A Clear Blue Vision: L.A. Light Rail and Twenty Five Years of the Blue Line

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In a 2012 interview with transit scholar Ethan Elkind, Richard Stanger, former Los Angeles County Transit Commission rail development director, credited the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” for popularizing the theory that “car companies had deliberately destroyed the once great Los Angeles Streetcar system,” thereby setting in motion a strain of nostalgia for the defunct Pacific Electric/Los Angeles Railway (P.E./L.A.R.) that led to greater public support for rail transit. 1 Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the movie, as the Thom Anderson-directed documentary “L.A. Plays Itself” notes, “offers itself as a cartoon version of ‘Chinatown’,” swapping water controversies of the latter with the transportation subterfuge of the former. “Who needs a car,” main character Detective Eddie Valiant tells kids joyriding on the back of an iconic Big Red Car, “L.A.’s got the greatest transportation system in the world.” While the film lauded the city’s famed interurban system, Anderson refutes its nostalgic longing for the defunct Red and Yellow Cars. “In 1947,” notes the film’s narrator “many would have disagreed with Eddie Valiant’s endorsement…” After all, complaints about overcrowding and slow service and accusations of discriminatory pricing had plagued the system for over three decades.

While Anderson’s observations ring true, some L.A. residents still bemoaned the P.E. and L.A.R.’s decline and elimination. The same year in which “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” had been set, South Central residents endured accusations of communism when they presented councilman Kenneth Hahn with 5,000 signatures protesting the elimination of the Los Angeles Transit Lines’ (LATL) F route. “The people along Hoover were classed as Reds because they had the audacity to protest … the L.A.T.L.,” local businessman Daniel Joseph Reagan professed. “We’ll admit … we are red blooded Americans and when we are shoved around by a Chicago outfit such as the L.A.T.L. we will protest and we will fight to get the service we are entitled to.” 2 They never did, but the P.E. left a deep impression on Hahn who would carry its memory forward decades later when advocating for rail transit, specifically light rail, for his district and the rest of Los Angeles.

However mistaken the nostalgia for the P.E. and L.A.R. might have been, it sparked a vigorous, difficult, but ultimately successful effort to reintroduce rail transit to the city, and Hahn would be its most important advocate. Hahn’s efforts would result in the creation of the Blue Line light rail from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Long Beach. When it finally opened in 1990, Neil Peterson, former chief of staff for Mayor Tom Bradley, credited it with stimulating “the rest of the regions of the county to want their version of the Blue Line sooner rather than later.”

By 2014, the Blue Line stood as the most used light rail in the nation. With its 25th anniversary on the horizon this July, a look back at its creation proves a useful means to think about L.A.’s transit past, present, and future.
Mayor Tom Bradley and Supervisor Baxter Ward 

While the late Mayor Bradley undoubtedly set the process in motion, less prominent politicians, like former news-anchor-turned-politician Baxter Ward, also played key roles. In 1972, the KABC newsman secured a seat on the Board of Supervisors, representing the fifth district, encompassing San Fernando Valley to Ventura and Kern County. In the 1970s, the five elected supervisors oversaw all seven million people in L.A. County. “Called the ‘five little kings’ owing to the size of their districts and the relative electoral safety of their seats,” notes Elkind in his 2014 work “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City,” “they represented more constituents than all but eight U.S. governors, and spent twice the monthly annually as the governments of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica combined.” 3

Like fellow Supervisor Hahn, nostalgia for the P.E. drove Ward’s vision. In a failed 1976 effort to pass a sales tax to fund rail construction, Ward presented the public with an enticing but politically impossible “Sunset Coast Line.” “Because the heart still returns to the rails, people still talk about the [Pacific Electric] Big Red Cars,” he wrote in his proposal. “The Sunset Coast line brings all their talk and nostalgia and hope together.” 4

Kenneth Hahn, Nate Holden, Nick Patsaouras, Deane Dana, Mayor Tom Bradley. Metro Rail Groundbreaking, September 29, 1986 | Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

Kenneth Hahn, Nate Holden, Nick Patsaouras, Deane Dana, Mayor Tom Bradley. Metro Rail Groundbreaking, September 29, 1986 | Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

Of course, Ward’s nostalgic dream bumped up against Bradley’s own vision. The fifth district supervisor disagreed with Bradley’s proposals for a downtown centered subway, a point of contention that would lead to policy gridlock. For Bradley, Los Angeles transit struggles would be solved by a downtown and Hollywood oriented route along Wilshire Boulevard that could serve the city’s demographic and political centers. Instead, Ward sought a more suburban rail line that primarily served commuters. 5 Planners too viewed Ward’s idea with skepticism. Ward had bypassed nearly every planning agency, including the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD), in creating the Sunset Coast Line. “I don’t think planners in the city or county are even remotely happy with the way this thing bubbled,” one prominent agency director told the Times. 6

With the two officials at loggerheads, then-governor Jerry Brown intervened. Sending Donald Burns, secretary of the Business and Transportation agency, meetings were organized and on November 21, 1975, Bradley, Ward, and other transit leaders met in Los Angeles to hash out their differences. Known as “the transit summit,” it set in motion the long process of building rail in Los Angeles and defining its terms. “Political negotiation rather than merit-based analysis of which rail routes could serve the most people,” writes Elkind, would become the driving force of Metro Rail development. In the end, Ward, Bradley, and others would eventually agree that the first line would stretch from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Long Beach.

At the time, getting Angelenos to pay for rail transit seemed nearly impossible. Three consecutive sales taxes initiatives in 1968, 1974, and 1976 all went down in defeat. 7 Yet Hahn saw promise in tax initiatives elsewhere that he believed could be utilized in Los Angeles. In 1971, Atlanta voters approved a $.01 tax to build its MARTA rail line. Referred to as the “Atlanta Plan,” the initiative divided revenue spending between bus and rail, ensuring that bus fares remained at $.15 until 1979, while also funding construction for its rail system. 8 Providing funding for buses in addition to rail would be the critical factor. Earlier efforts to secure funding in Los Angeles had only focused on rail construction, which spoke to roughly 40% of the electorate, but by including the bus system, Hahn believed he could garner the support he needed for passage. 9

Hahn wanted to enact a similar strategy in Los Angeles and proposed a tax initiative for the 1980 election. According to his plan, which would come to be known as Prop A, Los Angeles County sales tax would increase from 6 to 6.5% with 50% of the of the revenue going to “rapid transit”, 25% to local governments for local transit needs, and the final quarter dedicated to lowering bus fares to $.50 until 1985. Even getting the initiative to the voters required Game of Thrones level intrigue as a narrow vote on the LACTC, 6-5, ensured Prop A would reach the voters.

Despite his earlier failure, Baxter Ward played a pivotal role as well. Believing that the term “rapid transit” would be too vague and would allow revenue to be diverted from rail construction, Ward insisted that the 50% set aside be dedicate specifically to rail transit, yet LACTC members also knew that the 25% portion dedicated to keeping bus fares low would need additional funding due to inflation. It would have to come out of the larger set aside. Ward and fellow LACTC member Wendell Cox passed a motion guaranteeing that 35% would be dedicated to rail, with the rest buoying the bus system. 10

Whether voters were motivated by P.E. nostalgia, gridlocked traffic, or geopolitical events related to oil scarcity such as the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, when the L.A. County electorate went to the polls they approved Prop A by 54%. Estimates at the time suggested revenue from its first year, 1981-1982, would reach $225 million, $100 million of that total dedicated to rail transit. In addition, most officials believed state and federal expenditures would add to the pot. The next step would be to formally identify the Blue Lines’ route, a process that would be determined not by analytical studies and reports but instead “politics, outside circumstances, and the geography of power” in the L.A. region. 11

Billboard campaign for Proposition A, 1980 | Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

Billboard campaign for Proposition A, 1980 | Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

Picking the Route

Hahn dreamed of building the Blue Line along the old P.E. Red Car route from downtown L.A. to downtown Long Beach. Resurrecting the old P.E. Red Line, he told Angelenos, would be the fastest, most efficient, and least costly means to reestablish rail transit in Los Angeles County. Bolstering his argument was the fact that a route between Long Beach and L.A. would connect to the region’s two major employment centers and the two largest cities in the county. It didn’t hurt that the route served some of the region’s most powerful politicians, such as Congressman Glenn Anderson and Assemblyman Bruce Young. 12 It helped too, from a cost perspective that Hahn’s proposed route ran along a low-density industrial corridor east of the more trafficked and populated Vermont Avenue.

Yet, Prop A and Hahn’s dream of a resurrected P.E. encountered challenges. For example, Prop A had to wait two years to go into effect because of legal challenges to its validity under Prop 13. In other instances, politicians claimed that Hahn’s route bypassed more deserving corridors. Westside pols claimed that a Wilshire starter line or one to Santa Monica from downtown would serve more riders and that many of the Long Beach riders projected to use the light rail already rode the bus, meaning it would do little to diminish automobility. Moreover, commissioned studies found that the Long Beach line would cost approximately $194 million while a Santa Monica downtown light rail would run only $138 million even if it served slightly fewer residents. 13 Others objected to the location, such as the NAACP, which argued that a Vermont Avenue line would better serve ridership.

Competition between Hahn’s light rail and the Mayor’s favored heavy rail subway also caused friction. Hahn recognized that a subway along Vermont Avenue would be better than a light rail that ran parallel along the adjacent industrial corridor. However, he also knew that such a subway remained politically and economically infeasible. When Westside pols and others lobbed criticisms toward his proposed route, Hahn responded with increased irritability. Beverly Hills didn’t need the line, which Hahn argued should be aimed in part at helping the poor access better transit. “In Beverly Hills everyone has a car and a chauffer and they only need [transit] for their maids and gardeners,” he sniped. To others who continued to push for a subway along the Westside, like Tom Bradley’s Chief of Staff, Ray Remy, Hahn barked that they were simply “playing games” in an effort to protect wealthier home owners on the Westside and in San Fernando Valley. “You could build another space shuttle before you build the Wilshire subway,” he told reporters prophetically. “It won’t happen in my lifetime.” 14

Grounded in pragmatism, Hahn’s vision remained more about the possible than the perfect. Then-chair of the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD), Marv Holen initially resisted Hahn’s efforts, but relented one afternoon after Hahn pressed upon him that the subway might be better, but the Blue Line was something that could become a tangible reality. “Here we are are now all these years later … and if not for the [Long Beach] line, there would be nothing there.” In the end, Hahn’s persistence paid off and the LACTC agreed to route. 15

Watts Station served the Long Beach Line of the Pacific Electric Railway Company. The Blue Line operates on the old Pacific Electric right of way | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Watts Station served the Long Beach Line of the Pacific Electric Railway Company. The Blue Line operates on the old Pacific Electric right of way | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Constructing the Blue Line 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, building the Blue Line took much longer than anticipated. Groundbreaking for construction took five years, finally occurring on Halloween in 1985. From the beginning constructing the light rail proved costly. Building in downtown L.A. meant negotiations with Standard Pacific and Union Pacific regarding right of way and track locations. The light rail also required extensive cabling, which meant utilities needed to be moved and all the grade crossings had to be rebuilt. “Every mile or so we had to put in a power station,” noted Ed McSpedon, one of the officials overseeing construction. Power stations required property acquisition, which also raised costs. Moreover, in an effort to reduce traffic congestion, all the humps that remained from the old Red Car system had to be removed, meaning LACTC workers had to flatten sixteen miles of right of way. Worries about traffic jams and pedestrian safety along some of the route’s busier intersections resulted in local leaders demanding elevated sections. 16

The municipalities the Blue Line would pass through didn’t make things any easier. They demanded costly additions and route changes. When the LACTC bought land adjacent to the light rail for park and ride areas, they didn’t exactly “give away the space easily,” McSpedon reflected. Stanger added that, at some point, for municipal leaders it all seemed like free money. “You get to a point where everyone’s money is no one’s money. So you begin to think, ‘I’ll just use a little more money because really it’s not my money.'”
Grand Opening and the Ensuing 25 Years 

If “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” helped to revive nostalgia for mass transit, the RTD turned to a live action depiction of comic book icons, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to promote its July 14, 1990 opening. In what today seems like a bizarre promotional video, the adolescent crime fighters with the help of reporter April O’Neil battled L.A.’s most nefarious enemy, Gridlock. Their black caped nemesis sought to make any knowledge of the Blue Line disappear thereby keeping Angelenos in the dark regarding their transportation options. The Blue Line provided “one of the best tools to unclog our freeways and improve our air quality,” O’Neil notes, but due to Gridlock “people seem to be unaware that the … Blue Line will soon open for business.” Highlighting the 22 station route and its numerous connections to bus routes, the turtles marveled at the “smooth and quiet” ride, pointing out “getting around town can’t get an easier than this.” With other rail transit to follow, the Blue Line would be the first step in creating a modern economically efficient and cleaner transportation system for Los Angeles.

The Blue Line’s total cost eventually reached $877 million: $227 million over the 1985 estimate at groundbreaking. Yet its unveiling in 1990 set off a wave of P.E/L.A.R. nostalgia. In the ensuing 25 years, it would become the busiest light rail in the nation, ferrying 26 million passengers annually. 17

That said, in recent years the Blue Line, and light rail in Los Angeles more generally, has encountered some snags: the former, the consequences of neglect; and the latter, community opposition in places like the Exposition Park neighborhood where working class homeowners have expressed worries about gentrification, overburdened public institutions, and crime. 18

In 2012, $239 million in deferred maintenance resulted in numerous cancellations and delays for the Blue Line. In January and February of 2012 alone, the line experienced 858 delays or cancellations, roughly double the total during the same period in 2011. Most of these issues resulted from aging rail cars, which by 2012 required maintenance after 19,500 miles, down from 26,000 in 2009. Similar issues plagued bus and rail systems nationally. A 2010 report by the Federal Transit Administration argued $77.7 billion would be required to bring all systems to “good repair.” 19

These problems elicited numerous responses from Angelenos. “At 22 years old, the Blue Line is ‘aging’ so much that it’s starting to fail?” asked Claremont resident Geoff Kuenning. “The residents of New York, Boston and London must be rolling in the aisles.” 20 Frequent Blue Line rider and Long Beach resident Robert Cheshier expressed similar incredulity. “I’ve traveled many metro lines in the nation, and I’ve never experienced so many delays and breakdowns as I have on the Blue Line . . . Seriously, who is overseeing this poorly run transit system?” 21

In an interview, Elkind conceded these are valid points, but that getting funding for new projects is always easier then securing the same for existing ones. Maintenance, though critical, is “less sexy,” he pointed out. Besides, everyone needs to consider that “the Blue Line catalyzed development in downtown Long Beach and L.A. … and provided the backbone in getting the [general] system up and running.” 22 Angeleno Keith Price agreed. Noting that tax initiatives like Prop A and its antecedents, Props C and R, were created to build rail lines, not necessarily maintain them, “Construction is easy, but maintenance is expensive and hard,” he wrote in the L.A. Times. 23

An exclusive videotape was released to promote the Blue Line with help from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles | Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

An exclusive videotape was released to promote the Blue Line with help from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles | Photo: Metro Library and Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

Los Angeles’s struggle to build light rail is hardly unique. In Atlanta, the inspiration for the Blue Line, attempts to construct its own light rail failed in the face of community opposition from both affluent suburbanites and working-class and lower-income Atlanta communities. “A referendum to build a light rail system around Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods went down to a devastating defeat in 2012,” Georgia State University historian Alex Sayf Cummings says. “While conservative suburbanites in metro Atlanta had resisted efforts to expand mass transit for decades, light rail also worried activists who feared that that the line would expedite gentrification along its path and impose a regressive new sales tax on the working poor.” 24 As in LA, skepticism and resistance could come from many quarters, since the construction of transit affected so many different groups and interests.

Ultimately, no amount of nostalgia for the defunct interurban system can change the fact that building mass transit in the post 1945 era has become a process fraught with complexity. Films like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” put forth an enticing message of duplicitous conspiracy, but the fact is, as Thom Anderson points out, voters rejected public ownership of the earlier system in 1920s and the city council voted down light rail proposals in 1949. If any conspiracy destroyed the P.E., Elkind argues, it was one perpetrated by real estate development that ignored planning or intelligent development for unconstrained expansion. 25 Nostalgia might have sparked renewed interest in bringing much needed rail transit back to L.A., but political, economic, and social realities make delivering on that promise more complicated than perhaps ever before.

_____

1 Ethan Elkind, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metrorail and the Future of the City, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 127.
2 Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 194.
3 Ethan Elkind, Railtown,18-19
4 Elkind, Railtown, 23.
5 Elkind, Railtown, 20-21.
6 Robert A. Jones, “Sunset Coast Line System: How It Could Shape L.A.’s Future,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1976, 3.
7 Ray Herbert, “Rail Transit for L.A. Dead, Ward Says,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1976, C22.
8 Doug Monroe, “”When it all went wrong,” Atlanta Magazine, August 1, 2012; Elkind, Railtown, 35
9 Elkind, Railtown, 47.
10 Elkind, Railtown, 40-43; Ethan Elkind, Interview with the author, February 5, 2015. Today Cox is an ardent opponent of rail transit.
11 Elkind, Railtown, 50.
12 Elkind, Railtown, 51 – 53.
13 Elkind, Railtown, 54 – 55.
14 Elkind, Railtown, 56 – 57.
15 Elkind, Railtown, 56 – 57.
16 Elkind, Railtown, 110.
17 Ari Bloomekatz and Dan Weikel, “Breakdowns and Delays Plague Metro Blue Line,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2012; Elkind, Railtown, 217.
18 Sam Bloch, “Working Folks, Not the Rich, Fight Density Near USC’s Expo Line,” L.A. Weekly, January 28, 2015
19 Ari Bloomekatz and Dan Weikel, “Breakdowns and Delays Plague Metro Blue Line,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2012
20 Geoff Kuenning, “Off the rails,” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2012
21 Ari Bloomekatz and Dan Weikel, “Breakdowns and Delays Plague Metro Blue Line,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2012http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/21/local/la-me-blue-line-20120421.
22 Ethan Elkind, Interview with the author, Februray 5, 2015.
23 Keith Price, “Off the rails,” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2012
24 Alex Sayf Cummings, Interview with the author, February 4, 2015.
25 Ethan Elkind, Interview with the author, February 5, 2015.

This article originally appeared at KCET Departures under its Intersections column in February 2015.

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