When my wife Nancy and I wrote our book “Backroom Politics” in the 1970s, we explained the puzzling maze of boards and commissions that local politicians create to confuse their constituents. The Expo light rail line is a perfect example of what we wrote about.
First of all, ethical considerations—even bloggers occasionally bow to them—require me to reveal my conflicts. I like the Expo project. I live near a proposed station and look forward to the day I can hop on a train to downtown Los Angeles, transfer to the subway to Union Station and then take the shuttle bus to Dodger Stadium. One of my daughters hates the Expo project. She and her husband live near the proposed route. Their youngest daughter goes to Overland School, which the trains will pass. She thinks the trains will cause traffic jams and overwhelm the school and neighborhood with noise.
Now that this family feud is out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the matter.
The light rail line is being built by a little-known agency called the Exposition Construction Authority. A seven- person board runs it with members appointed by the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Monica and Culver City councils. In reality, the city council members and supes appoint themselves. Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas are county supervisors. Jan Perry, Bernard Parks and Herb Wesson are L.A. city council members. Pam O’Connor is a Santa Monica council member and Scott Malsin is on the Culver City Council. These people wear two hats.
Actually, some wear three hats. Malsin, Perry, O’Connor, Ridley-Thomas and Yaroslavsky are also on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, which operates our trains and buses.
All these hats are confusing. When a council member or county supervisor makes a decision at an Expo board meeting, does he or she also take into consideration the campaign contributions received for council or supervisorial elections? Is the Expo board member following some policy he or she previously promulgated while wearing an MTA hat?
All this comes into play in my neighborhood’s biggest Expo line dispute.
Under the plan, the tracks will run along the old Southern Pacific right of way at Exposition Boulevard crossing busy Overland Avenue and Westwood and Sepulveda Boulevards, as well as Military Avenue. They will also pass by Overland School at street level.
Neighbors for Smart Rail Expo is trying to force the Expo authority to run the trains below ground. ‘Running 240 trains a day at street level through our community 70 feet from Overland School and 20 feet from homes, blocking access to parks and businesses and grid-locking north south streets is unacceptable,” the group said.
I asked Samantha Bricker, chief operating officer for the Expo authority why lay the tracks at street level.
The Expo board, she explained, was following an MTA policy permitting street level crossings if the streets can handle the traffic. The MTA board set the guidelines and the Expo board was merely following them. But of course these boards are interchangeable, everyone wearing two or three hats.
And the board members run it as a closed club. When Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz tried to get on the Expo board to vote against the project, Los Angeles City Councilman Parks blocked him, Then the Expo board voted 6-0 for a final environmental impact report, clearing the way for construction contracts to be signed. The fix was in.
Exp doesn’t operate in secret. Chief Operating Officer Bricker spent more than an hour on the phone with me, patiently trying to convince me that the trains will not cause traffic jams when they take about 40 seconds to cross Overland, Westwood and Sepulveda during rush hour. We went through the math several times, and I’m still not convinced.
The authority is well covered by Damien Newton in his L.A. Streetsblog.org. Ari Bloomekatz of the Los Angeles Times did a complete story on the Expo authority vote. For those who can’t attend a meeting in the downtown county hall of administration, there is a telephone link.
The main problem is that too many public agencies are involved and there is a certain tendency to pass the buck. These people want the project built with the least expense. Overpasses and underpasses drive up the costs. Furthermore, It’s hard to figure out who is responsible. It is also impossible to know the players’ motives.
If you think this is confusing, a final decision on the street level crossing will be made by an entirely different agency, the California Public Utilities Commission. It usually meets in San Francisco, although sometimes it ventures to L.A. Maybe this is where the protest letters should go.