Why I'm Not Singing the Metro Blue Line Blues

If you caught the recent piece in the LA Times about the Metro Blue Line's twentieth anniversary you might have thought that the rail line that runs from downtown Los Angeles through South LA to Long Beach was a bad idea. The article quotes a couple of transportation "scholars" including the chairman of USC's department of industrial and systems engineering who say "the development of MTA's subway and light-rail lines and its impact on bus service is responsible for lowering transit ridership for almost two decades."

That's basically the gist of the article which goes on to quote the department chairman stating, "I like getting as much bang for the buck as possible and giving people with limited means as much mobility as possible. If cost effectiveness were the standard for rail, you would have to stop building the systems."

Thankfully, smarter public transportation advocates than me like Bart Reed of the Transit Coalition have jumped all over the article and those it quotes. Reed and others challenge the researchers' findings and excoriate the Times reporter for giving succor to the almost-Trotskyite anti-rail movement that has long worked to hold up subway and light rail construction in LA. To get an idea of whom I'm talking about, think of those pathetic Spartacus Youth League naifs selling newspapers on college campuses.

As I've written in these pages many times, I'm a huge fan of sensible, lower-cost-to-build bus rapid transit (BRT), so long as it's just that, rapid and in dedicated lanes that are not shared by cars and trucks. But that's not what the Times article suggests and that's why one has to wonder about the judgment of the writer and editors at the LA Times in letting this piece run as written.

But enough about the decline of traditional print journalism. With so much good news out there about a growing nonpartisan movement for a true public transportation system taking hold in LA, let's focus on the positive. Move LA's petition expressing support for the 30/10 Initiative continues to grow, with a raft of A-list companies, cultural institutions, labor organizations and professional associations signing on. The 30/10 rally scheduled for Friday, August 13th at City Hall is taking shape and more and more national media is covering the 30/10 story.

Changing the way LA commutes and lives is not just a pipe dream. All over the city people and organizations are working in positive ways to make life here better. In addition to the coordinated push for 30/10, take for example Jonathan Watts, an architect I recently met who is working to build a mixed-use development at the Blue Line station at Slauson Avenue in South LA. Watts, a principal at Cuningham Group Architecture, was on the technical assistance panel convened by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to explore a transit-oriented development project at Slauson.

To be fair, the location and immediate neighborhood remain pretty grim and a new mixed-use development at the station is far from becoming a reality. But at least Watts and others are thinking about the site's potential, rather than writing it off as another stretch of South LA not worthy of attention. Watts envisons a more vibrant Slauson Avenue neighborhood with excellent public transportation offered by the Blue Line station and a leafy park (Augustus Hawkins Natural Park) a block away at Slauson and Compton Avenues.

What's next? Listening yesterday to a great program on market-based innovations for growth at the Milken Institute I couldn't help thinking that there's an idea here for a Milken program on mobilizing the capital markets to fund 30/10.

Sure, we're working hard to win over Washington to the idea. But what if, in tandem, the country's best financial minds spent some time studying the feasibility of a public private partnership for fixed rail construction in LA? And not just studied, but came up with a workable approach to privately financing the subway to the sea, the downtown regional connector and the ten other critical transportation projects LA needs now. I passed this idea by Mike Klowden, Milken's President and CEO, who said he likes it in principal but that such work needs, you guessed it, financing.

I'm not sure how much they need, but in my book whatever it costs is small money if the result could be a $13 billion public transportation-building public private partnership that doesn't have to wait for Washington to stop bickering long enough to consider 30/10. It's just a thought, but I hope someone out there agrees it may be a good one.