SCAG’s Scam

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I don’t have a car, and I use public transit almost everywhere I go. So when In opened my e-mail one morning and found an announcement with the heading “SCAG Seeking Input from SoCal Residents”, I was definitely interested. SCAG is the Southern California Association of Governments, and they handle regional planning initiatives. The announcement explained that SCAG was holding six open houses to get input from the public on their Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

Because transit planning affects me personally, I felt like I should show up at one of these meetings. But when I looked at the schedule, I realized that it would be pretty difficult to attend any of them. In the first place, all but one of the open houses were happening during working hours, which meant I’d have to take time off work. In the second place, it would take at least an hour for me to reach any of the locations by public transit.

To me the most bizarre thing about these open houses is that not a single one was held within the City of Los Angeles. When you think about the fact that LA is the largest city in the region that SCAG serves, doesn’t it seem weird that they would ignore it completely? There are tens of thousands of Angelenos who depend on public transit to get around. Apparently SCAG doesn’t feel that they need to hear our input.

I found this so hard to believe that I wanted to research it further, so I went to SCAG’s web page for the RTP/SCS. I found out that a couple of meetings had been held in Downtown LA back in May, but as I read further I was even more dismayed. The two meetings they held on March 17 and March 18 were part of the scoping process for the Program Environmental Impact Report. In other words, these meetings were intended to get feedback from the public that would determine the scope of the PEIR, or the range of issues that needed to be addressed. And that’s all they had. Two meetings. One started at 3:00 pm and the other started at 5:00 pm. Again, SCAG seems completely oblivious to the fact that most of us have to work for a living.

And now we have the same problem in reverse. This recent series of meetings leaves LA residents ouf of the picture. But the scoping process apparently excluded everybody else. Were there other meetings held throughout the region to kick off the scoping process? I couldn’t find anything else on-line. The SCAG web site also alluded to a 30 day comment period, which ended on April 7. Unfortunately, I don’t recall receiving notification about any of this. I would’ve liked to be involved in the scoping process, but I guess I’m just out of luck.

The web site itself is an indication of how little SCAG scares about getting the public involved. On the page titled Public Participation Opportunites there’s a timeline with a series of links. Unfortunately, all of the links open a blank page with the message “404 File Not Found”. A number of PDFs are embedded in the page titled Staff Reports and Presentations. I clicked on all of them, and none of the files opened.

So back to this series of so-called open houses. Check out this map. The sites for the meetings are marked by black dots.

Map LA City w Locations

Yeah, I suppose I could’ve gone to the meeting in Culver City. If I’d been able to take the day off from work. If I’d been willing to travel at least an hour each way. But if SCAG really wanted to get my input, wouldn’t they have scheduled at least one meeting in LA? One meeting that Angelenos could easily get to on public transit? And why weren’t all the meetings held either at night or on weekends? Do they really think it’s fair to make people take time off work, especially when for many transit riders that would mean losing income?

The bottom line is, they don’t want my input. Or your input. Like many government agencies, they see public meetings as a nuisance. They’ve already figured out what they want to do. Getting feedback from the people is a time consuming process, and there’s alays the possibility that the public might want something different than the plan they’ve already decided on. The problem for these agencies is that a lot of the funding they get requires them to show that they’ve solicited feedback from the community. So in many cases, they slap together a series of token meetings which are deliberately planned to discourage attendance. And then when they submit the documentation required to justify the funding, they claim they’ve done extensive outreach.

SCAG isn’t the only guilty party. The City of LA frequently does the same thing. And I’m sure it happens all over the country. But SCAG’s series of “open houses” is maybe the most transparent scam I’ve seen along these lines. It really does make me angry. Not just because they’re shutting the public out, but because they have the gall to claim they’re serving the public. What’s really happening is that a closed circle of planners and politicians have gotten together and decided they know what’s best. And that they don’t need to hear from the people.

The timeline on the SCAG web site indicates that they’re planning to hold more meetings for public comment when the PEIR is released in October. But my guess is that when they post the schedule it’ll be more of the same. Call me cynical, but based on past experience, I’ve really lowered my expectations.

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.

Lots of Questions, But No Answers

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Last year I was elected to a seat on the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council. It’s been interesting. On the one hand, I’ve made some good friends, and I have to say I’m impressed by the intelligence and dedication of the council members. On the other hand, it seems like the meetings never stop and the job requires sifting through endless amounts of information. It can be totally exhausting. But it’s gotta be done, because there are important issues that need to be addressed, and we can’t rely on city officials or developers to do the job properly.

Take the 8150 Sunset Blvd. project. The HHWNC held a public meeting a few days ago to give stakeholders a chance to ask questions of the developer reps regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Report. To prepare for the meeting, I had to read as much as I could of the DIER, which runs about a thousand pages. It was a mind-numbing experience, but I’m glad I took the time. There were a number of areas where I felt the information contained in the document was inadequate, but the most troubling omission was in the area of fire safety.

The LA Fire Department assessment states clearly that the 4 hydrants on-site have to provide a flow of 9,000 gallons per minute (gpm) for any of the high-rise alternatives. But the water main currently serving the site can only provide 3,750 gpm. Obviously, the water infrastructure has to be upgraded. So I went looking for specifics about how this was going to be done. The developer apparently has assumed responsibility for completing upgrades that will meet the needs for the project’s daily water usage, but they’ll need to do a whole lot more to satisfy the LAFD code requirements for a high-rise structure.

For projects like this, the DWP has to complete a Service Advisory Request, basically assessing the developer’s needs and stating what needs to be done to satisfy the City’s requirements. The DEIR references SAR Number 38449, approved in July 2013, in a footnote, and says it’s contained in Appendix G. But it’s not in the appendix.

So I thought I should contact the DWP to see if I could get hold of the SAR. On Monday I sent an e-mail to a DWP liaison explaining that the document was referenced in the DEIR, and asking if I could get a copy. The liaison wrote a nice e-mail back saying that he’d be happy to set up a meeting between DWP staff and the HHWNC in order to talk about the community’s water needs. I wrote back saying that I’d love to set up such a meeting, but I’d really like to get a copy of the SAR. That was on Thursday morning. I still haven’t gotten a response.

In the meantime, the HHWNC had it’s meeting where we got to ask developer reps questions about the DEIR. When my turn came, I mentioned that the LAFD code required a 9,000 gpm fire-flow for this kind of high-rise, and asked if there was a specific plan to satisfy this requirement. I also asked about the missing SAR. I may not be quoting them exactly, but basically their answer was, “We invite you to submit your comment on the DEIR.”

Call me paranoid, but I’m getting kind of concerned. We’re not talking about a minor disagreement on landscaping or a few extra cars on the road. This is a basic public safety issue. The LAFD requirements are clearly stated in the DEIR. Any of the high-rise alternatives for this project need a 9,000 gpm fire-flow. If there’s a plan in place to achieve this, that’s great. I’d love to see it. I’d also like to see the SAR that the DWP prepared back in 2013.

Compounding my concern are recollections of the water main rupture that flooded Sunset last year. I’m sure you all remember it, too, because it got plenty of media attention. In October, Wehoville ran an article on the flooding, and they quoted an e-mail from Steven Cole, of the DWP’s Water Distribution Division, to the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association. In his e-mail, Cole said that the DWP was looking at replacing a 4 mile portion of a pipeline running along Sunset. He also said they were still analyzing the best way to accomplish that task. It makes me wonder if the DWP can guarantee that the water infrastructure needed to satisfy the LAFD requirements will be in place before 2018, when 8150 Sunset is supposed to be completed. Here’s the link to the article on Wehoville, in case you want to take a look at it.

LADWP Reveals Plans

Does anybody else see cause for concern here? I’d feel a whole lot better if if could see the DWP’s SAR. I’ve asked them for it twice. I’m still waiting.

Paying Attention to the Port

A view of the Vincent Thomas Bridge from Harbor Boulevard.

A view of the Vincent Thomas Bridge from Harbor Boulevard.

Geographically, Los Angeles is a little odd. A map of the city’s boundaries looks kind of like a jigsaw puzzle that somebody forgot to finish. We generally think of it as reaching from Downtown to the beach, the Valley to South LA. But actually there are a handful of smaller cities within that area, including San Fernando, Burbank, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, that punch some sizable holes in the map. And one of the strangest aspects of the city’s outline is that the boundary stretches a long, thin arm to the south in order to embrace San Pedro and Wilmington, including the Port of Los Angeles.

A park at the water's edge, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the background.

A park at the water’s edge, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the background.

I imagine that many Angelenos, like me, completely forget that the San Pedro and Wilmington are part of the City of LA. They were annexed by (or consolidated with, depending on which source you consult) Los Angeles in 1909. Around the turn of the century it was becoming increasingly apparent to LA’s business community that the port was an economic powerhouse which would bring tremendous wealth to the region. The City’s leaders courted San Pedro and Wilmington for years, but the two smaller communities were concerned about losing their autonomy. Finally the deal was sealed in 1909, with LA promising to spend $10 million to improve the Port of LA.

Houses on a hill overlooking Harbor Boulevard.

Houses on a hill overlooking Harbor Boulevard.

Banner advertising a Dia de los Muertos celebration on Harbor Boulevard.

Banner advertising a Dia de los Muertos celebration on Harbor Boulevard.

Today the Port of LA is one of the busiest harbors in the world, handling billions of dollars in goods and creating thousands of jobs. It is a major part of the regional economy, which is why we should all be concerned about the current strife between labor and management. The issues are extremely complex, and I don’t pretend to understand them all. To boil it down to the basics, shippers are struggling to cut costs because of increasing competition and workers are afraid of reduced compensation and the loss of jobs. This article from the Daily News offers more background.

Port Congestion Worsens, Labor Talks Escalate

Stacks of containers seen from Harbor Boulevard.

Stacks of containers seen from Harbor Boulevard.

A crisis like this at the Port would be a problem any time of year, but it turns into an even bigger problem when it comes just before the holiday season. This is the period when retailers do most of their business, and there is massive anxiety about inventory not reaching the shelves in time. Tensions are running so high that Mayor Garcetti has stepped in to help, and business interests have sent a letter to President Obama asking him to intervene.

Rail lines carry containers from the Port to destinations throughout the nation.

Rail lines carry containers from the Port to destinations throughout the nation.

Resolving these problems won’t be easy. It’s not just a matter agreeing on a new contract. There are larger issues stemming from the way global markets are evolving, and even if this situation is resolved, there will be many challenges to come. These developments don’t just affect the local economy. The impacts will be felt throughout the state and the nation as well.

For those of us who tend to forget about San Pedro, Wilmington and the Port of LA, this should serve as a reminder that they’re vital part of our city.

A view of the Port from the water's edge.

A view of the Port from the water’s edge.

We Need to Talk about Water

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Recently I posted on Mayor Garcetti’s call for Angelenos to reduce water consumption by twenty percent. As a follow up, I’d like to draw your attention to an article posted by Jack Humphreville on CityWatch. The thrust of the article is that the Mayor’s creation of a Water Cabinet is an attempt to create policy without input from citizens.

Humphreville makes some excellent points. Certainly, given Garcetti’s record, we should be concerned about whether the City will shape its water policy in an open and transparent manner. There’s no question that the DWP will be raising rates significantly in coming years. To some degree this is necessary. Our water infrastructure needs to be upgraded, and we also need to invest in groundwater clean-up. But citizens must be involved in this discussion. A link to Humphreville’s article is below. It’s well worth reading.

Can We Afford the Mayor’s Mandate?

And here’s the link to the Mayor’s Executive Directive 5, which lays out all the measures he wants Angelenos to take to address the water shortage. Many of these steps are reasonable and necessary. It’s the creation of the Water Cabinet that’s worrisome. In LA, too many decisions are already made by insiders, behind closed doors. The Mayor often talks about how we all need to be involved in shaping the city’s future. I wish I could believe he really meant it.

Executive Directive 5

Transit Trauma

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I don’t own a car. I take public transit everywhere. Generally it works out pretty well, but I wanted to share a few experiences I had recently….

Last week I spent an afternoon Downtown. I had an important meeting that night, and I figured I’d get on the subway at five, which would leave me an hour to make it back to Hollywood. Should’ve been plenty of time. The Red Line arrived just after five and I got on board. But apparently the brakes on that train had locked up, and after ten minutes the conductor still hadn’t been able to resolve the problem.

I had to make it back to Hollywood by six. Now I had forty five minutes, and it seemed unlikely that a bus travelling at rush hour would get me home in time. So I ended up taking a cab, which cost me twenty five bucks, plus tip.

Monday morning I was heading out to the Panorama City, a trip that takes three busses. Unfortunately, at one of my connecting points, I saw the bus I needed speeding past when I was still a block from the stop. It was five minutes early. I had to wait for the next one, which made me fifteen minutes late.

And then there was Wednesday morning. I got to the Red Line station at Hollywood and Highland. I was waiting on the platform when a voice came over the PA saying that there was no service to the North Hollywood station. Due to a power outage, the trains were only running to Universal City. Immediately I tried to think of other options, but there’s only one bus that goes to North Hollywood and it doesn’t run often. I glanced at the monitor above me to check the time. But the monitor wasn’t working.

I ended up getting on the train to Universal City. Once we arrived, it turned out the escalator to street level was out of order. Actually, it’s pretty common for escalators and elevators serving the subways to be out of commission. This morning it meant that the mass of people climbing the stairs had to contend with the people going down the stairs at the same time.

At Universal I had to get on the 224, which was packed to capacity, to get to North Hollywood. I felt like I was riding in a cattle car. At North Hollywood I got on the Orange Line, which was also packed to capacity, to make the trip out to Van Nuys. Amazingly, I was only fifteen minutes late.

Now I’m not bringing all this up because I want to slag public transit. I like public transit. I definitely prefer it to driving. It’s way cheaper and way less stressful. And most of the time it gets me where I want to go more or less reliably. But I have some serious questions about the direction the MTA is taking things.

In September the MTA raised fares. A day pass went from $5 to $7, and a monthly pass went from $75 to $100, a 40% increase and a 33% increase respectively. I realize that this is the first fare hike in four years, and that the MTA is running a substantial deficit. I also realize that tickets only cover about 28% of operating costs, and that anything less than 33% can jeopardize federal funding. But these are still huge hikes. And the while the MTA has postponed further fare increases for the moment, you can be sure they’re coming. On top of that, the Daily News reports that the MTA is considering further service cuts, even though they’ve already cut hundreds of thousands of service hours in the last few years. Here’s the article.

Fare Hikes Won’t Fix Agency’s Deficit

So here’s what worries me. The MTA seems determined to continue raising fares and cutting service as it struggles to resolve its financial difficulties. I have to ask if this is really going to encourage Angelenos to ride busses and trains. I hear a lot of talk about how people have to abandon cars and embrace public transit, but this course of action seems guaranteed to drive people away. That’s already happened with Metrolink. For the last few years Metrolink ridership has been declining, and customers have cited rising costs and declining service as the reason they’ve gone back to using their cars.

The Mayor and the MTA Board have put Los Angeles on the fast track when it comes to building new transit projects, which sounds good in theory. But these hugely expensive projects are years away from completion, and the MTA seems unable to even maintain current levels of service.

There’s something really wrong here. If the MTA wants us to believe that they’re going to be able to manage a vastly expanded transit system, they need to do a better job of managing the system we’ve got now. Otherwise, instead of attracting new riders, they’re going to lose the ones they’ve got.

Boom Town

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Downtown is exploding. There’s so much construction going on I can’t even keep track of it. Massive new office and residential buildings are springing up all over the place. There are also efforts underway to revitalize a number of older buildings. Some of this stuff is cool, some of it is dumb, but I’m less concerned about the quality of the individual projects than I am with the cumulative impact of all this construction. More on that later.

Let’s start by sampling a few of the projects currently under construction….

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This is the Blossom Plaza, which combines retail and residential, including a fair number of affordable units. It took years for this to get off the ground, and there was a recent hitch when workers uncovered remnants of the original Zanja Madre, but things are moving forward. Curbed LA has been following the story for a while, and you can read more about it by clicking here.

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I had a harder time finding current info about this project. The most recent report I read said this was a 240 unit complex being developed by the Irvine-based Sares-Regis Group. Whatever it is, it looks like it’s going to be huge. The site is located at Second and San Pedro, right next to….

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….the recently completed AVA Little Tokyo, another massive mixed-use structure. Apparently young people are flocking to Downtown LA these days, and developers are doing everything they can to capture that crowd. Check out this ad, seen in one of the windows on the ground floor.

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The way I read this is, “If your highest priority is mindless self-indulgence, this is the place for you.”

And since we don’t have enough luxury rental units in Downtown LA already, Carmel Partners has generously agreed to build 700 more. As you can see in the photo below, it’ll be a while before the project is complete.

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You may want to put a deposit down soon. Given the list of amenities, I don’t doubt that the Eighth & Grand complex will be popular. I was sold when I heard about the rooftop pool surrounded by cabanas. For more details, click here.

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But let’s talk about a project that might actually benefit the people of Los Angeles. Here’s the new federal courthouse, which is finally going up after being delayed for years. The courthouse is just one component in a larger scheme to revitalize this part of the civic center. Building Los Angeles offers a rundown on some of the related efforts.

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Honestly, of all the projects under construction in Downtown LA, the only one I can really get excited about is The Broad. It’s still a long way from completion, and the web site just says that it will open in 2015. But it’s something to look forward to. And they’re already doing some cool programming. Click here to find out what’s going on.

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And let’s wrap it up with the New Wilshire Grand. It’s said that when the project is completed, this will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Who cares? I’m so tired of this kind of development. Does this really have anything to do with making the city a better place to live? Or is it just another monument to greed and vanity?

There’s a lot of talk right now about how LA has to embrace higher density development. Fine. There are good reasons to create a more compact city, and certainly sprawl has been a major problem throughout our history. But can anybody demonstrate a need for skyscrapers of this size? And looking at the bigger picture, do we really have the infrastructure to support development on this scale? I’m thinking especially of water, since we are in the middle of a drought. The projects I’ve highlighted here are just a few of the dozens that are either currently under construction or in the permitting process.

When I look at the avalanche of development that’s hitting Downtown LA, I have to ask if anybody at City Hall is thinking about the future, because I don’t see any evidence of rational planning. Instead, I see an onslaught of construction driven by developers who are falling all over themselves to get in on the gold rush. I really question whether the Mayor or the City Council have given any serious thought to how this massive growth spree is going to affect LA down the road. I wish I could believe they were really concerned about the well-being of the people of Los Angeles. It seems more likely that their chief concern is keeping their developer buddies happy.