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