By Stephen J. Smith, May 21, 2014
Ethan Elkind, an environmental attorney and professor at UCLA, just published a book on the history of rail in Los Angeles, “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail System and the Future of the City”.
I spoke with him by telephone on Monday about his book, the history of
rail in L.A., and his desires for the future of transit in America’s
second-largest metropolitan area.
One recurring theme of your book is that politics, not
ridership or cost-effectiveness, often determines rail priorities in Los
What would happen is that the staff and politicians would figure out
where the density was and sketch out a map of the best routes. But then,
once you started from that base, you ended up with political
compromises that ended up twisting it. They just ended up getting
gerrymandered, and the best lines weren’t always chosen over some of the
more under-performing lines.
If you could start over and
there were no political considerations, and you could base it purely on
ridership and cost-effectiveness, what do you think would’ve been the
sequencing of the network?
They really should’ve started with a heavy rail subway down Wilshire
Boulevard, going at least as far as Westwood. And it should’ve had
10-car train platforms instead of the six-car platforms they have now.
know that the Beverly Hills School District is still fighting the
Purple Line subway, but it seems like this is the last gasp of anti-rail
NIMBYism in L.A. County and the Westside.
I think a lot of the real heyday of NIMBY
activism has passed to some extent. Just getting the Expo Line routed
out to Santa Monica, past some neighborhoods that were really vehemently
opposed — the fact that that happened is a good sign.
Now a lot of the debate is focused around specific alignments and specific station areas. A great example is what just happened in Santa Monica,
where residents came out against a planned office and housing complex
along the Expo Line, and got a ballot initiative qualified. And it
basically convinced the city council to back off from that project.
most surprising part of the book was the crucial pro-rail vote cast by
Wendell Cox in the early days of rail in L.A. Obviously he’s turned into
a bitter foe of rail — do you know anything about his change of heart?
I haven’t really tracked his evolution on it. My guess is that his role
in the L.A. system somehow made him change his tune. Certainly there is a
lot to be critical of with the L.A. rail system, but I think that the
point that I was trying to make in the book is that it’s still very much
a work in progress, even though it’s been decades and billions of
dollars have been spent.
Another theme of your book seems to be the role of the courts in shaping transit in L.A.
There have been a number of lawsuits against the rail lines based on
environmental reviews — the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA]—
and for the most part Metro has been successful. But it has affected
the system, more in a micro way, like where stations have gone, or when
they’ve had to build an overpass as opposed to continuing on at street
For example, Compton sued when the Blue Line was being
proposed through their city, and they got a pretty expensive overpass to
keep it out of traffic. It’s nice to have that safety and there’s also
speed for riders, but it comes at a huge cost. All those little lawsuits
and challenges ultimately prevent the region from doing more with the
resources it has.
In your book, every time a Republican
makes an appearance, I’m always waiting for them to push for something
cost-effective, or oppose some sort of wasteful spending, and it never
seems to happen. It seems like they’re either opposing good projects on
the Westside, or pushing not-so-great ones in the San Gabriel Valley,
It is too bad that Republicans didn’t have more constructive ideas with
the L.A. rail system. They tended to take a very oppositional attitude
and just looked at rail as wasteful spending, without coming up with a
lot of great alternatives. And then you had a few rare exceptions, like
David Dreier, who did like rail, but they’re unfortunately coming from a
suburban base. He was proposing a rail line that was not going to serve
a very high-ridership area.
There’s a lot of very cost-effective
steps that government could take to alleviate the traffic in L.A., and
L.A. does not have to wait decades and decades for a few new rail lines
to become available. They could take some cost-effective steps now, and I
think Republicans would have been logical champions for some of those
reforms, and probably could’ve convinced some Democrats to come along.
But I think they really missed the boat in a lot of ways.
What do you think should be the next transit priority for rail in L.A.?
Metro has laid out its list of rail transit projects that it wants to
fund over the next 30 years, and there’s a whole bunch under
construction now, so we’re seeing a wave of projects getting completed.
But absent new revenue, I don’t think they’re going to be able to build
many more lines than what they currently have in the immediate pipeline.
too bad, because I think the immediate priorities are to extend the
subway all the way out to Westwood, and possibly out to the Veteran’s
Administration Medical Center, which is farther west, not all the way to
the sea but close. And then they really should have a light rail link
through West Hollywood, which they don’t have right now. Currently the
Crenshaw Line is slated to end at the Expo Line, but it should go all
the way up to the subway and then through West Hollywood. The priorities
should really be blanketing the more densely populated Westside with
Those are all the questions I had. Anything I missed?
Now that L.A. has built a good first chunk of the system, I think the
key for the region is to fill in those neighborhoods around the station
areas and allow more dense development to happen. And that’s a whole
other political battle that I think needs to happen. It’s really the
missing piece of the story.
Where do you think the development should go, specifically?
The Westside is the prime area. Real estate is at a real premium there
and there’s a shortage of new homes, particularly with all the new jobs
that communities like Santa Monica have allowed to come in without
corresponding increase in housing. Culver City is doing some good things
but we could see some more there. And Hollywood and along the subway,
Vermont Avenue especially. It’s all low-rise-type buildings, almost as
if the subway was never going through there; it doesn’t feel like
anything new has really happened in some of those corridors. So I would
say around the subway and Expo Line.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.