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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Talking to the MTA

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time slagging the MTA, so I want to make sure I don’t overlook the things they do right. Recently I learned about the agency’s NextGen Bus Study, which is an effort to redesign the bus network with an eye toward building ridership. This is an important step. Ridership has been declining for years now, and the MTA really needs to rethink what it’s doing. I was glad to hear that they were taking a good, hard look at the bus system, and I was wondering what kind of public outreach they’d be doing.

That outreach has taken the shape of Telephone Town Halls, so far two of them, held earlier this month. It’s a virtual town hall meeting where people can join using their phone or their computer. MTA staff members were on hand, and they took questions directly from callers. At intervals they asked the audience to take quick surveys, and the results were revealed wihin minutes.

I thought it was great. While I still think public meetings in physical spaces are important, I loved the fact that I could participate while sitting in my living room. I was afraid most of the meeting would be about bureaucrats explaining spreadsheets, but my fears were unfounded. The bulk of the time was given to answering questions from participants. And it was interesting to learn from the surveys what other peoples’ priorities were.

Two of these virtual town halls isn’t nearly enough. This one was actually split between the NextGen Bus Study and a discussion of budget issues. I hope the MTA schedules more of these focussed specifically on redesigning bus service. I think the decline in ridership is in large part due to the fact that the agency has lost touch with its core ridership. They really need to find out what people want, because otherwise the declines will continue.

And along those lines, I hope the MTA plans to reach out specifically to the low-income immigrant communities that depend on busses to get around. I noticed they did provide Spanish translation at the town hall I attended. I hope they were also providing translation in other languages. Many of the people who ride the MTA don’t speak fluent English, and their voices need to be heard.

But this was certainly a step in the right direction. I’d definitely log on for another one of these.

NextGen Bus Study

 

 

To Have and Have Not

Bilt Where Will

I was so bummed. I desperately wanted to go to UCLA’s 32nd Annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference. Unfortunately, the $535 registration fee was a little too pricey for me. But just the thrill of being close to all the movers and shakers who were attending the conference drew me to Downtown. Even though I couldn’t afford to go in I just stood on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore, gazing up at the windows where I knew the attendees were debating lots of heavy issues.

Bilt Angle

The conference brochure definitely made it sound cool. They had a bunch of high-powered attorneys and consultants on hand to talk about CEQA reform, the housing crisis, infrastructure and other important stuff. And beyond all those big, heavy issues, they even found time for a session entitled Community, Health, and Planning for Environmental Justice. I mean, okay, they kind of jammed that into a half hour slot along with about half a dozen other topics, but I’m sure they covered everything they needed to.

Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by a bunch of noisy protesters who were standing nearby, holding signs and chanting slogans. What were they complaining about? Well, they were angry because one of the speakers was Sacramento superstar Scott Wiener, the Senator from San Francisco. The protesters had a problem with a bill the Senator just introduced, SB 827, which takes zoning authority away from cities. Wiener says if we override local zoning to allow developers to build housing up to eight stories along transit corridors, we can solve both our housing problems and fight climate change. Doesn’t that sound great? According to Wiener, his bill will let developers build tons of new units so housing prices will definitely go down. And because the new units are close to transit, everybody will dump their car and jump on the train.

I wonder if anybody at the conference asked Wiener about a recent report from UCLA that shows transit ridership is way down in Southern California, even though local officials have been approving pretty much any crazy project developers propose as long as it’s near transit. If so, I really would’ve liked to hear his response. I’m sure Wiener had a ready answer for the cynics who point out that in New York housing is still outrageously expensive even though the city has been building tens of thousands of new units every year. And so what if cities like Vancouver and Toronto have thousands of units sitting empty while middle-income and low-income families struggle to pay the rent? Foreign investors need homes, too, although, okay, maybe they don’t always really need them.

Bilt Speaker

At lunch all the power players adjourned to the Gold Room, where they heard the keynote address from Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein apparently talked about how federal, state, and local governments have implemented and upheld racist policies to create and maintain segregated communities since this country’s inception. Of course, he’s absolutely right. I wonder if he spoke about the fact that many of these policies were formed as a result of intense lobbying by development and real estate interests that wanted to protect their investments? Kind of like the development and real estate interests that are pouring money into Sacramento right now. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say about research from the Urban Displacement Project, which shows that current government policies promoting transit-oriented development have resulted in gentrification, pushing low-income people of color away from transit hubs in LA and the Bay Area.

Bilt Hand

Even though I was standing across the street, I could feel the soothing vibrations emanating from the collective wealth and wisdom gathered inside the Biltmore. So what if most of these people make six figures, live in single-family homes, and drive nice cars? So what if most of them rarely ride transit and never had to worry about getting evicted? They’ve got college degrees and lots of money and they go to a lot of conferences. They’re well qualified to tell the rest of us what to do about housing and transit.

But the protesters kept disrupting all the good vibes I was getting from the Biltmore. I guess some of them are facing eviction, or they’ve already been evicted, and they’re ticked off because they’re losing their homes. Yeah, okay, that’s a bummer. But they need to trust the folks inside the Bltmore. All we need to do is listen to people like Scott Wiener and let developers build tons of new housing around transit. Just because the median income for people living around rail lines in LA is mostly between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and they could never afford the new units, which usually start around $2,000 a month, is no reason to keep the developers at bay. I’m sure at some point we’ll have such a housing glut that these new units will lose 50% of their value, and then the families that were kicked out could return to their neighborhoods.

So, okay, it could take decades. And yeah, it might never actually happen. But that’s no reason to rethink policies that are displacing the poor and destroying communities.

Is it?

Bilt No Nos

 

RIP EPA

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If you’ve been following the news, you know that the Environmental Protection Agency is dead.  Founded in 1970 to protect the environment and human health, the EPA has played a major role in making our air clearer and our water cleaner for over four decades.

But that’s over now.  Since the appointment of a climate change denier as the agency’s administrator, the EPA has gutted protections for wetlands, slashed spending on research, and fought to delay enforcement of methane regulations.  And this is only the beginning.

So if you believe climate change is real and that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, you can’t look to the federal government any more.

Now it’s up to you.

If you own a car, you could start by driving 20% less.  If all Americans who believe climate change is real took this simple step, it would send a powerful message to the oil companies and the White House.  Ask your boss to let you telecommute on Fridays.  Or take transit one day a week.  Or talk to your co-workers about carpooling.  And there are other things you could do, too.  Think about the trips you take when you go out to shop, have fun, or hang with friends.  If you really put your mind to it, you might be able to reduce your driving by more than 20%.

And make no mistake.  It is down to you.  The federal government is no longer protecting the environment.  It’s now leading an assault on the environment.

If you don’t take action, who will?

 

Transit Riders Can Do More, Too

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So far this campaign has mostly been about getting car owners to reduce their time on the road by 20%.  Transit riders may be thinking, “Hey, I’m already riding the bus to work.  I’m doing all I can.”

Actually, there is more you can do.

While riding transit instead of driving will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, busses are still doing plenty of damage to the atmosphere.  You may think that because the Los Angeles MTA has converted its fleet to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) that we’re doing all we can.

Wrong.  CNG busses produce significant amounts of CO2, in addition to other pollutants.  But we could really make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions by converting the fleet to electric, and the MTA is already studying that possibility.

Not that this will be easy.  The MTA has already tested a few electric busses, and the results were less than stellar.  Electric bus technology is still fairly new, so cost and reliability are both factors.  On top of that, switching the fleet to all electric would require a massive investment in new infrastructure, and that will take years to implement.

So what can you do?  Get involved.  Stay informed about the MTA’s progress on going electric, and don’t be afraid to let them know if you think the process could be moving faster.

Follow the link below to read articles about this issue on the MTA’s blog, The Source.

The Source/Electric Bus News

 

 

The Climate Is Changing. Can You?

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If you’re waiting for the White House to change its stance on climate change, you’ll be waiting a long time.  And whatever the oil companies say publicly, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep the crude and the profits flowing.

So it’s down to you.

Can you cut your driving by 20%?  If every American citizen who believes climate change is a threat were to spend 20% less time on the road, it would cause a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  It would also send a message to Big Oil that we want a faster transition to renewable energy.  When their profits start falling, they’ll start listening.

So could you take public transit to work one day a week?  Or car pool with someone you know?  Instead of driving to the park this weekend could you ride your bike?  Instead of taking that epic road trip this summer, could you scale it back a little and go some place closer to home?

You can wait for the government or Big Oil take action, or you can take matters into your own hands.

Stopping climate change starts with you.

Start Your Own Paris Agreement

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Millions of Americans are angry about the White House’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and certainly their anger is justified. But just because our government won’t take action on climate change doesn’t mean we can’t.

Cut your driving by 20%. If every American who supports the Paris Agreement were to drive 20% less, it would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are a number of steps you can take….

Take transit to work, or try car pooling, one day a week.

Ask your boss if you can work from home one day a week.

Walk to the market instead of driving. Or share the trip with a friend who’s also shopping.

Think about taking local outings instead of longer trips.

Use your imagination. Everybody’s lifestyle is different, but ask yourself if you can change your driving habits to spend 20% less time on the road.

If Americans cut their driving by 20%, it would not only send a powerful message to the White House, but also to the oil companies. As long as we keep using fossil fuels, they’ll keep selling them. A 20% drop in their profits would let them know we want a faster transition to renewable energy.

Start your own Paris Agreement. Commit to cutting your driving by 20%.