For the MTA, the buck stops at Leimert Park

The Mayor of Los Angeles, the five County Supervisors and seven other directors of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) can soon answer a question left hanging for two years.

Will Leimert Park Village have a light rail station?

Thumbnail image for leimert-park-sign.jpgA decision on the station has languished, despite it being one of those rare causes seemingly everyone says they support. The station would connect Los Angeles to the city's African American cultural center, much like the current stations in Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Culver City and Mariachi Plaza have enhanced the appeal of those destinations.

But when the station came up for a Metro board vote in 2011, Metro's own staff was divided: some said the agency could afford the station, others said it was impossible. The Mayor — who effectively controls four of the board's 13 votes — insisted no additional money be put up for a station and persuaded a majority of the board to go along with him.

The Metro board must soon stop the hedging and make the right decision. In the first week of May, the leading bidder for the Crenshaw/LAX rail line will be made public, to then be approved by the board at the end of the month.

If the bid does not include the station, or if it says construction costs are beyond what had been expected, the Metro board must decide whether it can find additional resources for a station.

If Metro does not come up with a way to build the station, Leimert Park supporters, after being held waiting for two years, will be finally spurned.

Bypassing Leimert Park would of course disappoint the broad range of people who felt the station would be a cultural highlight on the rail system. In Leimert Park and its surrounding communities, however, denying the station would be not just a disappointment but an affront that would not be lost on African American voters.

When Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat (and a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate) was in jeopardy in 2010, she appeared in Leimert Park to announce a $543 million federal loan for the Crenshaw line. The current dead heat in the Mayor's race may well be tipped by African American voters for whom the Leimert Park station is a bellwether issue.

Please remember in 2011, Rep. Maxine Waters and Los Angeles City Council members Bernard Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson joined me in supporting the station — leading a remarkable showing of unity by African American elected officials in Los Angeles. We put our differences aside for the betterment of our community and it felt good.

The Board's failure to commit was one of my greatest disappointments in politics. Three board members who do not represent South Los Angeles nevertheless recognized the value of the Leimert Park station and would not go along with short-changing the community: Duarte Mayor John Fasana and County Supervisors Gloria Molina and Michael Antonovich.

The Mayor is a longstanding colleague and ally, and he staked that awkward middle ground during a Metro board meeting that descended into absurd political theater.

When I proposed paying for the Leimert Park station with funds from a set of low-priority upgrade projects that have been deferred for years, a parade of Metro officials testified that the money had to be put to its originally intended use. They even claimed the safety of passengers would be jeopardized.

Metro did not acknowledge the money was already being diverted. Metro's purchase of Union Station, and cost overruns on the Expo Light Rail Line, for instance, had consumed $131 million from that pot.

With a $4.1 billion annual budget and $40 billion from the 2008 Measure R ballot initiative, Metro occasionally makes adjustments to projects that cost about as much as building a Leimert Park Village station. It's not so unusual to do so.

When it came to Leimert Park, however, Metro said money from elsewhere in the budget was off-limits. Yes; off-limits for some, but not for others.

Since that day in 2011, Metro has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in precisely the manner they said they could not for Leimert Park. The very pot of money I had proposed drawing from (and told was untouchable) has now been used to front $170 million for rail maintenance yards. That could easily have paid for the Leimert Park station. There was not a peep about safety being at risk, or robbing one region to benefit another.

Now, Metro board members can show that same fiscal flexibility to build a station at Leimert Park Village. Doing so would prove they value the community as a vital location in the cultural life of Los Angeles, not merely a stop for the campaign bus, to be overlooked once elections are past. And, finally, they can show their stated commitment to a rational, equitable and truly regional transportation network is more than just talk.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is a director of Metro, the Expo light rail authority and Metrolink. His Supervisorial district includes Leimert Park.

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