I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Losing a World of Inspiration

Leimert Park

Leimert Park

All over Los Angeles neighborhoods are changing. Developers with deep pockets are buying up real estate in the hope of making a bundle. New projects are transforming the landscape from Venice to East LA. We need development, but there has to be a balance between business interests and community interests. The community needs to be involved, and that involvement has to be based on trust. The only way you can build trust is through honesty and transparency.

Unfortunately, we’re not seeing much honesty or transparency in LA these days. Many developers are doing their best to shut the public out by keeping their activities secret, and our elected officials often seem to be willing accomplices. As a result, communities across the city have suffered some terrible losses. Buildings have been demolished. Businesses have been driven out. Thousands of renters have lost their homes. People and places that defined our neighborhoods are disappearing.

The Vision Theatre

The Vision Theatre

In the last few years Leimert Park has drawn a lot of attention from investors. Built as a planned community in the 20s, Leimert Park was predominantly white up til WWII. After restrictive covenants were declared illegal in 1948, the demographics started shifting and by the 60s the area was largely African-American. For decades it’s been a center for black culture in LA, figuring prominently in the local jazz and hip hop scene. In Leimert Park you can find a beautifully preserved remnant of the past like the Vision Theatre sitting right next door to a cutting edge media lab like KAOS Network.

KAOS Network

KAOS Network

And just around the corner you can also find the World Stage, although that may change in the months to come. This is one of the saddest casualties of the redevelopment frenzy that’s sweeping across LA. Founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood, the World Stage has been a major part of the neighborhood’s cultural life for over 25 years. Back in the 90s it was an important part of the renaissance that breathed new life into Leimert Park. Even when the recession hit and neighboring shops and restaurants were closing down, the World Stage remained an anchor for the community.

The World Stage

The World Stage

But it looks like the World Stage will be leaving Leimert Park. The building it’s housed in changed hands a while back, and the new owners will not renew the lease. In fact, World Stage Executive Director Dwight Trible says the new owners have refused to even meet with him. Trible says that after months of discussion, the Board of Directors has decided that it’s best to look for a new location. So while the World Stage will still go on, it will be cut off from the community that has been its home since the very beginning.

The story of who’s been buying up property in Leimert Park and why is complicated, and if you’re interested in the details I recommend reading this piece that appeared in the LA Weekly a few months back.

Who’s in Control of Leimert Park’s Future? It’s Hard to Tell.

Papillion

Papillion

Briefly, the local real estate market started heating up back in 2012 when the MTA decided that the new Crenshaw/LAX line would have a stop at Crenshaw and 43rd. Since then a number of buildings have been purchased by limited liability corporations that seem to be controlled by Allan DiCastro. DiCastro is associated with artist Mark Bradford and philanthropist Eileen Norton, and together they’ve made a serious commitment to investing in the local art scene. To their credit, they’ve brought the non-profit Art + Practice and the contemporary art space Papillion to the neighborhood. That’s all to the good. Leimert Park has been struggling in recent years, and could certainly use a shot in the arm.

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

But DiCastro and his associates have not been open or honest with the community about their plans, and that’s a problem. People who’ve lived and worked in Leimert Park for decades can’t get straight answers about what the new owners have in mind. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that’s playing out all over LA these days. Investors with deep pockets and connections at City Hall move into a neighborhood and work behind the scenes to push their own agenda. Residents are told they should be happy about how their community is being “transformed”, but they find they have no voice in the process.

Music is one of the fundamental things that binds a community together. It’s a powerful, immediate way for people to connect and share their experience. For years the World Stage has been a place where musicians and audiences come together, where the distance between the people who come to play and the people who come to listen disappears. Leimert Park isn’t just its physical home, but also its spiritual home. If the World Stage ends up having to leave, it will be a terrible loss for the community.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

MTA Offers a Helping Hand

Crnsw 3

Just a follow-up to a post I did recently on the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Line. In that post, I mentioned how difficult it was for businesses along Crenshaw to keep their heads above water with street closures and reduced parking. Local merchants have been complaining about a steep drop in revenue, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been listening.

In September the MTA established a fund to aid small businesses affected by the construction. And in October, the MTA approved the creation of the Business Solution Center, which will provide assistance with marketing, financial planning and legal counseling, as well as help in securing loans. Here’s a link to the article in the LA Sentinel.

MTA Awards BSC Contract to Del Richardson & Associates

This is a smart move by the MTA. Sure, the Crenshaw/LAX Line will help the neighborhood in the long run, but it’s important to ensure the survival of existing businesses. By approving these two programs, the MTA has shown a commitment to supporting small merchants as they deal with the challenges of the construction phase.

Reconstructing Crenshaw

Crsw 01 Future

Last week I went down to Crenshaw and Exposition to see what was happening with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Line. Work is underway, though it will be years before the project is finished.

A view from the Crenshaw side of the construction site.

A view from the Crenshaw side of the construction site.

Another view from the Crenshaw side.

Another view from the Crenshaw side.

And here's a shot taken from the entrance to the site.

And here’s a shot taken from the entrance to the site.

While I was there I also took a look at the huge vacant lot that runs along Crenshaw just below the MTA’s construction site.

The fence surrounds a large empty parcel just across the street from the MTA site.

The fence surrounds a large empty parcel just across the street from the MTA site.

I was wondering if there were any plans to develop the parcel, so I got on the net and started looking around. Apparently this will be the home of the proposed District Square retail complex. For more info, follow this link to a post from earlier this year on Building Los Angeles.

District Square

Right now it’s just a lot of dirt, but the temporary fence running around this area does offer the candidates in the school board special election a place to post their ads.

School board candidates vying for your vote.

School board candidates vying for your vote.

You can see the barricades blocking off a good stretch of Crenshaw. Also the large signs letting people know that the businesses along Crenshaw are open during construction.

Looking at the barricades set up on the west side of Crenshaw during construction.

Looking at the barricades set up on the west side of Crenshaw during construction.

Projects like this can be really hard on business owners, since the work impacts both traffic and parking. And we’re not just talking about a few months, but years. In the long run, the transit line will probably bring more people to the area and be a boon to local merchants, but in the short term, the construction can cause real hardship.

Heavy machinery parked on Crenshaw.

Heavy machinery parked on Crenshaw.

If you haven’t already read about the Crenshaw/LAX Line, here’s a link to the overview at the MTA’s web site.

Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project

Lots of Hype, But No Jobs

I was checking the headlines at the LA Wave this morning, and came across an interesting story. There’s been a lot of hype about how great the Crenshaw Light Rail Line will be for the surrounding community, but I guess that doesn’t extend to providing jobs for local contractors. You can read the story by clicking here.

One aspect of the story that caught my attention is that the Young Black Contractors Association (YCBA) is planning a protest against the Los Angeles Urban League. The word is that the League has been chosen as the outreach coordinator for general contractor Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors. The YCBA suspects that the League is going to take a few million from Walsh/Shea without making any real effort to bring local black contractors and construction workers onto the project. This is a fairly common ploy. In recent years non-profits have been starved for cash. Developers and contractors know this, so they offer a bunch of money to these groups to get their support. That way, Walsh/Shea can say, “Hey, the LA Urban League is backing us up!” Unfortunately, non-profits are sometimes willing to go along with this if they need the money badly enough. It’ll be interesting to see if the YCBA can make enough noise to bring jobs to a community where they are really needed.

Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Line

A musician in Leimert Park.

A musician in Leimert Park.

Transit politics can be tricky. I’ve started following the discussion over the Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Line, and I have to say the whole thing is pretty complicated. I think everyone agrees it’s a worthwhile project, but the devil is in the details. A heated debate has been going on, apparently for years, about how many stops would be on the line, where they would be located, and whether the line would run below grade in certain areas. The trains would run south on Crenshaw to Inglewood, turn west at Florence, and then follow Aviation south to LAX. Here’s a link to a map on the MTA web site.

http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/crenshaw/images/Crenshaw-LAX_transit_corridor_map_eng.pdf

The project could give a much needed boost to the area, which the City of LA has neglected for years. Running between the Expo Line and the Green Line, it would provide an important transit link for people in the Crenshaw district and Inglewood. It could also create lots of jobs in neighborhoods where unemployment is high.

One of the key issues is safety. Most LA residents are probably aware of the problems with the Blue Line. There have been over nine hundred accidents at crossings where the trains run at street level, resulting in more than a hundred deaths. This is why many in the community are fighting to make sure this new train runs below grade in some segments. But digging tunnels would increase the cost significantly, and as far as I can tell the city hasn’t actually committed to do this for any segment of the line. The Crenshaw Subway Coalition has posted this document, which outlines their argument against grade level crossings.

The link below offers an interview with MTA Chief Art Leahy and gives a general update on the progress of the Crenshaw-LAX Line.

http://wavenewspapers.com/news/local/west_edition/article_a4586a8c-ce22-11e2-aeb8-0019bb30f31a.html

I’ve ridden public transit all my life, and I have to say that getting around LA is much easier now than it was twenty years ago. The MTA has made a lot of progress in recent years, and following a project like this you realize how difficult it can be to make things happen.