Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1989

'Exposition Plan Gets Red Flag at Rail Forum : Crowd Opposing Light-Rail Line Cheers Experts Who Say Trolley Era Is Past

By NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN, Times Staff Writer

Take the bus and forget about other forms of mass transit for Los Angeles, academic transportation experts said at a Town Hall forum called to discuss a controversial proposal for a light-rail line in West Los Angeles.

"There's nothing a trolley car can do that a bus cannot do better," said Mel Webber, a professor of urban planning at UC Berkeley.

Webber said the era of subways, light-rail or trolley cars has "long since passed for most of America and certainly the American West," whose cities are sprawling rather than centralized.

That was what the overwhelming majority of the 500 residents crammed into the Saint Timothy Church auditorium wanted to hear. They applauded enthusiastically throughout the Wednesday night forum, which lasted more than two hours.

Despite stifling heat, almost all of the participants stayed for the entire meeting, then scurried to two parking lots for the drive home.

Noting the size and mood of the crowd, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky told the head of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission: "You have unleashed in this area a political monster."

The issue emerged in May when the Southern Pacific railroad offered to sell 76.5 miles of railroad right of way for transportation purposes. The Transportation Commission is appraising the property.

The community forum, sponsored by the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. and several other groups, was billed as a "balanced presentation by representatives of many sides of the issue."

In reality, it was one speaker after another chronicling what they perceived would be the horrors of a Westside light-rail system, with no arguments in favor of it.

Webber and UCLA Prof. Martin Wachs, another transportation expert, joined Yaroslavsky, Councilman Nate Holden and Sara Berman, president of the West of Westwood homeowners group, in deriding the idea.

To make their point, they cited ridership statistics from less-than-successful light-rail lines in other cities and the probable cost of a West Los Angeles system, spiced with transportation theory and--literally--ringing rhetoric.

A 12-minute video taped in Sacramento featured the incessant clanging of bells from light-rail trains nearly drowning out an interview with a man complaining about having mass transit in his back yard.

"This is not a cute little trolley," Berman warned. She said a light-rail car is 90 feet long, and that each train with two cars is the equivalent of four buses.

Standing alone was Neal Peterson, executive director of the county Transportation Commission.

According to Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. President Susan Brown, Peterson was intended to be the light-rail booster.

Tried to Soothe Crowd

Instead, Peterson, who was booed when first introduced, attempted to soothe the crowd by saying the commission is considering buying the Exposition Boulevard right of way and four others to "preserve them . . . for future generations."

"What about our rights?" a man in the audience screamed--one of several outbursts in an otherwise orderly meeting at which questions for panelists were written out to avoid a free-for-all.

Saying residents' concerns are premature, Peterson insisted that the question of whether light rail is feasible for the Westside is "for another day."

The commission hasn't even studied this question, Peterson said. And even if it had, he said, buying the Exposition Boulevard right of way would have to wait for several other projects and could not be done without a long, laborious process, including public hearings and comment.

Highly Skeptical

The audience and other panelists seemed to be highly skeptical of Peterson's statements. "Neal, let's be honest," said Holden. "The intent is to put a light-rail line down Exposition Boulevard."

Westside homeowner groups became alarmed last month when the city of Santa Monica bought a parcel of land next to the right of way for storage or a train depot.

The Transportation Commission voted against buying the land but lent Santa Monica $6.9 million of the $17.2-million purchase price, which led opponents to suspect that the commission was brokering the whole deal.

The Santa Monica City Council enthusiastically supports a light-rail line to downtown Los Angeles. Brown said no Santa Monica representative was invited to Wednesday night's forum because that city is a separate jurisdiction "in no way responsible for Los Angeles."

In addition, Brown said, no representative of Santa Monica's hired public relations firm was invited because homeowners groups accuse the firm of misrepresenting facts and because it is not a part of the decision-making process.

Cost Overruns

UCLA's Wachs offered statistics to illustrate how costly light-rail systems have been for other cities. Quoting from a draft copy of a U.S. Department of Transportation study, he said cost overruns ranged from 175% in Atlanta to 900% in Miami.

Projected ridership figures for the Buffalo, N.Y., light-rail system were so far off, it costs taxpayers $10.73 to subsidize every rider, Wachs said. "That's not a good deal for the taxpayer of Buffalo."

Concluding that "light rail is not a cost-efficient use of public funds," Wachs urged using the money instead to strengthen the bus system. 

Copyright 1989 Los Angeles Times

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