Angelenos for Public Transportation

When the history of public transportation in LA is written, an event held on Sunday will be remembered as critical. That is the day that a diverse group of Angelenos gathered at Tom Safran's Brentwood home to learn about and get involved in the campaign to build thirty years of public transportation within a decade.

Of course this wasn't the first meeting of its kind. But what made Sunday different is the fact that this event reached beyond the usual suspects. Sure, there were transportation advocates and contractors on hand who are already benefiting, or stand to benefit, from the construction, and elected officials and candidates, but there were also dozens of attendees who have never ridden Metro or have not ridden a bus or train in LA in years.

Most of all though I hope there were some smart bankers, public and private pension fund managers, and sovereign wealth advisors at the event. Because that is what this baby is missing, a meaningful parallel push to privately fund the $13 billion to $14 billion in infrastructure financing that Metro needs to build out the twelve critical public transportation projects it has identified as overdue. These include the Wilshire Subway to Santa Monica (not just to Westwood or the VA), a line along the Westside that will move people quickly from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside and South Bay, the Crenshaw light rail line and the downtown regional connector.

We can write all the letters and blogs, and hold all the feel-good rallies we want but with Washington plagued by a partisan malaise the likes of which this country has never seen, I have come to recognize that getting the Congressional seal of approval that 30/10 needs to get started building may not be realistic.

So here's what I propose happen today, not tomorrow. Metro should start meeting with Wall Street, the union and public pension fund managers, and the sovereign wealth advisors to hammer out a plan for privately financing the needed construction. For me, one of the most disappointing things about American unions since they put up the money to build Las Vegas is their failure to invest in projects like the self-help housing developments the union garment workers, butchers, bakers and others built years ago along Grand Street and in Chelsea in New York City. With billions of dollars to invest at fair returns in projects like 30/10, the unions should be tripping over themselves to fund the subway and other improvements that will hire their members by the tens of thousands. It's time to Buy American and rebuild the country, and practice what you preach. Nor would I turn them away if Warren Buffett, Bill Gates et al. showed up at my door with cash to build a transportation system that will jump start the economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health and make LA a community like never before.

If as USC Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Investment Policy Director Richard Little says, "High speed rail infrastructure investment is the equivalent of bling," then LA's public transportation investment backed by $40 billion in Measure R County voter approved tax revenue is a lot more than eye candy to a smart investment firm willing to finance one of America's most important projects.

As for the event, which I organized for transportation coalition Move LA, it is really no mistake that it was hosted by Tom Safran. As a successful affordable housing developer, Tom has long been one of the city's civic champions, perhaps best known on the Westside for his support of the local public schools and for planting hundreds of trees and beautifying San Vicente Blvd. His developments are standouts in part because they tend to be greener with foliage, and lately otherwise as well, than any of the surrounding properties. His home is regularly the setting for political fundraisers and powwows like this about critical civic issues.

Billed as an informational brunch, the event was much more than I anticipated. As the number of confirmed attendees grew each week in advance of the big day I saw how this issue was capturing the attention of Angelenos ready for an alternative to sitting alone in their cars on the freeway. By the weekend I had over 100 confirmed, and many tentatives for an event on a day of the week that is for most their day of rest.

By the time things kicked off with Tom talking about his association with the issue and relating an old conversation he had had with the Mayor about wanting to ride the Wilshire Subway from near his home to downtown within his lifetime, the big lawn was filled. And the guests, who ranged from fresh from church parishioners in their Sunday best to young parents in flip-flops with toddlers in tow, were eager to hear from the host and the speakers about what is happening with 30/10 and what they can do to help convince Washington that this is a sensible and cost-effective infrastructure financing model for rebuilding both urban and rural America. After Tom it was Move LA Board Chair Marlene Grossman, Congresswoman Jane Harman, City Controller Wendy Greuel, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, LA City Councilman Paul Koretz and others. Special kudos to Koretz for asking the hard questions, what's the strategy and what can we do to help? And to Streetsblog's Carter Rubin for zeroing in on this in what was otherwise a 30/10 lovefest. Assembly candidate Betsy Butler was also there to show her support.

With each speaker the energy at the event rose, so that by the time it ended it felt as though we had a movement already much greater than the fledgling business, civic, environmental and labor coalition that Move LA has been.

So where do we go from here to capitalize on the energy that the event generated? And how do we build a great movement to bestow on LA a true public transportation system?

In addition to developing a private financing model for this today, we need to broaden and deepen the coalition to include the support of every imaginable sort of group and association. We need more K-12 and college students engaged in this issue in the UCLA Bruins for Traffic Relief model, and we need expressions of support and organized, coordinated advocacy from homeowners associations, business owners, lawyers, doctors, dentists, clergy, the creative community, baristas and software engineers. We need LA plastered with publicity about 30/10 and Metro's expansion plans and we need the media filled with stories about how we are pulling together to make this a more public transportation-oriented city. And we need more Angelenos riding Metro's buses and trains and fewer making excuses that it doesn't go where they want to go, is dirty and slow, and isn't convenient. If you can ride the subway when visiting New York, Chicago, London or Paris then you can ride Metro here. And who knows? Maybe you'll see that it often gets you there faster and for a lot less cash than it costs to drive. Or if that's not your experience, then hopefully you will come away all the more inspired to help make LA an even better city for public transportation.

This morning I woke up to an email I wish I received every day. It reads,

The program today was extraordinary. I did not understand the funding solution from Measure R before today, and now I understand what the program is about. I wholeheartedly endorse those efforts, I will mail in a contribution, and I would love to affiliate my name with any petitions you put together. The presentation today was very, very impressive. I am also attaching my logo if it would serve any purpose. Thanks so much. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.

I wrote back immediately that I will reply soon with concrete next steps and things everyone can do to help. And in the interim, I added, please spread the word.

Yours in transit,
Joel