The Coming of Better Transit in L.A.

Automobiles weren't the only modes of transportation affecting the universe in 1982.

In the years after World War II, the way Americans viewed transportation shifted to reflect an overall lifestyle migration from an urban society to metropolitan sprawl. Places that were once agrarian and bucolic became paved with new family housing units and expanding businesses supporting the new suburbs.

To coincide with this move, it was deemed that the current public transport infrastructure would not be the optimal solution for linking these new homes with places of employment. Somehow, the equation came up with money for roads – limited-access ones designed for automobile use, specifically – instead of laying down new streetcar rolling stock beyond a city's terminus. Instead, public transit sought to remove the old streetcar in favor of the bus in induce more flexibility in the transport system.

Buses supplanting streetcars was a drop in the bucket to what transpired during the postwar years. Automobile sales skyrocketed thanks to the suburban migration. To survive in the suburbs, you have to find a way to go from Point A to Point B. The automobile became the primary mode of transport in these new neighborhoods thanks to the G.I. Bill, affordable purchasing options, low insurance rates and very low fuel prices.

There were some consequences to the growth of the automobile. Traffic on main arteries grew beyond capacity. Air quality worsened in various places. As a way to alleviate these problems, public transportation agencies sent buses out to the suburbs. In some cities, commuter rail operations began to take root as another, more direct option for downtown workers. Metropolitan areas also had grander solutions involving metropolitan rail systems – including a return of the streetcar.

My hometown, Los Angeles, bore the worse of these problems. In light of the constant smog layer that hung over Southern California and the increased number of cars on the region's freeways, they also discussed solutions to these problems for the entire Basin. The primary public transportation provider was the Southern California Rapid Transit District – one of the largest operators of transit buses in the USA in 1982. The RTD's network of buses stretched from Thousand Oaks to the west out to San Bernardino in the east, down to Anaheim in south. Interlocked with the RTD was a network of smaller municipally-owned transit systems running buses for their communities that connected and, sometimes, competed with the larger regional transit operator.

The intersection of Victory and Reseda Boulevards were served by two main RTD routes: One connecting Burbank with a cross-town bus ending in what is now called West Hills; the other running from Northridge down along Ventura Boulevard – onward to downtown Los Angeles. In similar communities across the USA, the chance that a public transit system servicing at the frequency of these two lines is quite rare for the most part. The RTD knew that communities, such as Reseda, would be key areas where transit would be served regularly to keep commuters and non-automobile owners moving.

However, the RTD also knew that eventually an all-bus transit network would run its course. The freeways were either reaching capacity or are beyond limits. Buses were part of the traffic pattern on Los Angeles freeways with no end in sight – unless the RTD came up with better solutions.

This was where the Metro Red Line was born.

In 1980, the RTD sponsored a county referendum to increase the sales tax to help pay for the building of a rail infrastructure for Los Angeles. Though it was not the first ballot measure of its kind in California – and not the first time such a question was brought to the voters of Southern California – it was rare to ask voters to pay for more taxes to pay for public transportation. That all changed with a statewide ballot initiative that changed the way property taxes were valued. In 1978, the property tax revolt initiative passed with one consequence – it decreased revenue to the coffers of each county within the state.

Since local governments experienced a steep decrease in revenue from property taxes, Californians began to see a reduction of services that were taken for granted. The biggest losers were the public schools as district budgets were being cut in response to the property tax revolt. Another consequence of the initiative was public transportation. It seemed that the days of heavily subsidized fares and service funding were about to go away. To offset the loss in property tax revenue, transit systems had no choice but to raise fares and/or cut service. It also meant that certain operational improvement and expansion projects were sent to the back burner until there was a better way to pay for them.

Governments, transit operators and other interested parties knew that a big revenue generator was from the sales tax. Most states elected to set their own sales tax to ensure a steady flow from retail sales into the government's coffers. There was no law preventing local governments from tacking on additional taxes on top of what the state asked for on each transaction. Usually, they're allowed a fraction of a percent for such additional taxes.

This was exactly what the RTD had in mind. Add a fraction of a percent to the sales tax charged throughout the RTD's service area – primarily Los Angeles County – and have the revenue go towards construction of a rail infrastructure. A brilliant idea for a region in love with the automobile!

Los Angeles County voters passed Proposition A. A half-a-percent sales tax was added to every taxable item throughout the county. By 1982, we were engaged in conversations regarding one specific piece of the rail network: The Wilshire Corridor. When the ballot measure was on the ballot, the biggest selling point of the proponents was the building of a subway line underneath Wilshire Boulevard – one of the key thoroughfares in the city. Wilshire ran from downtown Los Angeles through Beverly Hills and Westwood before it ends in Santa Monica by the Pacific Ocean. The RTD ran frequent bus service on the street for years to overwhelming capacity. The idea of the subway was to alleviate stress on surface routes concentrating key intersections as stations for transfers to surface bus routes. The subway's proposed route had it turn up towards Hollywood, through the Cahuenga Pass and Universal City to its ultimate stop in North Hollywood.

However, the first project that would actually be constructed appeared to be the easiest to do – the Blue Line light rail project from Long Beach. However, the Blue Line relied on the Red Line’s subway construction for it to be connected as part of a regional network, so construction plans called for an underground transfer station underneath 7th and Flower Streets.

It was not a perfect design as it involved two different types of rail systems. The Wilshire/Hollywood Corridor was designed for "heavy rail," using heavier rolling stock for higher capacity. The line would be the first of the kind to be built after the opening of MARTA's system in Atlanta. The Red Line would be designed with maximum space in most of the stations, even beyond the large station enclosures in Washington, DC’s Metro Rail system. Yet, it would be the only heavy rail line in the entire network – rightfully, so.

While the Wilshire Corridor subway garnered the most discussion about the future of transit in Los Angeles, there were a lot of us in the San Fernando Valley had no idea about any other projects stemming from the Proposition A funds. Aside from the Blue Line light rail from Long Beach, we had no idea that the “extension” from North Hollywood would become a bus rapid transit right-of-way. The old Southern Pacific rail corridor that ran down the middle of Chandler Boulevard eventually making its way to Reseda and Canoga Park would have its rails ripped out in favor of a mixed-use paved and landscaped alternative pathway. Opening 25 years after Proposition A was voted on; the Metro Orange Line ran bus service down a two-lane busway, with a bicycle/pedestrian pathway running alongside of it most of the way. Frankly, none of us in Reseda in 1982 ever saw that coming.

The Orange Line did take away one of our hangouts: The "Trestle." The Southern Pacific rail line had a few little nooks unknown to the public at large. There was a bit of a bridge that equaled out the rail line near a National Guard station on Victory Boulevard. The Trestle became a place where some of my friends would hang out and party. Having never been there, I could only imagine what transpired those late nights in an area that was supposed to be off limits to civilians. I wished I did. But, alas, progress took a bit of history away from our youth.

Not all railroad lines were ripped out for bus rapid transit. Another surprise developed in the form of a commuter rail network that would serve the San Fernando Valley and the rest of Los Angeles Basin – Metrolink. No one in 1982 expected that Los Angeles would follow in the path of New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and the Bay Area in terms of creating a wider network of commuting options using rail rolling stock for multiple purposes. The line did not run through Reseda, but one could get the train in Northridge for a commute either towards Ventura County or into downtown Los Angeles. You could even take the train to Burbank Airport – something that was made possible thanks to a prior expansion of Amtrak's service in California by the end of the 1980s. Metrolink began service in 1992.

One could imagine the future. I imagined it upon my visits to the Bay Area during that time before my relocation up there in 1987. A given ride on BART made me question the transportation system in Los Angeles. Why did the RTD have to rely on buses to solely be the solution to get people out of their cars and off the freeways? A temporary answer came when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. The RTD forged a campaign that got Losangelinos out of their cars for the two weeks during the games to improve air quality and provide a network of buses to several key venues of the games. It worked. I recall at the halfway mark of the games when ABC's Jim McKay reflected on how the freeways were less crowded and the air was more breathable.

After the games, Los Angeles began to implement the dreams of Proposition A. After my nine-year stint in the Bay Area, I returned briefly to my hometown to experience the results in action. I was amazed that my hometown could execute a rail system – both heavy and light modes – that worked along key corridors…and, worked extremely well!

Even the Basin's transit network reached out further. Growth in housing in the Santa Clarita, Antelope and Moreno Valleys saw new buses and commuter rail arrive at their doorsteps. It is now possible to commute from Lancaster to downtown Los Angeles or at one of the employment centers in the San Fernando Valley – something never thought possible in 1982.

Perhaps, it was all a dream. In 1982, it certainly was. The reality certainly elevated my hometown with a new found fondness for it.

Photo by Randy Stern

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