This is 30: On the genesis of Metro

James Rojas. Photo by Tim Adams

In early 1993, two transit agencies –– the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) –– merged, forming a new agency called the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA). But you can just call us Metro. 

We hear a lot about SCRTD, the Los Angeles transit agency that oversaw and managed bus service between 1964 and 1993 –– after all, its logo was all over the streetscape. LACTC, formed in 1976 to oversee public transit and highway policy, is less remembered today. I wanted to learn more about it, so I asked James Rojas, an award-winning artist and urban planner with a reputation for humanizing urban planning with thoughtful design –– in fact, he recently published a book about it! He started his career at LACTC, just before the merger. These are his recollections. 

By James Rojas

In the early 1920s my great grandparents arrived in Los Angeles from El Paso, settling near El Pueblo in the city’s old core. For them, the streetcars were lifelines –– connecting them and their eleven children to jobs, beaches, and entertainment. Eventually the family purchased a home on Gless Street in Boyle Heights, which was served by the R Car on Whittier Blvd and the P Car on 1st Street. My grandmother used to pack lunches for my mother and her sister so they could ride the Red Cars to Long Beach. She also used to take streetcars to the Sawtelle Veterans Home (which later became the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center) with her father, who played the cello in an orchestra for the veterans.

Rojas’ great grandfather, pictured at the far left, played in an orchestra for veterans at the Sawtelle Veterans Home.

Even as my mothers’ siblings moved to the far-off suburbs, she insisted that we live near bus lines and learned how to ride by ourselves when we turned 12 years old. For our family it became a rite of passage.

By the time I became of age in LA in the mid-seventies, riding the bus was no longer an option. I was starting to discover the gay nightclubs in West Hollywood, and the buses were designed primarily for nine-to-five weekday commutes. I got my license at sixteen and started driving, learning the freeways and maneuvering through traffic. At first it was exciting … then it became a drag. I needed a change. In 1982, I joined the army and was stationed near Heidelberg in Germany, which still had a streetcar system. They looked a lot like the ones in LA that had created so much family lore.

This experience had a huge impact on my career. It motivated me to study urban planning at MIT.

When I finished school and returned to LA in 1991, I knew I wanted to work in transportation. The car was king in LA, and I missed the pedestrian culture I experienced in Europe. The big transportation agency in town was the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD), which dealt with buses exclusively. It was the successor to a decades-old public transit system that had been crippled by urban growth patterns: more cars, more left-hand turn lanes, and ever-widening streets. While RTD did provide great bus service, getting to buses was difficult, and waiting for them had become a miserable experience. The agency couldn’t change the streets, let alone the region’s urban design. (I also applied to RTD, but was never called back.)

While SCRTD didn’t own any land and was restricted to running bus service on existing streets, LACTC was focused on rail planning and had acquired many miles of LA County rail right-of-way. This meant that they were no longer thinking about getting people from point A to B on existing streets but instead hoping to reshape urban growth and development using transit.

LACTC headquarters occupied six floors of the historic Renaissance-style Barker Brothers building at 818 7th Street. Rojas knew the building quite well – it used to house his gym!

I found like-minded people at LACTC. The staff was relatively young, highly motivated, and shared a vision for transforming transportation in Southern California by building light rail. They practiced what they preached –– riding buses, carpooling, biking, or walking whenever they could. They worked long hours like my old MIT classmates because they loved what they were doing. The corridors buzzed with activity. My LACTC colleagues weren’t traditional transportation planning or engineering types but came from a variety of backgrounds: architects, urban planners, financial specialists, graphic designers, construction folks, and savvy public relations professionals selling ambitious ideas, such as high-speed rail from Palmdale to LAX through the Sepulveda Pass.

And as a gay Chicano, I found my tribe –– there were a number of LGBTQ staff who were out and thriving.

The most significant aspect of my tenure at LACTC was the looming merger with RTD, which would create a new agency altogether. The goal was to bring together the everyday needs of RTD riders with the aspirations of future riders through LACTC. RTD understood what LA’s bus riders wanted. LACTC brought new mobility ideas. There’d be many benefits: scrapping duplicate work, reducing costs, creating new funding streams: all a net gain for mobility in LA County.

Rojas at his farewell lunch at LACTC

But it wasn’t easy. The two cultures couldn’t be more different. LACTC was fairly young, lean, and aggressive in maneuvering LA’s pro-car political landscape. RTD was an old agency filled with long-term personnel, rooted in a still older agency focused on running bus service for commuters.

The merger that created Metro –– officially known as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) –– was much like the Hatfield-McCoy feud, with each side defining their positions. There was a bit of tit for tat.

Joint RTD and Metro card

I left LACTC in 1993 to join the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, when the dust was still settling from the mergers. When I came back to work at the new Metro in 1997, so much had changed. There was a new gleaming tower rising out of Union Station, which brought staff from both former agencies together in one physical space. Inside, whispers of the merger still lingered in the hallways and elevators. But staff had found common ground in the new office tower. The grand marble entrance, the building artwork, the cafeteria, and the sweeping LA views lifted the spirts of employees like me.

The new Metro headquarters brought staff from two very different agencies under one vision.

Moreover, Metro had a unique, multi-disciplinary approach to mobility that was more comprehensive and holistic than just bus and rail. And the presence of things like an art program provided an experiential point of view that was quite different from other transit agencies.

Rojas posing at Paseo Cesar Chavez (1995), one of the LACMTA’s new public artworks, just outside of Union Station. Photo by Pablo Aguilar

By bringing a diverse group of people into one building, their broad range of ideas created something much bigger –– a shared vision to build a cleaner, fairer, and more accessible tomorrow.

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3 replies

  1. Loved the story! I really enjoying learning about the transportation system that I love and depend on and articles from the Source have not only been informative, but put a fabulous human face and personal touch on something that is so vast and complex.

  2. Well well well if it isn’t James Rojas. You’ve come a long way from making good mojitos. Keep up the good work James.