Showing Some Political Backbone for the Wilshire Boulevard BRT

Next to the spontaneous uprisings against illegitimate regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, as a news story, the Wilshire bus rapid transit (BRT) project pales in comparison. But the BRT is critical to the local economy in that it will speed the commute for tens of thousands of Angelenos who travel daily along Wilshire Boulevard. Even the Los Angeles Times has now chimed in with a forceful editorial in support of the overdue project.

Street demonstrations for democracy in Tunis and Cairo and street theatre in LA against threatened changes to the BRT project both stem from the same desire. We all long to control our fate rather than have it imposed upon us by political leaders who lack the political will to pursue needed programs that some of the old guard may oppose.

The revolution of course is not a tea party with many in Egypt and Tunisia killed or injured in the uprisings. And now Mubarak has upped the ante by unleashing his agents provacateurs on the peaceful demonstrators. Additionally, no one knows yet what sorts of leaders will ultimately emerge from the uncertainty. But just as democracy now seems slightly more possible in countries in which the pace of reform has for decades been glacial, the time has come to pursue contentious projects that LA needs. The BRT is one such project.

On the global stage, democracy for Tunisia and Egypt and next stop Syria, Iran and North Korea. And in LA, a transparent process concerning public transportation improvements and civic leaders willing to do battle for bus and rail lines that benefit the city and its residents.

Friday morning I had a conflict. I was torn between attending the Urban Land Institute's (ULI-LA) Transit-Oriented Development conference and the LA City Council meeting to stare down Councilman Bill Rosendahl. The Councilman is the latest in a line of political leaders who seemed to be caving in to a vocal minority of Westside residents who either don't understand or don't care for the dedicated lane Wilshire BRT.

A long-time supporter of the BRT, Rosendahl apparently got cold feet about dedicated bus lanes after the Brentwood Community Council twisted his arm and whined that they want out of the lanes. The Condo Canyon bailed earlier. This latest blow would leave us a Wilshire B_T with a gaping hole where "R" for "rapid" should be.

While waiting for the ULI meeting to start, I read on my Blackberry that the City Council had, again, put off its discussion of the Wilshire BRT. I am not sure why the meeting was delayed but I like to think that Rosendahl et al. used the extra time to review wrongheaded ideas they may have had about emasculating a needed and proven transit improvement.

Those who oppose the Wilshire BRT are woefully out of touch with the benefits the project will bring to the city. Should the Metro Board and the City Council answer to the tens of thousands who commute by bus or to the handful of boys who cry wolf and live in a time long past when LA wasn't this big and congested? I'll let the Councilman from the Westside answer that question.

I appreciate that the battle over bus lanes, like all transit skirmishes in this sometimes still painfully provincial city, is a chess game. Change is hard. And apparently so is leadership for some on the Council.

With no pressing need to cut out of the ULI conference and head to the Council meeting, I leaned back in my uncomfortable chair and listened to a good program on transit-oriented development from the local, regional and national perspective. I found the panel headed by Michael Woo, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, the most engaging as it included LA Planning Director Michael LoGrande and Metro's Chief of Real Property Management & Development Roger Moliere.

LA basically has a love hate relationship with public transit. But, as Moliere explained, as traffic gets worse public transit gets more attractive. The Chicago-raised Moliere drove home his point by alluding to waiting at the bus stop on cold winter nights in The Windy City. Angelenos, he noted, need an attitude adjustment when it comes to urban living and public transportation. We still have a lower threshold than elsewhere for walking to a bus or rail stop even though "we have the best weather in the country."

Making no apologies for delays, service reductions and sometimes poor Metro bus service, the remarks I heard at ULI underscore the importance of moving forward with the Wilshire BRT and other Metro surface transportation and rail improvements.

Unless we want to lose the economic base that remains, LA should seize upon opportunities like the BRT that make it easier for workers to get to and from their jobs. But the BRT won't happen until LA's political leaders have the backbone to stand behind it and other contentious but needed transit improvements.

On Wednesday when the City Council finally met to discuss the BRT, Rosendahl and several other Council members used the meeting as an opportunity to shore up their street cred as public transit and BRT supporters. And what did the Council do with Rosendahl's motion? First they mangled or improved it, depending on your perspective, and then they decided to study the issue some more. Or as Curbed LA summarizing a piece in LA Streetsblog put it best, City Wants More Studies on Incredible Shrinking Wilshire Bus Lanes.

So where are we at the end of the day? In my book we are still waiting to see whether our civic leaders have the vision and the will to back a real BRT and other overdue transit improvements. LA deserves nothing less.

Yours in transit,