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Mar. 15 2010 - 4:53 pm | 1,344 views | 3 recommendations | 2 comments

Why L.A.’s New One Block Railway Is a Sign of Things to Come

Angel's Flight returns to service.

Angel's Flight returns to service.

At 6:45am this morning one of L.A’s many moribund rail lines reopened for passenger service , just in time for the daily commute. Admittedly, Angel’s Flight, the line in question, is only one-block long, but what it lacks in distance it makes up in spirit. Opened in 1901 and closed since 2001, when one of the cars struck another in a deadly collision, the story of Angel’s Flight is the story of rail and public transport in Los Angeles, a city that once upon a time, boasted the largest public rail transportation system in the world.

The funicular was built as part of that extensive network, designed to shuttle riders up downtown L.A’s steep Bunker Hill. When Bunker Hill’s charming Victorian row houses were obliterated in 1969 as part of an urban renewal project, Angel’s Flight was dismantled, only to be rebuilt in a new location downtown in 1996, where it operated til 2001. The sound of the clacking gears (upgraded to make collisions impossible) trundling up Bunker Hill is one small step for a city whose mayor is betting his political capital on turning a city best known for freeways into a commuter rail paradise.

While Angel’s Flight is being operated as a private tourist attraction, the city is in the midst of a public transportation explosion. Last year, Angelenos passed Measure R, which created a 1/2 cent sales tax for the next 30 years to fund public transportation projects.

Though, as I learned at a public hearing late last year, those funds would only get around to opening a west side extension of the subway line in 2036, just in case I feel like taking my robot body for a ride. The MTA facilitator mentioned that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had a plan for opening the lines sooner, but ‘whatever that plan is, he hasn’t shared it with us.’

Map of L.A's Redcar System

Map of L.A's Redcar System

Well, now he has. Dubbed the 30/10 plan (‘Let’s do it in 10 years instead of 30′ basically), Villaraigosa’s big idea is that the federal government should give the $40 billion expected to be raised by Measure R to the city now, so they can go ahead and build the entire proposed system now, giving Angelenos jobs and a genuine shot at combating escalating congestion. It’s all the Mayor tweets about these days, it seems. According to the L.A. Times, California Senator Barbara Boxer loves the idea, telling the paper:

“First, we all want to reward local governments that have taken the kind of steps toward self-help Los Angeles has,” Boxer said. “Second, coming out of this recession, this proposal will create jobs in one of our heaviest-hit sectors, heavy construction. Third, by funding these projects now, when the recession has pushed down construction costs, we can save as much as 20% on their total cost.”

In short, duh. Of course, as the easy passage of Measure R indicates, it’s not for lack of popular support that public transportation in L.A. has been so long coming, it’s the politics.

The westside extension was held up for decades by Rep. Henry Waxman, whose constituents include Malibu and Beverly Hills, were afraid that a subway line would make it easier for ‘unsavory types’ to infiltrate their neighborhoods– and presumably steal TV’s by taking them back to wherever they came from via subway. Technically, the issue was a fear of methane explosions, but lo and behold, once Beverly Hills realized that they were missing out on the commercial opportunities a subway line could provide, papers were produced proving that methane really wasn’t such a big deal after all.

This is a problem that Villaraigosa’s plan has yet to address. The public process for building new lines is extensive, requiring environmental review and public input, both of which are required if the city wants to receive matching federal funding for their own dollars spent. While some projects are ready to go, most are still knee-deep in the muck of political review. It’s enough to make you long for a rail baron version of Robert Moses. Until then, Angelenos will have to content themselves with a public transportation network that seems to grow one block at a time.


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  1. collapse expand

    Being a life-long Chicagoan, hills are always a wild experience for me. I’m used to walking down mile after mile of flat. I mean flat.

    So, love the faniculars! Only time I have ever experienced them was in Quebec City. Loved it! Felt like I was heading for a ski run. And that’s as close as I will ever get to a ski run.

    Suprised that L.A. ever let that lapse. But, then again, knowing what (little) I know about L.A., not really that suprised at all.

    I think it would be great if L.A. were to make a serious and long term commitment to join the civilized world and invest in trains. If they can do that and stop holding awards ceremonies on a nightly schedule, it may actually become a livable city.

  2. collapse expand

    Just wanted to point out that LA’s rail system, while it was once the largest municipal transport systems in the world, was not actually “public.” The public could use it, but it was privately built and privately owned. The rights of way and the rail systems built on them were assets in possession of a few wealthy families, and when the industrialists and entrepreneurs who originally built that wealth and developed the rail network passed away, they gave their spoiled children all those assets via inheritance. Then, those spoiled children began dismantling the rail network and selling the right of ways to fund their lavish, decadent lifestyles (which probably involved buying lots of fancy cars). By the 1970s it was nearly all gone, little more than a network of widened roads, empty medians, paved over rails, and broken up diagonal alleys that you can still see throughout the city – especially if you look on google maps.

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