the point where now the tenants are in the minority, and the place has been overrun with tourists. Like all the rest of us, he’s concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. He writes….

Maybe it doesn’t seem like an issue now, but:

I’m a senior citizen living on the fifth floor of the same apartment building for forty years. I don’t want to share the one elevator for 58 apartments/“Ellison Suites” with bargain hunting, international tourists.

I think he has an excellent point. As a senior citizen with COPD, he has a right to be worried about living in a building with tourists from all over the world when health officials have voiced serious concern about the spread of the virus. A top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, “It’s not so much a matter of if this will happen anymore, but rather a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

Tenants at the Ellison have been dealing with a lot of issues since their landlord decided to turn the building into a quasi-hotel. Loud music, late night parties and drunken revelers have been ongoing problems. But now they have to be concerned about whether they could be exposed to a serious disease.

Why should renters have to deal with this? It used to be that there were clear boundaries between residential and commercial uses, and tenants could expect to be shielded from the disturbances that arise with transient occupants. But now we live in a world with tech “visionaries” who value “disruption” more than they value communities. And while LA has passed a short-term rental ordinance, it’s still an open question as to how strict enforcement is going to be. Remember, Eric Garcetti’s former spokesperson, Connie Llanos, left her job at the Mayor’s Office to go to work for AirBnB.

This isn’t just a health issue. It’s a liability issue. While there are many law-abiding individuals who are legally renting their house or apartment under the Home Sharing Ordinance, there are still plenty of landlords (like the owner of the Ellison) and commercial operators who are flouting the law . If a renter is infected with the coronavirus through contact with a tourist, will these landlords pay for their healthcare costs? I seriously doubt it. And yet, as this contagious disease spreads across the globe, with new cases every day, tenants who moved into their building with the expectation that they’d be living with other tenants find themselves coming into frequent contact with vacationers. Also, aside from STRs, the City of LA has actually approved a hybrid apartment/hotel use at the Metropolitan in Hollywood and Level Furnished Living in Downtown. They’re getting ready to do it again at 949 S. Hope.

We are seeing new cases of coronovirus infections every day, and the numbers are spiking in multiple countries. It seems to me that if tenants have evidence that their landlord is illegally offering multiple units on short-term rental web sites, they’d be perfectly justified in seeking an injunction to protect their health.

If you see a problem here, why not contact the Mayor and ask if he sees a problem, too. And while you’re at it, why not write to the City Attorney’s Office.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Leela Ann Kapur, Chief of Staff, City Attorney
leela.kapur@lacity.org

Couldn’t hurt to copy your Councilmember as well.

Maybe you could use the following subject line….

Coronavirus and Short-Term Rentals

The Death of the Newsstand

Boyle Heights Newsstand from LA Times 2002

Photo from LA Times by Irfan Khan

Today the LA Times ran a story on a newsstand in Boyle Heights that will probably be closing this year. Like so many other casualties of the rise of digital media, newsstands are a dying breed. While you can still find a few here and there in LA, most are long gone. In my own neighborhood, Universal News, (used to be on Las Palmas) has been closed for years, and World Book & News (1652 Cahuenga) has drastically reduced its stock. I know the odds are that one day it will close down, too.

While I hate to see newsstands disappear, I know that change is inevitable. As advances in print technology in an earlier era gave rise to newsstands and made them a part of the fabric of our cities, advances in digital technology have now marginalized newspapers and magazines.

In theory, print news and digital news should be the same. In reality, the shift has led to a huge change in the way the news is reported and consumed. The internet allows us instant access to news outlets all over the world, which seems like an incredible opportunity, but the promise is different from the reality. It allows us to search for the news we want to read, often to the exclusion of news that we should read. And while we now have what seems like an infinite number of sources to choose from, I feel like that allows most of us to subscribe to the sites that tell us what we want to hear.

One of the most damaging casualties of the rise of digital media is the loss of local reporting. Twenty years ago in LA, both the Times and the Daily News had beat reporters covering City Hall and the various city departments. They knew the landscape, they had the connections, and they kept the public apprised of what our elected officials were doing. Now, with both papers having slashed staff over the years, reporting on City Hall is sporadic, and our electeds have found they can pull all sorts of stunts with very little public scrutiny.

Here’s the link to the story about the newsstand in Boyle Heights. A small piece of LA history that’s about to disappear.

Spanish Language Newsstand Braces for the End

Is a Hard Rain Gonna Fall?

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Let me start off by asking, Do any of the Angelenos reading this post remember the drought we were dealing with a few years back? If not, don’t worry about it. Most of the people living in this city have forgotten all about it. We had a couple back-to-back seasons of heavy rainfall in 2017/2018 and 2018/2019, so everybody assumes we’re back to normal and there’s nothing to worry about. This is understandable because folks at the state and local level told us a while ago that the drought was over, and why would you waste time worrying about a problem that’s been taken care of?

Unless, of course, it wasn’t really taken care of.

There was an interesting article in the LA Times recently about how the 2019/2020 rainy season hasn’t been so rainy. In fact, it’s been pretty dry. If we were just talking about one year, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But in the Times story climatologist Bill Patzert asks if the drought we were experiencing earlier in this decade ever really ended.

Is California Headed Back into Drought, or Did We Never Really Leave One?

Patzert points out that, while we had a couple of really wet years recently, over the last 20 years LA’s average annual rainfall has been below the historic average. He makes the case that we’re actually experiencing a long-term drought, and that the recent years of heavy rain didn’t begin to make up for earlier losses. If this trend continues, it would have disastrous effects on our water resources.

Patzert is a very smart guy, and I think we all need to take his warning seriously. I have only one problem with the way he states his case. When people use the word “drought” they’re talking about a period of low precipitation that’s a change from normal levels. But what if this is the new normal? Global temperatures continue to rise.  In California, San Francisco and Sacramento have been growing hotter for decades. While the last decade in LA wasn’t our hottest, it was significantly hotter than the previous one. Scientists disagree on how climate change will affect precipitation in California, but based on the patterns of the past 20 years, I think it’s possible that LA just isn’t going to get as much rain as it used to.

Is this really a problem? How much does LA actually rely on rainfall for its water supply? Let’s review a few basic facts….

LA only gets between 10% and 15% of its water from local aquifers. The rest of it is delivered via massive and complex infrastructure from places hundreds of miles away. While the percentages change from year to year depending on a number of factors, we usually get about 30% of our water from the LA Aqueduct, 30% from the State Water Project, and 30% from the Colorado River. So that must mean that even if we don’t get much rain, we still have plenty of water to draw on. Right?

Wrong.

Actually, all of these water resources are declining. We’re dealing with a whole new reality, and we need to wake up to that fact. Most of the water we get in LA comes from snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As of February 18, the California Cooperative Snow Surveys report that the snowpack in the Sierras is at 53% of what’s considered normal. Most scientists who have studied this issue agree that climate change will cause continued decline in the Sierra snowpack through the end of this century, with one group saying we could see a reduction of as much as 79% by 2100. Since both the State Water Project and the LA Aqueduct rely on snowmelt from the Sierras, a decline of that magnitude would be catastrophic for LA.

As for the Colorado River, it’s uncertain how much longer we’ll continue to get the allotment agreed on in the Colorado River Compact. Many decades ago researchers began to realize that the allocations granted to California, Arizona and Nevada under the Compact actually add up to more water than the river can deliver. And since we’ve pretty much done nothing to correct the situation, the water level in Lake Mead has been declining for years.

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In this photo of Lake Mead it’s easy to see how far the water level has dropped in recent years.

So while it’s true that a drop in precipitation for the LA area wouldn’t, by itself, mean disaster, when you combine that with the fact that all our water resources are declining, we’re looking at a pretty desperate situation. That’s why it’s important that we take Bill Patzert seriously when he says we might still be in the middle of an extended drought. And that’s why, instead of just assuming that things are back to normal in LA, we need to start asking what the new normal really is.

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No More War

Unbelievable as it may seem, there are folks in Washington who seem to be gearing up for another war. The current administration has been doing everything it can to put the screws on Iran, and now it looks like they’re taking it to the next level. Have they already forgotten about about the lives lost during the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Have they forgotten that we’re still fighting a war in Afghnistan, which has become the longest war in US history?

Today protesters gathered in Pershing Square to show their opposition to another war. Speakers railed against the idea of the US embarking on yet another bloody conflict. One speaker asked why it is that Washington can always come up with money to fund wars, but somehow there isn’t enough money to house the people living on the streets. I’ve heard that question asked many times over the years, and I’m still waiting for an answer.

Public Education Is Everybody’s Business

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The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been in the spotlight a lot this year. First there was a contentious teachers’ strike that shut down LA schools for six days, and resulted in a 6% pay raise for teachers. Then there was the hastily thrown together ballot measure that would have imposed a parcel tax to address the District’s long term funding problems. It failed, but there’s talk of another measure in 2020.

LAUSD is struggling. During the strike and leading up to the vote on the ballot measure people weren’t shy about offering their opinions on the subject. Some people see the District as dysfunctional, and many in that camp lay the blame on the School Board. Others say the District is getting hammered by larger societal changes that it has no control over. I think there’s some truth in both arguments.

You can certainly point to a number of mistakes the District has made. The botched rollout of two highly touted tech initiatives, iPads for all students and a new student accounting system, both under former Superintendent John Deasy, were costly and embarrassing failures. Recent revelations regarding serious problems within LAUSD’s Office of the Inspector General haven’t improved the District’s image.

But at the same time, LAUSD is facing problems that are crippling school districts across California. The biggest threat may be declining enrollment due to lower birth rates and a drop in immigration.  Because schools are funded based on student attendance, this means shrinking revenues. At the same time, pension obligations are ballooning, making it increasingly difficult to balance the budget. And since many of the District’s schools were built decades ago, maintenance costs are becoming unsustainable.

So when Austin Beutner took over as Superintendent last year, he certainly had his work cut out for him. I’m not Beutner’s biggest fan, but I do respect him for taking the job. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else wanted it. The District’s financial difficulties are so severe that, if they’re not resolved, the situation could result in a State takeover.

Recently the LA Downtown News ran an interview with Beutner where he talks about the challenges ahead. It’s worth reading. The Superintendent’s agenda is nothing radical. In fact, it’s just common sense.

“I think I have a pretty good understanding, and I think the people here do, of what works: an experienced school leader with the budget they need,” [Beutner] said. “A high-quality teacher in the classroom, colleagues to help support the social-emotional needs of the child. It’s not a secret.”

A lot of Angelenos may think that, because they don’t currently have kids enrolled in LAUSD, they don’t need to worry about the District’s future. Anybody who believes that is dead wrong. If we’re not giving kids the reading and math skills they need, if we’re not teaching them about this country’s history, if we’re not making them aware of what’s going on in the world around them, this city will only sink further into chaos and dysfunction. It may be a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: These kids are our future.

Myths, Math and Austin Beutner

Building Empire

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For years now construction crews have been tearing up Downtown Burbank. Caltrans is the lead agency on a huge infrastructure project which is remaking the I-5/Golden State Freeway corridor, as well as bringing changes to a number of Burbank’s surface streets. The actual name for all this activity is the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. Here’s a brief overview from the City of Burbank’s web site.

“This project, lead [sic] by Caltrans and funded primarily by State transportation funds and Los Angeles County transportation sales tax funds, will relieve congestion along Interstate 5 while providing an important new access to the Golden State area of Burbank, including the Empire Center and Bob Hope Airport.”

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The I-5/Golden State Freeway as it passes through Burbank

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Traffic on Burbank Blvd. where it crosses over the freeway

Here’s a short list of specific changes that are part of the project.

> Full freeway interchange at Empire Avenue
> New freeway and railroad crossing allowing access to Empire Center
> Freeway widening including 2 carpool lanes and weaving lanes
> Burbank Blvd. Interchange Demolition & Reconstruction
> Railroad grade separation at Buena Vista Street
> Realignment / Closure of San Fernando Blvd near Lincoln Street.

You’ll notice one of the main goals is to improve access to the Empire Center. If you’ve never been there, it’s basically a massive mall that has all the same chain retail stores and restaurants you can find almost anywhere else in Southern California. But more on that later.

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Excavation next to the Empire Center

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Mounds of dirt rising above Victory Place

The project is way behind schedule. Various factors have pushed completion back substantially, including a dispute with a contractor and this year’s heavy rains. Demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. bridge had been scheduled to start this year, but now Caltrans says they’ll start in 2020. It isn’t unusual for a project this big and this complex to take longer than expected, but Caltrans’ original 2018 deadline was ridiculously ambitious. Work has already been going on for over five years, and will continue for at least a couple more years.

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A barrier under construction at San Fernando and Winona

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Construction site at San Fernando and Winona

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Work on Winona where it passes under the freeway

In the project overview above, you may have noticed that it said funding comes in part from an LA County transportation sales tax. This would be Measure R, which was approved by voters about a decade ago. Measure R money funds a lot of different things, but the major categories are: 35% to new rail and bus rapid transit projects; 20% to carpool lanes, highways and other highway related improvements; 20% to bus operations; and 15% for local city sponsored improvements.

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Construction on San Fernando next to the freeway

LA voters have consistently approved new taxes for transit and road upgrades, but there’s an ongoing debate about the way these measures are structured, with many transit advocates saying it’s counterproductive to levy new taxes to fund both transit and highway improvements. Their argument is that if we continue to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to drive cars, then people will just continue to drive cars, even though billions are being invested in new rail infrastructure. On the other hand, the people who write these measures say that voters won’t approve them if there’s no money for roadwork.

There does seem to be a conflict here, which may, in part, explain the dismal performance of LA’s investments in transit. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro) has spent billions on new rail infrastructure over the past two decades, and yet transit ridership is lower than it was in the 80s. Some commentators believe that LA voters like the idea of transit, but ultimately end up sticking with their cars.

You can take the bus to the Empire Center, but as you can see by the photos below, most folks drive.

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Parking lot at the Empire Center

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Another shot of the parking lot at the Empire Center

Burbank is a really car-centric town. Aside from the Empire Center, the Downtown area also has the Burbank Town Center and an adjacent outdoor mall. On weekends the parking areas/structures for all three of these malls are packed with cars. Burbank residents love to participate in the great American pastime of driving somewhere and buying stuff.

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A family heading back to the car

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Shoppers in the parking lot at Empire Center

And let’s not forget the other great American pastime of sitting in a line of cars waiting for food.

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Line of cars waiting for their turn at the window

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The line of cars looping back through the parking lot

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The line of cars extends back around the building

Let’s face it. This is what powers our economy. Which I’m sure is why two of the primary goals of this project involve making it easier for people to drive to the Empire Center. Cars don’t just make it easier for Americans to buy stuff. Cars themselves are products that Americans love to buy. For decades one of the main drivers of the US economy has been the auto industry. After WWII, car manufacturing helped make the US the world’s major economic power. The jobs generated by the industry helped to create the American middle class, and the fact that they were union jobs meant fat paychecks that pumped dollars into the consumer economy. When the big auto makers were on the ropes a decade ago, Washington stepped in to rescue them, and the rebound in car sales was one of the things that lifted the US out of the recession.

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Freeway onramp to be permanently closed

But it does seem like we have a problem. One the one hand, we have government officials telling us we need to get away from cars and rely more on transit if we want to fight climate change. On the other hand, we have government officials, sometimes the same ones, promoting efforts like the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. We’re spending tons of money on transit, and at the same time we’re spending tons of money to make it easier for people to drive to the mall.

Does this make sense to you?

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Completed section of new roadway near Empire Center

Here are some links to basic info about the project.

Burbank Empire Project Page

The Empire Project: A Virtual Tour

My5LA Home Page

And here’s a story from the Burbank Leader that covers some of the reasons for delay.

5 Freeway Project, Hampered by Winter Weather, Has New Finish Date

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