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Slow Train to Los Angeles: Book Review of 'Railtown'

Josh Stephens on
Mar 11, 2014

Had it been written about, say, Shanghai or Dubai, Railtown would have been scarcely longer than a page. Autocracies have a knack for infrastructure development. Democracies, especially where nearly 100 cities and other jurisdictions have to get along with each other, are another matter. 

RailtownAuthor Ethan Elkind's 227 pages therefore seem almost too few to tell the four-decade, $10-plus billion (and counting) saga of the build-out of Los Angeles County's subway, light rail, and bus rapid transit network. The system currently measures 88 miles, with a dozen or so extensions and new projects in the works. 

The counting will go on at least until the year 2039. That's 66 years since Tom Bradley, then a candidate for mayor, promised that the city would break ground on its first subway, beneath the busy Wilshire Boulevard corridor, within 18 months of his election.

Needless to say, that didn't happen. But Elkind, a professor of law at UCLA, still gives Bradley credit for inspiring Los Angeles to dream of rail. He was, according to Elkind, the first major civic leader to seriously challenge the notion that Los Angeles was too dense, too diffident, and too "in love" with its cars to ever embrace rail transit. 

In telling the tale of the build-out of Bradley's envisioned system, Elkind could have gone down many spur tracks, into grand discussions of the feasibility of rail and lofty, ongoing debates about quality of life, cosmopolitanism, public subsidies, and transportation economics. He does not. Instead, he tells a straightforward, well researched story -- with little embellishment or dramatic flair -- not about the politics of rail writ large but rather about the specific political process that birthed, delayed, and, eventually, gave rise to today's system.

Elkind's neutrality seems especially appropriate given that the system itself is still under development. It will surely take a few more decades' worth of ridership statistics, traffic counts, and real estate development to render a verdict. What the rail riders of the future would never know is the toil that went into their ride from, say, Santa Monica to Ontario.

That ride started with Bradley's halting campaign to win voter approval for the subway. His initial transit-funding measure failed in part because it promised that transit would be developed along broad corridors but did not refer to specific projects. 

An alternative measure, devised for the November 1980 ballot by County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and promoted by fellow supervisor and rail enthusiast Baxter Ward, included an innovation that Elkind says was crucial: that of allocating a certain percentage of bond funds for "local projects" to every locality in the county. This way, even people with Joshua trees in their backyards had reason to support an urban subway. 

From that measure right up to 2008's (successful) Measure R and 2012's (unsuccessful) Measure J, transit funding has usually entailed compromise between the City of Los Angeles and the rest of the county. The former has the density, but the latter has the money. With only 40% of the county's population, the city must always find ways to please its neighbors.

That 1980 measure passed, providing funding for the subway's initial segment, with development to be overseen jointly by the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. But the vote of every person in Palmdale, Lancaster, and Santa Clarita -- and every other city in the county -- was no match for that of one man: U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman. 

With the subway's 1986 groundbreaking still a year away, a methane explosion erupted from the basement of a Ross clothing store along the proposed subway route. Citing concerns about safety, Waxman used his clout in Congress to ban the use of federal funds in the corridor.

Elkind's account reads like a who's who of power brokers in Los Angeles, many of whom he interviewed for his book. In nearly every case, Elkind casts neither heroes nor villains. Waxman is the only one whom Elkind portrays as truly disingenuous. 

Elkind invokes the common wisdom�the product of much unproven speculation�that Waxman wasn't nearly as concerned about tunneling safety as he was about the political clout of wealthy mid-city residents who didn't want undesirables to rise up from beneath their streets. Elkind notes that engineers considered the route safe for tunneling and that Waxman's ban did not include other alignments considered by engineers to be more dangerous. 

With the Wilshire tunneling ban in place, the system staggered forward for the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s and 2000s. Each proposed subway segment and light line prompted bickering, compromise, and regret.

The L.A.-Long Beach Blue Line went over budget and ticked off car dealers in Long Beach. The methane-free subway route got changed so many times, it might as well have been designed on an Etch-a-Sketch; one route was called the "broken leg" for doubling back on itself en route from Mid-Wilshire to North Hollywood. Meanwhile, construction sites on the initial segments variously caught fire, caved in, and flooded. 

The Green Line lost its transit center at its eastern terminus and, when the aerospace industry tanked, it lost many of its riders at its western terminus. The land for the Expo Line almost didn't get purchased, and the Pasadena Gold Line's trains ran too slowly. The Orange Line got turned into a bus, and the SCRTD and LACTC got turned into Metro, the uber-agency that oversees both highways and the majority of public transportation in the county.

Then there was the consent decree. 

The buses of Metro/RTD were getting increasingly crowded in the early 1990s. A group of activists that became known as the Bus Riders Union took note of this development and declared it "transit racism." 

Whether or not Metro had been neglecting minority and low-income riders deliberately, the BRU � led by Eric Mann -- sued over alleged discrimination. Federal Judge Terry Hatter imposed the "consent decree," which limited rate hikes, mandated the purchase of hundreds of new buses, and restricted the use of agency funds for rail investments. Fairly or unfairly, BRU has long insisted that rail serves middle class white commuters rather than transit-dependent minorities.  

Anyone at RTD/Metro would likely have choice words for Mann and the BRU. The organization has relentlessly antagonized the agency and never backed down from its accusations. Elkind treats even them with an even hand. 

In 2006, ten years after its imposition, Judge Hatter lifted the consent decree. A few years later, Waxman, citing improved tunneling technologies, pushed through a reversal of the tunneling ban. Measure R, the 30-year, $30 billion sales tax measure, passed in 2008. New projects, such as the Crenshaw Line, have recently broken ground. Before long, nearly every resident of Los Angeles will have easy access to a train. It is indeed becoming a rail town. 

Elkind offers few surprises for anyone who has lived in Los Angeles and patiently accepted political dysfunction and gelatinous traffic. But, then again, that may be his point: Angelenos have lived through a ridiculous era, which has been so protracted that no one even notices how ridiculous it has been. Los Angeles took decades and tens of billions of dollars to build much the same system that Bradley first proposed. 

Nearly every major city in the world relies on systems that Los Angeles can still only dream of. In some places, those systems are mature and grew up when the technology was still young. Opening its first line two years after Los Angeles did, Shanghai has built 334 miles of subway in 21 years. Dubai did 45 miles in six years.

Elkind does not make these comparisons, stark as they may be. Nor does he speculate on whether rail in L.A. has been a failure of democracy or a triumph. That debate will continue. Railtown is more of an archive than a revelation.

The story makes for hard driving, but essential reading. 

Railtown: The Fight for the Future of the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City
Ethan N. Elkind
University of California Press
2014
$29.95

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