Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Subway Extension Would Make More than a Token Difference for L.A.

By Josh Stephens

Covering what could be the largest infrastructure investment in one’s hometown is naturally a challenge in journalistic objectivity. On the one hand, it would have been difficult for a writer not from Los Angeles to comprehend three decades of background information as well as the present-day complexities of funding, traffic, land use patterns and political wrangling at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On the other hand, one of the proposed portals would be a half-mile from my front door.

Metro serves 88 constituent cities – of which Los Angeles is only one – totaling 10 million people. The Westside, which is the object of the proposed subway – is, in turn, only one part of Los Angeles. But by some measures, it is the largest informal urban region in the country, on par with the New York boroughs and all but the country’s very largest center cities. I describe it as an amorphous Manhattan, a dynamic area of wealth, global prominence and traffic. But it’s even more complicated than that, because Los Angeles city government does not correspond with the transportation authority, and, moreover, the proposed subway would pass through three other entirely independent cities: West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

If I’m guilty of anything, it’s hometown pride, except without the real town. The subway might change that. It might finally knit together the Westside’s parts while, at the same time, introducing perhaps the most profound symbol of serious urbanism that policy and engineering has ever devised (even more so than skyscrapers, and certainly more so than freeways -- which are, many would agree, downright anti-urban).

I could wax poetic about either subways or the Westside ad nauseam, but the poetry is beside the point. What matters for my contribution to InTransition are, one the one hand, things like accuracy, balance and objectivity, and, on the other hand, expertise and familiarity. It’s hard to fulfill both.

I readily admit that if the subway gets built to the Westside, I will be first in line at the turnstile (assuming that Metro goes forward with an asinine plan to abandon its current honor system). Even my Libertarian anti-subway sources admitted that the extension would be “nice.” For me, it would be more than nice; it would be a revelation.

But, as one of the three largest public transit projects in the country, it would also cost $5 billion. And let’s be real. If ever it gets approved, it would be more like $10 billion or $12 billion. Who knows.

The fun thing about pursuing objectivity in the face of one’s own interests is that you learn a lot. Some of my sources who were most skeptical about the subway were the most eloquent and indeed most cogent. The cost-benefit analysis results in some pretty daunting calculations, mainly because Los Angeles’ entire subway system will always pale in comparison to single lines in New York. One source even noted that historically, the construction of rail projects in L.A. County has correlated with a decrease in overall transit ridership. Aw, snap.

But that doesn’t mean that Metro should not pursue it and that the federal government should not fund it. Whenever my mind wanders into the billions, I think about all the money that is wasted on things that aren’t very nice: inefficiency, misguided subsidies, and, of course, wars. A subway will last generations, and it will not kill anyone. In fact, it might even save a few lives through less pollution and fewer chances for unfortunate meetings between vehicle and pedestrian on the pavement up above.

And as gas ratchets towards $5 and beyond with hardly any chance of ever coming down, the Los Angeles subway – as “nice” as it might be for me and my fellow Westsiders right now – may become every bit as essential for us as our cars once were.

Ultimately the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program will decide whether the subway extension deserves federal funds. And, failing that, Congress may work its magic. In the meantime, we in Los Angeles have to decide whether a little pride and a little less traffic is going to be worth it. Worth $5 billion, that is.

Josh Stephens is the author of “An Underground Movement Forms in L.A.,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition.

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