By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006
LOS ANGELES -- Demeaned as a car-crazed megalopolis where people drive two blocks to valet-park at the dry cleaners, Los Angeles is on the road to fashioning one of the best public transit systems in the nation.
Los Angeles is No. 2 in the nation in bus ridership and No. 3 in light rail, according to industry statistics. Since 1993, it and Detroit are the only major metropolitan regions in the nation that have succeeded in lowering the annual hours of delay per traveler. In October, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) named Los Angeles County's Mass Transportation Authority the best public transportation system in the country -- truly a man-bites-dog turnaround for an agency that for years was known for incompetence and shady deals. Other cities interested in expanding their public transit systems, notably Atlanta and Tampa, are even studying Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the District's Metro system recently lured the MTA's highly respected second-in-command, John B. Catoe Jr., to Washington to run that agency. And in November, voters in California approved the biggest infrastructure bond package in U.S. history, which will provide the MTA at least $2 billion to continue to build the system, thanks to lobbying from Los Angeles's determined mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa (D).
"The untold secret about L.A. is while it's known for its freeways and for the attitude that the highway is king, it has -- in fits and starts -- begun to piece together a world-class mass transit system," said APTA President William W. Millar. "This is an enormous change."
To be sure, the car still rules in Los Angeles, and the APTA's award appears to be not so much for the system that is -- a motley collection of buses, subways and light rail -- than for what will be. (It took this reporter two hours to travel 20 miles on three buses to interview the mayor on a recent Friday.)
Only 6.6 percent of the workforce in this region uses public transit to get to work. Each day, automobiles on Los Angeles's freeways travel 136 million miles -- tops in the nation and four times as many as in the Washington region, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Commuters here spend more time caught in traffic jams than those in any other city in the country -- almost four days and nights per person per year, burning 407 million excess gallons of gas in delays that cost $11 billion, 50 percent more than in the runner-up, New York.
Los Angeles is known throughout the world as 100 suburbs looking for a city. But although it lacks the downtown core of a Manhattan or a Washington, it is hemmed in by mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and it has evolved into the most densely populated urban region in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This "dense sprawl," as it is known in the argot of urban planners, has helped shift public opinion toward support for public transportation. Roger Moliere, who heads the MTA's real estate development business, speaks of a "paradigm shift" in the way Angelenos view mass transit. Real estate ads now regularly use proximity to transit as a selling point. Developers are eager to build near transit stops; currently there are 25 such projects, involving more than $4 billion, across the region, Moliere said.
"Places that 10 to 20 years ago said they didn't want mass transit are now clamoring for it yesterday," said Jaime de la Vega, the city's deputy mayor in charge of transportation.
Work is continuing on a six-mile extension of the Yellow Line -- a light-rail route running from Pasadena to downtown -- into East Los Angeles, a predominantly Latino area. Construction has just begun on the Exposition Line, which will link downtown with the University of Southern California and Culver City on the Westside. Also on the books is a downtown subway system that will connect two light-rail systems and the city's lone subway line, which were never joined because of shoddy planning.
"When this thing was planned out, it wasn't planned out in a way that allowed people to connect between lines," Villaraigosa said. "We're going to fix that."
But the Holy Grail for Villaraigosa and others in the city administration is what he calls a "subway to the sea" that would run under Wilshire Boulevard, one of the most heavily traveled avenues in the nation, and bond the Westside with the rest of the region.
Estimated to cost a whopping $350 million per mile, the 13-mile subway, named the Purple Line, was long considered impossible. In 1985, a building blew up on Wilshire Boulevard after subway tunneling hit a methane pocket. That prompted Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) to write legislation banning the use of federal funds for subway construction in a 400-square-block area -- a move that many here saw as a ploy by Waxman's constituents on the richer, whiter Westside to stop mass transit from bringing the poor into their part of town.
But now, forced by gridlock, Waxman and his well-heeled constituents have dropped their opposition, and Congress is expected to change the law next year.
Villaraigosa said he plans to lobby Congress aggressively for federal funds to bankroll his dream. "We want to rethink what the city looks like," he said, "to focus on a new urbanism that makes transit-oriented development and mixed-use development the future of L.A."
Lucille Rawls, 50, a data-entry technician, is a believer in the mayor's vision. She's been riding Los Angeles's buses for years and is also a fan of the short subway line. "It's funny," she said after spending 90 minutes to go nine miles downtown. "I have some rich friends, and none of them know about the improving system. But my poor friends can't do without it."
For many years, it did not seem that Los Angeles could ever build a mass transit system. From 1948 to 1980, at least six plans including some form of rail transit were placed before voters and failed. But in 1980, voters in the county passed propositions for a subway, a light-rail line to Long Beach and lower bus fares. Cost overruns turned the Red Line, the city's 17.4-mile subway line, into the most expensive subway system ever. It is the only one in the United States that runs on the honor system.
Problems have been plentiful. Eighty-one people have died in accidents involving Blue Line trains along the 22-mile light-rail system to Long Beach, the most of any light-rail system in the country, since it opened in 1990. A sinkhole opened on Hollywood Boulevard, and more than 2,000 feet of a subway tunnel was found to be half the required thickness. Wags dubbed the MTA the "Money Train Authority" and called its plush new headquarters at Gateway Plaza near Chinatown the "Taj Mahal." In 1998, voters, fed up with waste, approved a ballot measure barring the use of sales tax revenue for tunneling.
"But all this is changing, because we realized that the status quo was unworkable," Villaraigosa said, noting that the management of the MTA has been overhauled.
In a sense, Los Angeles is returning to its roots. In the 1920s, the region was home to the most elaborate rail system in the country: almost 1,500 miles of track connecting the eastern desert with the Pacific Coast. It was Los Angeles's great transit network, not the automobile, that jump-started the region's sprawl, said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the Rand Corp. But by the 1960s, the car had taken over, and all the trains were gone.
The MTA now finds itself rebuilding the old system -- in some places along the same rights-of-way.
"Sometimes retro is the wave of the future," mused Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a Southern California-based nonprofit organization. "L.A. can't really sprawl anymore. So we are retrofitting our city. There really is nowhere else to go."