The Westside Subway: Welcome Back, Epstein

Welcome, back. And I smile when I think how it must have been. Well, I know what a scene you were learning in. Was there something that made you come back again?
--John Sebastian

Joel Epstein. You've done it again. I'm not quite sure how I should react to your "Dear John" letter. In fact, it's the first "Dear John" letter I've ever gotten (though, admittedly, I have been dumped in person, on the phone, on Facebook, via fortune cookie and by SMS). Of course, since we've never met, you weren't really "dumping" me, though it seems you may have been dumping on my HuffPost piece "Constellation Is the Wrong Choice for the Westside Extension Century City Station."

No matter.

You do give me props for making you a household name with your kids, and if nothing else, I can take pride in that accomplishment. We may not agree on the Century City subway station, but at least we can agree that "Daddy Cool" should be more than catchy Eurodisco.

Perhaps that's also a reason why I should take the occasion to try to gain some currency with my own tyke by introducing him to the TV Classics of the '70's; in fact, he's one of the proud and the few who actually may stand to benefit most from the subway (though I'm sure he would appreciate it if Metro would be so kind as to add a Dodger Stadium station sometime in the near future).

We'll come back to the sweathogs in a little bit, but let's see how much I really should take my first "Dear John" letter to heart.

To recap: my disagreement with Epstein is about the placement of the Century City station of the Westside Extension - the so-called "subway to the sea" though we shall see if it ever sees the sea. Epstein wants the Century City subway station to be located at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars. I - along with almost the entire Beverly Hills Community - want the alignment to conform to the route that Metro has been proposing for the longest time, which would mean a station along Santa Monica Blvd. and which would save the taxpayers an estimated $55 million (and possibly a lot more, considering potential cost overruns).

Epstein has been nothing if not tireless in cutting and pasting from his original HuffPost piece, bits of which have resurfaced in, among other publications, our local Beverly Hills newspapers, the Courier and the Weekly. In his more recent "Dear John" letter, he basically retreads his arguments for the Constellation alignment with the addition of attempts to rebut some of my points.

Mind you, the Constellation station that Epstein is so fervently in favor of is exactly one block from the Santa Monica station that had been planned by Metro for the better part of a decade. The big difference, of course, is that the Constellation alignment would involve tunneling under our City's only High School, while the Santa Monica alignment would involve tunneling under the public right of way. Yes, the block between Santa Monica and Constellation is a long block, but it's not much longer than any number of cross-town New York City blocks or even some downtown LA blocks. And of course, by the time the escalator hits the street, we're talking about a distance that is less than the entire block - not to mention the fact that a number of Century City's attractions are on Santa Monica itself.

In his initial article, Epstein somehow thinks it makes sense to compare this less-than-a-block difference to the Green Line fiasco; you know, when the master planners forgot to extend that line all the way to LAX. Adding to the alarm, in his "Dear John" letter, Epstein seriously suggests that a Santa Monica station would somehow endanger "the economic health of the region" and suggests that, standing in the way of this "economic health," I would have to be slapped with the label "provincial."

In this case, I guess the "provincial" label is better than being told "Up your nose with a rubber hose"; on the other hand, if "provincial" means resisting being steamrolled by Big Government, just call me Bubba.

But if Epstein really wants to have a larger discussion about "the economic health of the region," then we should all start by talking about how the piecemeal approach to development and pocketbook planning in the LA region, where developers and special interests have long been given the run of the city, have negatively affected the entire region. And, no, the subway isn't the silver bullet that's going to fix decades of lack of vision or sensibly integrated community development.

And when Epstein argues that Beverly Hills should support a more intrusive, more expensive subway route as the best "regional approach," I'd like to know where Epstein was when Los Angeles approved a 50 story skyscraper directly contiguous to our high school? Is that the sort of "regional respect" that should cause Beverly Hills to ask "How high?" when Metro says: "Jump"?

In fact, Beverly Hills is being eminently regionally responsible - a lot more so than the LA planners generally have been towards Beverly Hills - by limiting development-run-amok in general and by supporting two subway stations in Beverly Hills along with the original subway alignment with a station on Santa Monica Blvd. and Avenue of the Stars. To suggest that it is vitally important to locate a Century City station "in the heart of Century City" seems a smidgen less vital when one considers that Century City is all of four square blocks. To suggest that the less-than-a-block distance between stations is going to "hamper the entire region economically" is simply nonsensical.

Furthermore, on what basis are these alarmist claims being made that seem to suggest the entire success of the Westside subway extension is predicated on moving a station one block at the cost of over $55 million? Again, none of this makes any sense.

The DEIR certainly doesn't suggest this and I doubt that anybody could create any reliable studies that could make this point, notwithstanding speculative computer travel demand models which leave more questions unanswered than they answer. Clearly, all the ruckus comes down to the general "feeling" that a station in the "heart" of Century City would be a boon for ridership, if not the backroom nudging of special interests and Century City developers. This reasoning falters when taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. And Metro's ridership studies in determining station feasibility have looked at a half-mile radius in determining ridership. The claims that ridership would seriously suffer by locating a subway station less than a block away in Century City can simply not be substantiated.

And how many additional riders would Metro need to cover the extra $55 million? At three bucks a pop, that'd be some 17 million additional riders that Metro would need to break even. Where are they all going to come from, or are the two words "fiscally" and "responsible" by their very nature mutually exclusive when it comes to big government public works projects?

While by no reasonable standards would maintaining the Santa Monica alignment create "the block that broke the camel's back" on the overall success of the subway, it is extremely telling that Epstein and his cohorts are unconcerned that -- as I pointed out -- the so-called UCLA/Westwood station is much further away from UCLA and not even in the "heart" of Westwood Village. Epstein's only addresses this by suggesting that his original piece was about Century City, not Westwood -- and not Torrance, Artesia or Claremont.

Wait a minute, isn't the larger gist of Epstein's musings a discussion of the best route for the entire Westside extension? Why would he limit himself to Century City, especially when there are larger issues one stop west at the UCLA/Westwood station, the very next station after Century City? In fact, one of my main points was the gaping double standard about what is important when it comes to discussing the location of subway stations, and Epstein does not address this at all -- though at least he agrees that tunneling under a cemetery should not stand in the way of finding the best station in Westwood. But tunneling under a cemetery is in fact standing in the way of creating the best station in Westwood and I'm wondering why this is not Epstein-worthy. Why doesn't Move LA do something for UCLA? If Epstein would advocate for a "heart of Westwood" UCLA station with even half the vehemence he advocates for Constellation, he could perhaps allow Metro to better serve the eponymous public institution that seems worthy of a station name, but not, perhaps, worthy of a convenient subway station.

While I don't pretend to understand why the discrepancy in standards between Westwood and Century City apparently doesn't bother Epstein, Epstein suggests that I "don't understand his work." He likens himself to Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. In Annie Hall, a pseudo-intellectual tries to impress friends by quoting and interpreting McLuhan. Sorry, Joel, far from being any kind of intellectual, pseudo- or otherwise, I certainly wasn't trying to impress anyone by citing your pro-Constellation position, nor was I trying to interpret your work: I was simply refuting "arguments" that still don't seem to make much sense to me -- but, then again, it's just me, Bubba, a simple, provincial country boy.

On the other hand, perhaps it is Epstein who doesn't completely understand my points. OK, having been the recipient of his "Dear John" letter I can say with the greatest integrity: "It's not you; it's me." So let me clarify. My support for the Santa Monica alignment is not simply based on an argument as facile as "it's all about the kids." As Epstein, notes, I am a strong proponent of local control and I feel the locally preferred alternative should be respected and can be respected without impeding the overall success of the subway.

As mentioned, the Santa Monica route is projected to be at least $55 million less expensive than the Constellation route. Santa Monica is a major thoroughfare which will not otherwise be served by the subway. The Santa Monica route is the logical choice as a transit hub for connector buses to and from West Hollywood, Santa Monica and South Westwood and other areas which are not served by the subway. As sexy as it may seem, one subway line does not an integrated transit system make, and we would do well to snap out of the trance. The Santa Monica route is Beverly Hills's locally preferred alternative and it is the least intrusive option. I understand that with the TSA's recent initiatives, "least intrusive" may not be the latest big government buzzword, but in my opinion "least intrusive" should be, wherever practicable, a guiding principle within all levels of democracy.

In supporting the least intrusive, least expensive viable route through my City, I believe that I am taking a position with broader implications which, yes, can and should also apply to future stations in Torrance, Artesia, Claremont and points beyond. Let the transit authorities always respect local control wherever they tunnel, dig or bisect; let them always respect the viable locally preferred alternatives. In fact, the way I understood it, that's why Metro was having all the community meetings: in order to take stock of and incorporate the locally preferred alternatives into their overall plans. What good is all the "transparency" Epstein vaunts if all Metro's local "outreach" meetings are really just for show? "Well, we may not have listened to you, but at least we had meetings." This is the slo-mo "blow off" I referred to previously.

Pardon my bit of skepticism when it comes to accepting big governmental authorities as infallible. I appreciate all that Metro does and has done to deal with an abysmal starting position and in trying, after the fact, to create some kind of workable transit infrastructure in the region. But I simply can't bring myself to take the "My Metro right or wrong" position espoused by Epstein and others. Yes, I'll admit it: tunneling under a school may turn out to be perfectly safe, something that, only time will actually tell. No doubt, the EIR is going to claim it's as safe as building a house, sweeping a street or riding a bike. Unfortunately, in their latter-day usages EIR's in general seem to be like collective notes from Epstein's mother (that'd be Juan Luis Petro Philippo DeHuevos Epstein of sweathog fame, not Joel) in justifying almost anything. To those of little faith, I've heard that EIR is supposedly an acronym for "Everything is relative," but perhaps it's really an acronym for "Epstein is right."

That's a bit of the problem with EIR's and all the other self-serving notes from Epstein's mother that have become a standard part of the process of trying to rationalize and justify just about any kind of construction or public works project. No doubt, you could also probably find a stack of EIR's that say nuclear power plants are safer than subway tunnels under schools, and, yet, despite our need for renewable energy sources, I don't know that I'd feel comfortable with a nuclear power plant next to our high school. In an inversion of Gretzkian logic, the only way to ensure that nothing can and will happen is to take a less intrusive route. If such a route doesn't exist, well, then there may not be a choice. But in this case, such a route does exist and that route will ultimately serve Century City and the surrounding areas with better transit connections in addition to saving the taxpayers a conservative $55 million. Metro may have matured, as Epstein suggests, but they are not infallible and they are not Daddy Warbucks.

So in advocating for the Santa Monica alignment, I am trying to do my job as a councilmember and as a member of my Community, which is to be responsive to my Community's concerns, our residents' peace of mind, as well as the region's needs. There is no need or reason for our Community to simply shrug off the bait-and-switch tactics, the inconsistencies in argumentation, or the apparent lack of respect for the locally preferred alternative because a note from Epstein's mother purports to have a lock on the "truth" about what's best for the region.

It is perfectly natural for us to use those tools at our disposal to try to protect our interests, whether those tools be legislative, legal, or grassroots. Or, for that matter, political. With a new Republican majority in the House, it is to be hoped that the legislators who will be deciding whether and how to finance 30-10 will be interested in both fiscal responsibility and respect for local control. It would be a shame if 30-10 were delayed, but in advocating for the least intrusive, least expensive route, with larger transit-oriented benefits, as well as respect for local control, we are indeed advocating for the region's greater good. We hope that the Metro board will accept and understand this, as well, and that we can present a unified front in moving to accelerate construction of a subway we can all support.

Beyond Beverly Hills, we're advocating for an important principle. If we can set an example for other communities to resist being steamrolled and we can also send a message to Big Government bureaucracies that they would do well to listen to the locals, then we will also have helped to make our region a bit more democratic and maybe we will have helped to restore just a little bit of faith in government. Epstein suggests that Metro shouldn't "cave" to objections from the locals, but I say that none of us should have to cave to the pressure of big government which disrespects the principles of local control. Perhaps Metro, Epstein and others will see this and instead of labeling those who disagree with them "obstructionist," finally come to accept that the region is made up of diverse interests and that finding ways to respect the concerns of distinct, local communities within the context of the larger region is the best course.

Let's get this subway built, but let's do it right. Choosing the least intrusive, least expensive viable route, while respecting the principles of local control, regional cooperation and fiscal responsibility is both doing it right and doing the right thing.

And whether you're a sweathog or a Bubba, that's something which certainly doesn't require a note from Epstein's mother.