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Frank Gruber

The Return of Railroad Avenue?

By Frank Gruber

My wife has taught at USC since 1979 and ever since we first heard talk of the Expo light rail line she's been looking forward to riding it to campus. That's been at least seventeen years -- since the old L.A. County Transportation Commission bought the Exposition right of way at the urging of the City of Santa Monica.

As the years went by my wife started to say that she expected that her first commute on the line would be to her retirement party.

But now that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has broken ground on Expo Phase 1, perhaps there is hope, at least if she doesn't take early retirement. If the project stays on schedule and if Phase 2 receives funding, trains should return to Santa Monica by 2015.

Last week three meetings took place in Santa Monica, all bearing on Expo's future. The first, Monday evening at the Civic Center, was an informational meeting where the Exposition Construction Authority presented the results of initial investigations into which four alternatives should be studied in Phase 2's environmental review.

Representatives of the Authority explained why, based on initial study data, the Authority would study the impacts of: (i) a light rail line that would follow the old right of way (ROW) through Cheviot Hills, (ii) a "bus rapid transit" line (like the Orange Line) that would also run on the ROW, (iii) a light rail route that took Venice and Sepulveda Boulevards instead of the ROW, and (iv) a light rail route that continued on Venice Boulevard and terminated in Venice instead of Santa Monica.

The second meeting was the City Council meeting Tuesday evening, where the Council authorized spending $300,000 to study an alternative route for the westernmost portion of the line. The Construction Authority's current plan is to have the line veer south off of the right of way west of 26th Street and follow Olympic by way of an elevated line to downtown Santa Monica. The City's money will go to study an alternative route, an at-grade route down Colorado Boulevard. (See story 2007/10_23_07_City_Considers_Expo_Line_Alternatives.htm)

The problems with the Olympic Boulevard route are several. It would replace the existing median and its distinctive coral trees. But even if the median and the trees could be saved by running the tracks in what's now the roadway, to get past Lincoln Boulevard and the freeway off ramps the Authority would have to elevate the line beginning at Eleventh Street, and the line would terminate in a station 35 feet (!) in the air above the corner of Fourth and Colorado.

Alternative routes for Expo light rail through Santa Monica

The third meeting was Thursday evening, at Lincoln Middle School. This was the Planning Department's second workshop in the LUCE update process about what to do with the city's industrial zones. As seen in the map, no matter which route it takes, Expo will pass through the historically industrial area north of the freeway, and much of the planning for the area is about how the tram should affect this relatively isolated part of Santa Monica.

The three meetings were all of a piece. The unifying theme that I discerned was the conflict between urban planning and transportation planning. This conflict has played out since Model T days between urbanists and traffic engineers, but unfortunately it also occurs between urbanists and transit engineers.

In a nutshell, the transpo guys want to move as many vehicles or people as possible, like pumping pressurized water through pipes, while the urbanists want to create good places where people actually might want to linger when they are not traveling.

These two interests don't need to be in opposition, but they often are. Just try to cross the street at any major intersection in L.A. and you'll get my point. (To push the pipes metaphor, an urbanist term for arterial boulevards is "auto sewers.")

But what was really interesting about the three meetings was the contrast between the attitudes in Santa Monica and the attitudes elsewhere on the Expo line. At the Monday night Metro meeting, much of the discussion had to do with grade separations, specifically the lack of them in Expo Phase 1, and the opposition of some Cheviot Hills residents to the ROW route through their neighborhood.

There is a current controversy at Dorsey High School because parents and neighbors believe that running the line at grade past the school will pose a danger to students, who disperse en masse after school lets out. The cross-street at issue, Farmdale Avenue, does not have anywhere near the volume of traffic that would justify, under Metro's standards, a grade separating overpass.

A number of residents from the Phase 1 area, unhappy about the situation at Dorsey, advised residents along Phase 2 to demand more grade separations. Along the same lines, some Cheviot Hills residents argue that running the line next to Overland School would be inherently unsafe.

But in Santa Monica the attitude was the opposite. There was a collective shudder at the industrial lands workshop when the planners projected renderings of what an elevated line starting at Eleventh Street would look like as it rose above Lincoln and swooped over the freeway off ramp to the Fourth Street station three stories in the sky.

It takes 450 feet of embankment to get tracks high enough to pass over a street and if, for example, the tracks were to be flown over Farmdale Avenue, they would create an ugly wall between Dorsey High and the neighborhood on the other side of Exposition Boulevard.

Fortunately, the Planning Department under Eileen Fogarty has brought some new thinking into our planning process in the form of several consultants with experience in both urbanism and transportation planning.

This was lucky. When Ms. Fogarty arrived in Santa Monica, she found a general plan update process that was in disarray. No one, at least in the public, had seen the consultants the City had hired for the process for months. They had done their work up to the point where the City Council had put the process on hold in January 2006.

Ms. Fogarty had to improvise. Fortunately, going back to when she worked for the City of Santa Cruz, she knew some good people in California who were available to work on something of a freelance basis. The City also had some good local planners available on retainer.

These planners -- and let me mention in particular Robert Odermatt, who designed transit-oriented plans for downtown Portland, Oregon, and San Jose; Jeff Tumlin, a multi-modal transportation expert; local planner John Kaliski (known for espousing "everyday urbanism"); local architect John Ruble; and last but not least, the congenial facilitator Daniel Iacofana -- have, along with the City's re-energized in-house planning staff, reinvigorated the LUCE process.

And when I say, "reinvigorated," I mean precisely that -- they have brought the process back from the dead. Not quite rock stars, they are nonetheless drawing well -- 120 participants registered at Thursday's industrial lands workshop.

Industrial Lands Workshop at Lincoln Middle School(photos by Frank Gruber)

It was because of input from these outside planners that the City took a new look at the Construction Authority's over-engineered (and hugely expensive) plans for the Olympic flyover and station in the sky. They have experience in other cities, and they know that contrary to the received wisdom in L.A., it is not necessary for safety or traffic management purposes to have grade separations in urban areas. (Although in some circumstances they may make sense.)

In fact, the outsiders only reminded us of what we already know. We know that elevated transit lines are ugly and, if we have traveled to other cities with light rail, especially in Europe, but also cities like Portland or San Diego, we know that in those cities trams run right along the streets.

Tram stop in Prague neighborhood

So, bravo to the planners and the City Council for taking matters into their own hands and commissioning a study of the Colorado Avenue route. In the old days, when Santa Monica was supposed to become the great port of Los Angeles, and what's now the Exposition line was its rail connection to the rest of the continent, Colorado Avenue was called Railroad Avenue. No offense to the Mountain State, but perhaps the City should change the name back.

Meeting Notice: The City Council itself will take up the principles that will govern planning for the industrial areas and for the new circulation element at a meeting tomorrow night. I don't know if the Council will attract as many as 120 people, but it will be interesting to see if the collective wisdom of the hundreds who have participated in the planning department workshops will have as much impact on the Council as, say, whomever the council members last bumped into at a coffee shop, or whoever shows up to harangue the Council that night.

In any case, I recommend the staff report.

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