AN ARMCHAIR HISTORY … SECOND OF THREE PARTS - (My friend and neighbor Dr. Ken Alpern recently wrote a CityWatch article about the struggle to make the Metro Expo Line (what I will shorten to Expo Line in this article) a reality, offering an insight that only someone who has been down in the trenches fighting the good fight (and still is/does) can provide. Ken has asked if I can provide a deeper historical perspective.)
By the late 1940s a new mode of getting people from place to place faster was coming in: freeways. Pacific Electric tried to show that freeways and rail could coexist by pointing to the Hollywood Freeway as an example where commuter rail ran down the center, but freeways were meant for cars and not trains. Freeways were the final nail in the rail transit coffin.
Freeways were messy and expensive projects and not everyone welcomed them. Regarding one segment of the Santa Monica Freeway (then unofficially called the Olympic Freeway; it would officially be renamed the Santa Monica Freeway April 26, 1957), the Los Angeles Times reported 10/12/1955 that 200 community groups were against some of the proposed route because “people had bought or built homes in the areas of Cheviot Hills, California Country Club Estates, Westwood Gardens and West Los Angeles with the belief that the areas would be free of freeway encroachment.”
In addition to the freeway woes, the Los Angeles Times ran an article 9/29/1956 about community organizations representing property owners in Cheviot Hills, Westwood Gardens, Rancho Homes and Beverly Hills filing a complaint with the State Public Utilities Commission objecting to the diesel locomotives pulling freight on the Air Line and asking that Pacific Electric “halt operations of the diesel trains on grounds that they are creating noise, vibration, smog, dirt and dust that would not result from the operation of electric-powered equipment such as the lines were originally empowered to use.”
Unfortunately, the overhead wires were removed almost immediately after the last passenger car traversed the Air Line.
Evidently, the community organizations were initially ignored. On April 6, 1958 the Los Angeles Times ran a small article about property owners in Cheviot Hills, West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills once again complaining about the “noise and vibration caused by the heavy freight operations [and] the unkempt condition of the railways right of way.” Southern Pacific responded by installing heavy mufflers on all of the engines operating on the line and suggested they may limit operation of the line primarily to daylight hours, in addition to cleaning up the lines.
On November 28, 1963 the Los Angeles Times published an article about the State Division of Highways agreeing to plant oleanders six feet apart to “provide a buffer between homes and the Pacific Electric right-of-way along….the route between Northvale Rd. and Overland Ave.”
Homeowners, who complained when the trees and shrubbery were removed when the tracks were lowered beneath the Santa Monica freeway, “offered to maintain [the new shrubs] but the state said the transient nature of homeowners made the offer impractical” and required that the City of Los Angeles maintain the shrubs. Unfortunately, the city attorney’s office “refused to agree to city maintenance of a planted buffer” (LA Times 3/8/1964) and the residents had to re-petition the city. The “cooperative planting project … involving Los Angeles City, the State Division of Highways and the Pacific Electric Railway” finally commenced late September 1964 (LA Times 10/1/1964).
Meanwhile, the Air Line continued to operate as a relatively profitable freight line for a few more decades. (The last remnants of the once mighty Pacific Electric disappeared August 13, 1965 when it was absorbed into its parent company Southern Pacific.) While the Air Line soldiered on, so did freeway construction.
In 1960 when the final leg of the Santa Monica Freeway was approved, the “route between Olympic Blvd. and Michigan Ave. was protested by Mrs. Alyce Gullattee, president of the Santa Monica branch, National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, who declared that it would cause the displacement of 1,900 Negro residents. She was advised by A. L. Muller, division of highways design engineer, that in the over-all freeway picture minority groups are no more affected than majority groups” (LA Times 1/31/1960). The route was approved 3 to 1 by the Santa Monica City Council.
When the Los Angeles to Long Beach line ended rail passenger service in the wee hours of April 9, 1961, busses were put in place the next day. The community that suffered the most from the loss of rail service was Watts. The busses took longer to get downtown and did not have the long hours of service the train had, therefore getting to and from work was more difficult. Consequently, unemployment rose in the Watts area. Is it possible that the loss of a good transportation network may have been a contributing factor to the Watts riots a mere four years later?
(Twenty-nine years later (1990) the Metro Blue Line opened on virtually the same route as the LA-Long Beach line.)
In 1968 Proposition A was put on the ballot. The proposition was meant to raise $2.5 billion for mass transit improvement. Voters soundly defeated the measure and blame was put on the sponsors for their “rail fixation” (LA Times 11/10/1968). At that time a gallon of gas was roughly 35 cents and cars were growing larger every year. Streetcars had disappeared a mere five years earlier and freeways were still relatively new and interesting, the last segment of the 14.9 mile Santa Monica Freeway having opened in early 1966, 12 years after the project began and $190 million later -- $104 million for the right-of-way and $86 million for construction (LA Times 1/4/1966).
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Expo Line started emerging as a potential “new” rail commuter line. In a Los Angeles Times article dated 2/20/1975, Jonathan Beaty, and aide to LA County Supervisor Baxter Ward, noted that a “commuter train originating at a downtown Los Angeles terminal could follow tracks which extend west along Exposition Blvd. past USC and the Coliseum and into Santa Monica, roughly parallel the Santa Monica Freeway.” At that time there were many issues, one being “access to rail use which railroads so far have blocked” and “the lack of grade separated crossings (bridges over, or passes under streets.” Still, Supervisor Ward was optimistic and felt that “the cost of preparing a rapid transit system on existing rail lines throughout the county would be a fraction of the price projected for previous rapid transit proposals.” It would be “economical and … immediate [and we] wouldn’t have to condemn houses and businesses.”
(Although a number of businesses had to be torn down and relocated due to some realignment of the Expo Line route (other businesses on the route simply leased the property), to my knowledge not a single residence had to be torn down. And while trains are involved in accidents, often spectacular ones, so are cars and busses. On the other hand, where a train will be is highly predictable, so it is far easier to avoid getting hit by a train than by a bus or car.)
1982 heard the first real talk of what would become the Metro Blue Line, which opened in 1990, and other potential lines. A Los Angeles Times article dated 3/22/1982 noted that “a line to downtown Los Angeles via Exposition Boulevard and one from downtown to La Mirada along Firestone Boulevard” were as “plausible as the Los Angeles-Long Beach line.” Estimates given for Expo Line was $182 million to build (1982 dollars), a route 17.8 miles long and a one-way trip time of 49 minutes. Roughly 5.7 million passengers were estimated to ride it annually. A major issue noted was the “historic opposition from the Southern Pacific railroad, which controls the abandoned Pacific Electric rights of way” who “refused to even talk” to the commission. Another issue was that the proposed routes should “not compete for funding with [Mayor] Bradley’s highly touted proposed Wilshire subway.” (Wilshire Blvd., by the way, never had a rail line on it; Gaylord and William Wilshire insisted that the city council forbid the laying of tracks on their boulevard – forever.)
(If memory serves, the last freight delivered along the old Air Line into Santa Monica was in March, 1987 to Fisher Lumber. The delivery was noted in the Evening Outlook. I recall reading inspectors had to walk in advance of the locomotive to make sure the tracks were still passable; the rails by then were in less than ideal condition.)
1988 heard some early rumblings about Expo Line. An August 4, 1988 Los Angeles Times article noted “a Westside commuter line is still no more than a figment of the imagination” but that “one possible route is already in place – the 100-year-old Exposition Boulevard freight line that is about to be abandoned by the Southern Pacific railroad.” Christine E. Reed, the vice chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and a member of the Santa Monica City Council, noted that people “will be demanding this [line] in 15 to 20 years, when there will be no other way to get to work.” “It’s kind of spooky that it’s all there,” she said. Even though the line wasn’t even up for sale yet, “homeowner groups and Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky [were] alarmed by the prospect of a busy commuter line in a residential neighborhood.” Zev Yaroslavsky wrote a letter to Santa Monica officials saying “noise, vibration, aesthetic impact, invasion of privacy, vandalism and security issues” were reasons why construction through residential areas should be ruled out.
“To read Zev’s letter, you’d think we’re going to run [commuter] trains tomorrow,” Christine Reed replied. Despite the local opposition, others were in favor of or at least willing to hear all arguments. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter believed “the idea should not be dismissed out of hand.”
If Expo Line has a birthday, it is Tuesday, May 2, 1989. On that day at a Los Angeles news conference Southern Pacific “offered to sell 76.5 miles of unused railroad lines to local governments for three public transit routes that would link Santa Monica, San Bernardino and Santa Ana with downtown Los Angeles” (LA Times, 5/3/1989). Railroad Vice Chairman Robert Starzel stressed that the promptness of government entities accepting the offer “is more important to the company right now than price.” Seven years before the railroad wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of using the right-of-ways for passenger service and now it was making a “bold initiative” by offering the lines for sale. Starzel said Southern Pacific “could sell the property more easily to individual developers than to the public and probably would do so if government entities drag their feet about expressing interest.” (Historical aside: In 1876 Southern Pacific virtually extorted money from Los Angeles to bring their rail lines into the city. I guess some tactics never change.)
Why now? The Southern Pacific had merged six months earlier with Rio Grande and reorganized and “the company’s new chairman, Phillip Anschutz, insisted that the rail freight lines first be offered for public transit in order to ease traffic congestion in the Los Angeles Basin.” As a philanthropist and savvy businessman, the gracious offer no doubt made sense to the billionaire. In addition, Proposition A was passed by Los Angeles voters in 1980 approving a half-cent sales tax for a regional transit system, so there was money in the bank. Similar proposals in 1968 and 1974 (despite the 1973 oil embargo) had failed to pass, but 1980 was literally on the heels of the 1979 “energy crisis,” big gas-guzzling cars were on the way out and Los Angeles freeways were packed beyond their capacity.
Negotiations between Southern pacific and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission broke off according to a July 18, 1990 article in The Outlook. “After four months of serious talks, Southern Pacific walked away from the table in June.” The public announcement came days after the Blue Line opened to the public on July 14, 1990. Hmm.
Fortunately, “Los Angeles County Transit officials [called] for the resumption of formal negotiations with the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. for the purchase of 173 miles of additional commuter rail lines” (LA Times 7/20/1990). And the renewed talks yielded results: “Los Angeles County CA and Southern Pacific Transportation Co officials announced on Oct 12, 1990 that agreement on a landmark purchase of 177 miles of valuable rights-of-way that is expected to speed development of a regional commuter rail system had been made.” The selling price: $450 million, or about $2.54 million a mile. Of note is that an extra 100 miles of right-of-way were added to the initial offering the year before.
Perhaps because of the right-of-way purchase and the renewed optimism that Los Angeles would once again have a passenger light rail network, Proposition C was passed by Los Angeles County voters in November 1990. Proposition C approved a half-cent sales tax increase to provide funding to “critical” transportation projects and programs such as rail and bus security, commuter rail, transit centers, and park and ride lots. Proposition C was intended to support projects and programs developed with Proposition A funds and, in particular, to provide funding to help improve and expand the rail system started with Proposition A funds.
The easy part was over.
● Note: Expo Line-An Armchair History (Part 3) will be posted on Thursday, Sept 19 at CityWatchLA.com
(Fred Gurzeler is a native Westsider who has been following the rail transit drama for decades. He is a member of the Southern California Traction Club whose members have forgotten more about rail transit in Los Angeles than Fred ever hopes to know. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Gurzeler.)
Vol 11 Issue 74
Pub: Sept 13, 2013