Will It Take an Earthquake to Bring the Subway to the Sea?

Metro train conductor supervisor James Green, far right, coordinates a preview ride of the new 8.6 mile Metro Expo light rail
Metro train conductor supervisor James Green, far right, coordinates a preview ride of the new 8.6 mile Metro Expo light rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles south to USC, and west to La Cienega in Los Angeles on Friday, March 23, 2012. Officials hope the train will give relief to those weary of driving on the parallel Interstate 10. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Where are all the catastrophic earthquakes when you need one? Nineteen years ago last week, Los Angeles and much of the L.A. region were paralyzed when the Northridge earthquake decimated critical public infrastructure including sections of the Santa Monica Freeway.

Of course I am not wishing for an earthquake, mudslide or fire. What I am hoping and praying for is my usual elusive L.A. fantasy: a subway to the sea, a north-south rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) line that will speed passengers from the San Fernando Valley to LAX and the South Bay, and a court docket free of NIMBY lawsuits by misguided and mean-spirited neighbors who seem to pine for the good old days of smog alerts and a city defined by restrictive covenants that limited African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jews and others to certain neighborhoods in the city.

As any good student of L.A. history can tell you, following the Northridge quake the Santa Monica freeway was rebuilt in less than three months. According to an April 6, 1994 article in the Los Angeles Times:

Spurred by the promise of an extra $200,000 a day for every day work was completed ahead of schedule, the contractor... will finish the project 74 days before a June 24 deadline and rack up a $14.5-million bonus for the company. The high-speed construction was made possible by crews working around the clock, seven days a week, and by state officials cutting through red tape.

These sorts of incentive contracts are commonplace today, spurring contractors to complete infrastructure construction work ahead of schedule. Still, how many Metro employees have spent their entire career at the agency and its predecessor agencies driving to work because the long-promised subway and other transit improvements came decades late or never came at all? Sure, there is much to celebrate in the current boom in Metro construction. No one, save Darrell Clarke of Friends for Expo Transit, will be happier than Joel lui-même to ride Expo from 7th Street in downtown L.A. to the Colorado terminus near the Pier in Santa Monica.

With the president of the United States showing welcome courage in confronting gun advocates on gun control, we need a similar concerted push to get built the transit improvements this city needed desperately as long ago as the Northridge quake. I like what I am hearing from the front-runner candidates for mayor about rapid transit. Now what we need is an ironclad contract that gets Metro and the City to guarantee that the subway and a line through the Sepulveda Pass will be built pronto, not someday, as prior generations of City Council members, mayors and Congress members said they hoped for, when some of them were actually voting against the subway.

And please, even if public transit is not anything you can hold your nose long enough to ride on, join the rest of us in showing your disgust at the eternal construction on the 405. I doubt even the smartest among us can understand and explain why that project will take years rather than months or a year at most to complete.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, after the Northridge quake, a study by the governor's Office of Planning and Research concluded that the closure of the Santa Monica Freeway cost the economy of Los Angeles and neighboring communities about $1 million a day. Multiply that number by 365 days times 30 years, and adjust for inflation and you start to get an idea how devastating the lack of rapid transit options for millions of LA workers has been on the region's economy.

Speaking in 1994, then governor Pete Wilson said, "This freeway, with its broken bridges, broken connectors, became one of the most visible signs of the devastation brought upon Los Angeles by the Northridge earthquake. Now its rebuilding and its reopening... will serve as one of the... symbols of the energy of this great community."

It shouldn't take an earthquake to bring the subway to the sea. The Metro Board's unholy alliance of South L.A. and North Valley Supervisors needs to stop grandstanding on issues like Beverly Hills and Crenshaw and join the rest of the Board in demanding that construction go forward at many times the speed at which it is currently proceeding. It is past time that Angelenos has a transportation agency that worked as one to deliver a rapid transit system worthy of the creative energy of this otherwise world-class city.