Remembrance of trains past: the Santa Monica Air Line

Tracks from the original Santa Monica Air Line travel through an industrial part of Santa Monica

Ever since I learned about the Expo Line — and the path that trains used to travel a century ago — I’ve relished in stumbling across bits and pieces of the old infrastructure that still dot the Westside.

The original tracks were built by a predecessor to the Southern Pacific Railroad in the late 1800s and then turned over to Pacific Electric for daily passenger service in 1911. The line closed to the public for good in the early 1950s, while freight service continued intermittently into the 1970s.

To some the remaining infrastructure might just be pieces of rusty metal, but to me they are an interesting representation of our urban environment and history. So I grabbed my camera and hopped on my bike to document what was still left in the Phase II segment — focusing on the area between 17th Street in Santa Monica and the 10 Freeway.

Why go to all the trouble?

First, there’s the sense that what is old is new again. For several decades in the 20th Century, we seemed to collectively forget the benefits of mass transit in Los Angeles. But now, thanks in part to Measure R, we are seizing the opportunity to go back to those historic corridors and breath new life into them, transforming them back into the vital connective tissue they once were.

Second, I enjoyed seeing how L.A. has grown up around the old rail corridor with little bits of track peeking through in random places such as parking lots and medians along the Exposition Boulevard right-of-way.

And lastly, much of this infrastructure will be torn out and replaced by the new Expo Line, so this is my contribution to the historic record. For more information on the history of the Santa Monica Air Line, the website Abandoned Rails has a good introduction, as does the Electric Railway Historical Association.

Check out the photos in the gallery below and the dozens more on the Metro Flickr page.

Regional Connector team hosts community meetings in advance of environmental certification

The Regional Connector will allow "one-seat rides" in either direction between the Westside and East L.A., and between the San Gabriel Valley and Long Beach.

Thousands of new boardings system-wide. Reduced transfers saving up to 20 minutes on some trips. An 11-minute ride from Union Station across downtown to Pico Station. Increased service efficiency. New transit stations in the employment heart of Los Angeles County.

Take your pick, because the 1.9-mile Regional Connector has something for everyone. For those reasons and many others, it’s no surprise that this Measure R project scores high marks on federal cost-effectiveness evaluations.

When completed, the project will connect the Blue, Gold and future Expo lines with three new underground stations, creating one seamless system.

Tuesday’s meeting was an opportunity for Metro staff to update community members and stakeholders on the project’s status and to receive community feedback. Scrupulous readers of The Source will recall that the Metro Board of Directors approved the draft environmental plan in October 2010 and selected a fully-underground option for the light rail connector.

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Westside Mobility Plan kicks off round of community meetings

Community members peruse displays highlighting local mobility issues.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation held the first of a series of spring community meetings last night in Venice. The goal of these meetings is to introduce the community to the Westside Mobility Plan, which will examine mobility challenges and needs in the notoriously congested Westside.

The impetus for this plan comes from the Los Angeles City Council, who — like perhaps all Angelenos — had seen mobility deteriorating on the Westside and so “requested a comprehensive study to develop potential short-, mid- and long-term multi-modal solutions,” according to the plan’s website.

While the study’s primary focus is the city of Los Angeles, LADOT and its consultants are coordinating their project with neighboring cities, L.A. County and Metro. Continue reading

Metro officials talk planning at TOD conference

A 30-10 map on display at a Metro information table.

A 30-10 map (ca. 2010) on display at a Metro information table.

The Los Angeles Chapter of the Urban Land Institute held a conference in Pasadena on Thursday to discuss transit-oriented development in the greater-L.A. area.

The aim of the conference was to figure out a way to put more development around transit hubs. It’s a strategy embraced in many places to promote alternatives to driving and provide housing closer to jobs.

There is also evidence it’s already taking hold here in Los Angeles County. Thousands of units of new housing near transit have sprouted in North Hollywood, Hollywood, Koreatown, Long Beach, downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena in recent years. That said, there are many places along the Metro Rail system where there has been little or no development.

Metro played a big role at the conference because it’s involved in building transit-oriented developments on land it owns near rail and bus stops.

One panel’s topic was: “Where is the ‘T’ in TOD? What is the status of major projects in Los Angeles County.”

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Public hearing kicks off environmental planning process for downtown streetcar project

A Metro staff member discusses the various phases and timeline for the project.

In the lobby of the historic Los Angeles Theater, nearly 100 Angelenos participated in a workshop last night to learn about the proposed downtown L.A. streetcar project. Those who attended were also given the opportunity to make official public comments as part of the “scoping” process, during which planners will sketch out the basic parameters of the project.

Metro staff members began the meeting by bringing the audience up to speed on a project whose conceptual roots go back to the mid-1990s. In short, Metro was brought on last year to head up the environmental planning process on behalf of the city of Los Angeles and the non-profit Los Angeles Streetcar, Inc., which are working to secure funding for the $125-million dollar project.

In March 2011, the City of L.A. and its Community Redevelopment Agency allocated seed money — including funds from the city’s Measure R local return funds — to pay for preliminary engineering, continued community outreach and other planning work.

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Expo Phase II kickoff meetings draw numerous, engaged participants

The meeting kicked off with an overview of the Expo Light Rail project.

On Monday and Wednesday this week, the Expo Construction Authority held open house-style community meetings to introduce Westside residents to the Expo Phase II construction process and the contracting team, Skanska/Rados. The second phase of the Expo Line will connect Culver City and downtown Santa Monica.

As a Source writer, Westside resident and eager awaiter of Expo’s completion, I decided to check out yesterday’s event in Cheviot Hills. I wasn’t alone. My rough headcount found upwards of 150 others — on top of the 200-plus who attended Monday’s meeting in Santa Monica.

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Metro Comments on Beverly Hills Unified School District Complaint

This week several online news sources have reported that the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) has filed a “Writ of Mandate” petition in Los Angeles Superior Court that seeks to require Metro to release documents on the Westside Subway Extension Project, as well as station location alternatives in the Century City area.

The reason for the petition, according to the news release from BHUSD, is that Metro is not responding fast enough to the school district’s written requests for information.

Metro reports that it has received numerous requests on an ongoing basis from BHUSD during the development of the Final Environmental Impact Study/Report [FEIS/FEIR] for the subway that is now underway. The agency provided all publicly available documents and will continue to fulfill BHUSD’s requests as additional documents are finalized and released to the public. Continue reading

Former NYC traffic commissioner lauds America Fast Forward

Over at the Engineering News Record, former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz took to his transportation blog to extol the benefits of America Fast Forward. A lot of the issues he touches on will be familiar to Source readers. Here’s an excerpt from the piece in which Schwartz discusses how AFF could forge a new — and perhaps more sustainable — relationship between the federal government and cities:

Essentially the idea is the same as the 30/10 method: the Fed would lend sizable sums upfront to local entities with dedicated revenue streams such as sales tax proceeds. The carrot for the taxpayers is the promise that transportation projects are completed in a timely manner, in some cases that could be years, rather than decades.

There’s a carrot for Congress too: according to America Fast Forward supporters, passing legislation to enact the program can put 920,000 Americans per year building our national infrastructure without contributing to the national debt.

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Motion on Crenshaw/LAX Line moved to full Board of Directors

The Board of Directors’ Measure R Delivery Committee voted 2 to 1 on Thursday for a motion by Board member Mark Ridley-Thomas that seeks to add a Leimart Park station for the Crenshaw/LAX Line and also underground a portion of the line from 48th to 59th streets.

The committee vote moves the item to the full Board of Directors, who meet next Thursday. The motion proposes two key changes to the Crenshaw/LAX Line and I’m sure it will prompt an interesting discussion — especially because there is community support behind the changes.

The big issue, I expect, is the cost of making those changes at a time when Metro is facing possible declines in funding from both the state and federal governments. Under the current planning process, the tracks between 48th and 59th would run at street level.

Ridley-Thomas and Board member Mike Antonovich voted for the motion. Board member Diane DuBois voted against, saying the issue needed to be decided by the full Board.

America Fast Forward: Charlotte Lynx

Mecklenburg County's 2030 transit system plan.

This is the third story in our series examining how L.A. County’s 30/10 financing model — and its national counterpart America Fast Forward — could help other cities around the country.

In 1998, change was afoot in North Carolina. In Mecklenburg County — home to Charlotte, the state’s largest city — voters approved a comprehensive expansion of transit service to be paid for with a half-cent sales tax increase.

Right away, the sales tax enabled the local transit agency to bolster its bus system and begin planning a network of commuter and light rail lines. By 2007, the agency had some accomplishments under its belt but also faced challenges. Although a group of residents had successfully placed a measure on a local ballot to repeal the dedicated transit sales tax, the effort was resoundingly defeated by a 70-30 margin by the residents of Mecklenburg County.

Only weeks later, the Blue Line, the first leg in the light rail system, opened to the public and quickly blew by Charlotte Area Transit Systems’ ridership projections — today, it averages around 20,000 weekday riders [pdf]. And from 2000 to 2010, Charlotte-area residents heartily embraced their growing transit system, as evidenced by a doubling of ridership from roughly 40,000 to 100,000 daily trips. From 2006 to 2008 Charlotte’s transit ridership grew by 47 percent, by far the largest rate of increase in the United States.

A new transit-oriented development along CATS' initial Blue Line.

A new transit-oriented development along CATS' initial Blue Line.

Charlotte has even reaped considerable dividends in the form of increased economic development. A recent study conducted by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development found that the Lynx Blue Line helped spur the construction of almost 10 million square feet of new commercial and residential development along the line. Compared to new transit corridors in Denver and Minneapolis, CTOD showed the Blue Line’s development performance to be the strongest of the three by a wide margin.

Indeed, by several measurements, the case is strong for further investments in Charlotte’s rapid transit system. But like many metro areas around the country, sales tax revenues have dropped considerably due to the recession. In 2010 Olaf Kinard, CATS Director of Marketing and Communications, described the situation to Yonah Freemark of Transport Politic (excerpt):

The issue that all transit systems and businesses are faced with is that the recession caused a significant drop in the revenues and thus a new base from which to grow from. CATS is currently pulling in sales tax revenue at a level equivalent to the 2004/2005 annual level. Projecting that new base out 10 years at a conservative rate of increase of approximately 3% creates a $350 million difference from the 2006 projects during the same time.”

A multi-modal CATS transit stop.

A multi-modal CATS transit stop.

In our conversations with CATS officials, they shared information about their transit program generally, but declined to discuss America Fast Forward in detail or endorse it.

At this time, it remains unclear whether AFF would benefit Charlotte. On the other hand, it’s safe to say this: AFF seems very unlikely to harm any existing transit agency. If Congress adopts AFF as law, federal loans and financing could be used to build transit now — rather than many years in the future.

And waiting to build transit until the distant future, after all, only seems to offer this: more years with fewer alternatives to driving, more traffic and higher construction prices.

Previously in this series: Denver’s efforts to rapidly add light rail, commuter rail and busways, and Salt Lake City’s effort to expand transit connections.