January 30, 1990 - From the January, 1990 issue

Light Rail on Santa Monica Right-of-Way: A Point/Counterpoint

While the Los Angeles County Transportation builds its first light rail line, from Long  Beach to downtown L.A., there has been much debate about future purchases of the right-of-way properties owned by Southern Pacific Railroad Co. One particular branch, the Santa Monica Branch along Exposition Boulevard, stretches from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. The Planning Report recently asked Mayor Dennis Zane of Santa Monica and Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky to respond to some of the most pressing questions in the debate.


Yaroslavsky: Why should we invest scarce public dollars in a low-density corridor?"

Should governmental entities invest in the Santa Monica Branch right-of-way?

ZANE: Yes. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the lead agency for transportation in the Los Angeles County, should invest in the branch right-of-way which runs from Downtown L.A. to Santa Monica. LACTC has an opportunity to put existing resources to work to help resolve a regional crisis. An investment in the Santa Monica branch right-of-way will help to alleviate congestion. This transportation corridor runs parallel to one of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles, Santa Monica Freeway I-10, which carries over 320,000 cars per day, and connects two major cities - Los Angeles and Santa Monica - and residents in between. Moreover, this right-of-way is the last contiguous line corridor capable of servicing our transportation needs in a variety of ways. Should we decide not to purchase this right-of-way, it will be sold piecemeal to developers.

YAROSLAVSKY: The Southern California region should not let slip the opportunity to buy ready-made transportation corridors if–and only if—those corridors will serve the region’s transportation needs. The Exposition Boulevard corridor does not meet the West Los Angeles community’s need for transit services. Therefore, the right-of-way should not be purchased in a way that requires its use for rail.

If other sources for funding are available, it would be a plus for the public to own it this right-of-way. However, given the tremendous desire for more government spending on police, health, the environment, and other critical needs, it seems doubtful that tax dollars can be found for this.

If so, who should buy the right-of-way and how should the purchase be funded?

ZANE: LACTC officials have an opportunity to correct a grievous transportation mistake made some thirty years ago when City officials abandoned a network of rail systems which LACTC ran throughout our region. An investment made by LACTC – with OUR Proposition A funds – will provide a reliable regional system of transportation for thousands of residents each day. Proposition A funds, a half-cent sales tax voted for in 1980, are available through LACTC.

Although not ideal, should more funds be necessary, the cities of Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica each have Proposition A funds available to contribute to their portion of the right-of-way. Also, additional funds may be made available through State coffers.

YAROSLAVSKY: If non-transportation sources of funding are available, it would be a plus for the public to sources own this right-of-way. However, given the tremendous desire for more government spending on police, health, the environment, and other critical needs, it seems doubtful that tax dollars can be found for this.

The LACTC has yet to show that it can finance the purchase of this right-of-way within existing funds. LACTC does not have enough Proposition A rail dollars to buy this and other rights-of-way now offered for sale by Southern Pacific, let alone to actually build rail on them. In fact, LACTC doesn’t have enough money to build its current rail transit program, let alone the Exposition line. Voter approval for rail bonds or additional sales taxes would be necessary to raise the needed funds.

What should be the appropriate uses for the right-of-way, if purchased?

ZANE: The most appropriate use for this right-of-way should be one which will significantly contribute to easing congestion and taking cars off the highway. The right-of-way could be used for a Light Rail Vehicle line, a High Occupancy Vehicle lane, or a busway; all of which could be used in conjunction with a greenbelt and/or bike path. Given SCAG report estimates of highway speeds decreasing to 19mph and freeway speeds dipping to 24 mph by the year 2010,we need to employ a proven system of transportation, such as light rail, in conjunction with other systems regionally to ease congestion.

YAROSLAVSKY: If public agencies were to buy this right-of-way, it could be used very beneficially for recreation purposes. It could be developed in whole or in part as a bikeway, jogging/hiking path (though not in conjunction with light rail—the right-of-way isn’t wide enough), or even as public parks.

However, none of those who support the purchase are seriously considering anything but rail along this line. There is only one purpose to buying the right-of-way; to build rail on it. The tremendous lobbying campaign being mounted by Southern Pacific and real estate interests, ostensibly to achieve purchase of the right-of-way only, is in fact aimed at construction of light rail.

Do the existing population and employment patterns justify light rail along the right-of-way?

ZANE: Yes. Any Downtown-to-Westside commuter (or vice versa) knows that this is a heavily-congested corridor, not a decentralized suburb, and that densities are increasing. The line is anchored at both ends by major employment concentrations and would provide needed mobility and access to jobs for thousands of residents.

Additionally, this right-of-way would provide access to USC, Coliseum/Museum Park, medical services, beaches and cultural centers and would hook up with MetroRail downtown and the Long Beach line opening 1990. A report conducted by Aldaron Inc. projects daily ridership to exceed 62,000 riders by the year 2000 (19.1 million riders per year).

YAROSLAVSKY: Absolutely not. Everyone knows that rail transit in Los Angeles ought to run straight out Wilshire from downtown to the beach. That’s where the people live, that’s where the jobs are, that’s where the stores are, that’s where the density is. To avoid the methane gas zone, it may be necessary to serve West Los Angeles by coming down Santa Monica Boulevard from Hollywood. This, too, makes sense; it would serve an area that is very densely developed.

But the Exposition right-of-way runs primarily through low-density industrial and residential neighborhoods. Even the City of Santa Monica study admits that more density would have to be built on Exposition to justify the huge public investment a rail system there would represent. USC on one end and Santa Monica on the other don’t even begin to compete with the density represented by West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood.

There won’t be enough money in our children's lifetimes - or in our grandchildren's - to build two east-west lines in the regional core. If we’re only going to build one line, let’s build it righ. Rail belongs in the Wilshire Corridor.

What type of land-uses would you optimally want along the right-of-way?

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ZANE: The right-of-way runs through three cities which allow for different land uses. Without disturbing current zoning, the right-of-way would allow for a transportation corridor. Neighborhoods differ on what type of land uses adjacent parcels could be allowed. At current, single-family housing, light commercial and light industrial all co-exist along the right-of-way. At some point, residents along the right-of-way may find desirous a land-use which could provide a service to the immediate area, but such changes should occur neighborhood by neighborhood and adhere to current zoning.

YAROSLAVSKY: In the residential areas of Rancho Park and Cheviot Hills, zoning along the right-of-way reflects the adjacent residential uses.

Elsewhere, the land is now developed for low-density commercial and industrial uses. Light rail here would dramatically increase development pressures. Why should we invest scarce public dollars as rail along a low density corridor, when the already-developed Corridor has no rail?

If a transit line is not built for several years, what temporary uses do you suggest for this land?

ZANE: Studies conducted estimate a light rail vehicle line could be built by the year 2000, or sooner, if decisions are made relatively soon. The right-of-way, in its current state, may not be suitable to provide any temporary use alternatives compatible with adjacent neighborhoods. However, once incorporated into a plan, sections of the right-of-way could be developed to include a greenbelt or bike path while other sections of the right-of-way are under construction.

YAROSLAVSKY: Once again, if the right-of-way were purchased, it could easily be developed for alternative uses such as bikeways, paths, or public parks.

What are the costs of not purchasing the right-of-way?

ZANE: There are significant costs associated with not purchasing the right-of-way. Most importantly, we would forever lose the opportunity to utilize this ideal corridor for a much needed transportation system. To purchase a similar corridor would be cost prohibitive, not to mention the difficulties with acquiring properties under eminent domain. From an environmental standpoint, we will continue to emit automobile contaminants into the air without an alternative to driving.

Our city has been out of compliance with AQMD guidelines for years, due largely to our excessive use of automobiles and our lack of reliable, environmentally efficient transportation. Our health, lost productivity at work and in our free time our costs associated with not purchasing the right-of-way - costs which none of us can afford.

YAROSLAVSKY: The Los Angeles region loses very little by choosing not to buy the right of way at this time. The right of way is worth far more to Southern Pacific if sold intact than if sold piecemeal. Although Southern Pacific has mounted a major lobbying campaign around this sale, and although they will push very hard for an early decision by the Transportation Commission, I believe the only one to benefit from such a rush would be the railroad company itself.

This debate is not about the merits of purchasing a strip of land. There is only one purpose to buying the right-of-way: to build rail on it. Surface light rail in residential areas is not environmentally sound. Surface light rail disrupts cross traffic; the cost of “mitigation” is enormous and would quickly erode the savings advantage of a surface line.

This rail line is not supported by existing or planned development along the Exposition Corridor. If we are only going to have one rail line running east-west through the central part of our City, that line ought to run where the people are, along Wilshire or Santa Monica Boulevards.

What examples of light rail or mass transit from other cities support your points?

ZANE: West-coast light rail cities include San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Portland and Vancouver. San Diego’s light rail system, for example, has a growing ridership which pays for 90% of its operating costs from fares. Light rail has been such a major success in San Diego - because riders find it to be a quiet, clean and safe ride - that those residents have demanded even more lines.

The city of San Francisco employs a combination of heavy and light rail to move residents and visitors in and around the city. In Sacramento, because the light rail line is so quiet, operators had to install a recording of a train to use periodically as the light rail vehicle travels through a pedestrian mall. Throughout the U.S. many cities use light rail as a primary or ancillary system of transportation. Other cities like Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia or Chicago rely heavily on their various light rail systems and the cities would be paralyzed without them.

YAROSLAVSKY: The Los Angeles region is building a rail system that will serve us for a hundred years or more. As in the case of every U. S. city that has begun a modern rail system within the last two decades, we have critical choices before us, and it’s important that we make the right decisions.

Will we build the system that serves the greatest ridership? Or will we build the system that will have to create its own riders? Will we build rail where rail makes sense, or will we build where it is the easiest?

And finally, will we build the system that makes sense for the railroad? Or the system that makes sense for us? I believe the choice is clear.

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