Money for Mass Transit Is Precious

Every time I see a picture of President Obama at a health care meeting earnestly imploring the public and Congress to give him the win we all need, I can't help feeling nostalgic. As I jones for that more innocent time of possibility when Hope had just taken office and before he'd hitched our wagon to health care, it pains me to think of the lost honeymoon period when anything seemed within reach. Everyone's got their fantasy plan for rebuilding America after eight years of W and if you haven't guessed by now, mine's got to do with mass transit. If I were running for office, my slogan would be "A Train or Bus For Everyone."

What if, instead of shelling out $182 billion for AIG, $45 billion for Citigroup and countless billions more for those other Wall Street saviors of Greece, Iceland, and the US of A, America had invested in itself? What if even a healthy fraction of the US taxpayers' cash went instead into building subways and light rail that move people fast, efficiently, and with far fewer emissions?

A little after 8 this morning I found myself at La Cienega and Jefferson staring up at the new El going up over the intersection. At this stretch of track, LA Metro's new Expo Line will be elevated just like the, um, Loop in Chicago and the 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 trains rumbling overhead in the Bronx. Well actually "just like" is quite a stretch -- and El is still a funny word in Los Angeles, which doesn't really have much other elevated track if you overlook the Gold Line as it skirts Chinatown and crosses over N. Spring Street in front of Homeboy Industries and the Green Line to nowhere.

But on a clear day looking south on La Cienega past the El my mind is racing imagining the possibilities. With the hills of the Hahn State Recreation Area dead ahead pleasantly serene, and looking beautifully lush and green after all the winter rain, I envision Expo destined for greatness like other celebrated urban train lines. Think of Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle huffing and puffing up the stairs to the Expo El platform as he pursues a drug dealer in French Connection III. I have a call in to Billy Friedkin about directing, but he's not getting back to me.

While Expo's coming along and the hills sure look pretty, the current streetscape on La Cienega and Jefferson, not so much. For now it's a ragtag jumble of unattractive storefronts and mini malls like too many other parts of LA. To some extent this will change when Expo opens and the businesses and developers realize the transit-oriented development possibilities. What do they say? "Gentrification Happens." So let's just make sure some building codes are in place and the routes lining the light rail don't become one long billboard worthy of the miscreants who would wallpaper over the whole city with supergraphic ads if they could.

For now, a late-model Starbucks at the corner is pretty much the only sign, apart from the El construction itself, of things to come. But who knows? Will See's Candies, with its headquarters just south of the Expo station-to-be on La Cienega, soon be joined on the block by Old Navy, Pottery Barn and the Apple Store?

In all likelihood, not so fast. But Starbucks isn't stupid. They see the writing on the subway wall and know that their corner location across from the station will be where every third Expo-bound rider stops before boarding the train to downtown LA, Culver City and (ultimately) Santa Monica.

With our sight lines out the train windows preserved by LA's aggressive City Attorney, I hope Metro is planning to tout the views from the elevated stretch of Expo in its promotional campaign. Once it opens with its bird's eye views of the LA basin framed by the rugged mountains, Expo should offer stiff competition to New York's Number 7 train's close up of midtown Manhattan as the El crawls noisily north through Queens.

If the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau can sell us all on an old billboard for Hollywoodland, the least they can do for Metro and the City is get a good percentage of the millions of tourist who come to our fair city to shell out $5 apiece for a Metro day pass that leaves the driving to someone who isn't texting or talking on their cell.

It's my guess though that many tourists are already better educated about LA's good/excellent public transit options from the Bureau's well-done Los Angeles Public Transit page than the hundreds of thousands or millions of Angelenos who have never ridden Metro and can't even tell you the fare.

Still, I can't help but be sad about what might have been. What if, a year ago instead of pushing health care, President Hope had focused on restoring the country's confidence in America by rebuilding the economy through an unprecedented investment in mass transit and other long-neglected infrastructure projects?

Let it go, you say. Just accept that Hope didn't take that track and that the infrastructure train has left the station. The beauty though of support for urban mass transit is that it's never too late to get on board. With cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Charlotte and Phoenix building or expanding their mass transit systems, large and small city residents and civic leaders alike from across the country have come to recognize they need these projects to move beyond the traffic gridlock and to jump start or keep moving the local economy.

O, are you listening? There's the independent base if there ever was one.

The Expo Line and the new Gold Line to East LA are great backdrops against which to hold the next Presidential press conference. So I'm shouting out to President Obama, imploring him to accept this invitation to come to LA and grab a latte or café con leche and churros before climbing a train platform that may even remind him of the El at Wrigley Field if he uses his powerful imagination. Just don't eat or drink on our trains.

With Mayor Villaraigosa back this week at the circus known as Washington, let's hope he's walking the walk by riding the DC Metro from Reagan National Airport to his appointments on the Hill. What I would give to read about that in tomorrow's paper rather than another story about the sexual proclivities of retired New York Congressman Eric Massa and California State Senator Roy Ashburn, the flying Toyota Prius or what Howard Stern thinks about Gabourey Sidibe's future acting career.

Even if Villaraigosa's not taking the train, may the gods be with him, and may he come home with the support Los Angeles needs to keep on building our way to a better transit and economic future. Now that would be Precious.