The LA City Council Talks Too Much

The LA City Council and needs to stop talking and start acting on the Wilshire bus rapid transit project.
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While the story of the year, if not the decade, is undoubtedly America Fast Forward, this piece is about the LA City Council and how it needs to stop talking and start acting on the Wilshire bus rapid transit (BRT) project. Maybe next week I will get back to the patriotically named and LA-hatched idea to accelerate transit and other public infrastructure construction projects by better leveraging federal financing and locally approved transportation tax measures like Measure R. But as time is of the essence for the Wilshire BRT, bear with me as I offer some critical observations about the project's endless consideration.

Not that they care, but I am disappointed with the members of the Los Angeles City Council's Transportation Committee. What kind of civic leaders can't see their way to a compromise over one of the most important public transit improvements to come LA's way in years? That was the outcome, or non-outcome, of Wednesday's lengthy hearing on the Wilshire BRT. Instead of a majority of the committee coming together to show their support for the 7.7-mile bus-only lane option, the council members conveniently split themselves down the middle. Two went with the 8.7-mile option, two went with the 7.7-mile option, and lonely Bill Rosendahl held out for the lame 5.4-mile choice. What a cop out by the committee! Even the Bus Riders Union, the group that has long advocated for the 8.7-mile plan, testified at Wednesday's meeting on behalf of the 7.7-mile route. Like others who support the BRT, the Bus Riders Union knows that half a loaf is better than none and that Metro faces a fast-approaching September deadline if it wants the federal dollars it needs to do a pretty good version of the project.

Thankfully, as Damien Newton wrote in Streetsblog Los Angeles about the committee hearing, "If City Councilman Bill Rosendahl is hoping to keep the Wilshire Bus-Only Lanes from coming to the Westside through a City Council vote, he has his work cut out for him."

In a perfect world, I too would have voted for the 8.7-mile option that keeps in the disingenuously carved out stretch of Wilshire through the Condo Canyon. But this is LA, not that imaginary place where Metro gets all the money it needs to build public transit and has to hold a bake sale to add another lane to the freeway. About the gutting of the Condo Canyon from the BRT one doesn't have to live here very long to know that such is transportation politics in Los Angeles.

In a perfect world, we would already have the Subway to the Sea, perhaps obviating the need for a Wilshire BRT. But I digress to another shameful time in LA transit history. Imagine what we could have done for mass transit with the billions of dollars we will now have to spend on the subway extension had we built out the Purple Line back in the late 1990s like we should have. If Winston Churchill were alive today I can hear him saying of LA, "A city that forgets its transit past is doomed to repeat it."

Assuming, all goes well, the full city council will soon vote for the 7.7-mile option. Knowing my neighbors west of the 405, there may still be a lawsuit to stop the BRT, but for all intents and purposes, Wilshire Blvd commuters will eventually get a taste of the benefits of dedicated lane bus rapid transit. In sum, the upcoming council vote is about getting the half a loaf Wilshire commuters deserve by following the lead of the Metro Board, which recently backed the 7.7-mile option. Let's hope the full council shows more vision than the Transportation Committee by unequivocally backing the plan.

Once the Wilshire bus project is finally approved we can all sit down and talk endlessly about what to call this and other good, but glass-is-half-full rapid bus projects. As much as I like to call it one, smarter people than me point out that the Wilshire bus project is just a faster bus rather than a true BRT. More importantly though, America Fast Forward or not, BRTs and wannabe bus rapid transit projects have a big future here in LA and in other cities struggling to meet their public transportation demands with dollars that don't go as far as they used to.

A new report by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) sets the BRT standards and describes the features that the group looks for in ranking various BRT systems around the country. For a quarter century, ITDP has worked with cities around the world helping them develop transportation solutions that improve mobility and the quality of urban life. For sure, the Metro Orange Line experience guides the planning for Wilshire Blvd, but there are many other innovations described in the ITDP report that will help us in our next steps along LA's transit backbone as well as other heavily traveled boulevards with BRT potential.

A city that forgets its transit past is doomed to repeat it. Here's hoping the city council stops talking and does the right thing when it next meets on the Wilshire bus project.

Yours in transit,

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