Neighborhood Entitlement and Transit Projects

Transportation is inherently political. Every part of modern life – from globalization, to the way we shape our cities, to the people with whom we interact – is directly related to the means by which get around. Once the realm of engineers in an office with a scale and a slide rule, large transportation projects have transformed into political behemoths whose main purpose is to satisfy every single possible stakeholder. Whether this means a large constituency of economically disadvantaged people being cut off from a city by a massive freeway (think the 10 in Los Angeles) or even a few San Francisco Garter Snakes near your construction site (BART to SFO), environmental regulations and the public input process for transportation projects are here to stay. This attitude, however, goes up against the main principle of most intraregional transportation projects – that regional investment in a rail line or roadway benefits local residents the most – but critically provides a great benefit to the region as a whole, and thus is worth the collective expenditure. Balancing these two interests – smaller constituencies like environmentalists and immediately local residents, and the larger groups who often foot the bill (regions, states, federal governments) is a critical matter of debate in American transportation policy and the topic of another discussion entirely.

Two upcoming transit projects highlight the dramatic difference between agencies and cities that have taken a constructive approach to neighborhood entitlement, NIMBYism and balancing local and regional interests, and those that have simply failed. These projects are East Link Light Rail in Seattle, Washington managed by Sound Transit, and the Crenshaw/LAX Corridor in Los Angeles, California managed by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).

First on the Crenshaw Line –

The Crenshaw/LAX corridor in Los Angeles runs from the corner of Exposition Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard in Leimert Park to Avaiation Boulevard and Imperial Highway near LAX. It has been a cornerstone of the Measure R transit projects and hailed as a badly needed second north-south transit line through South Los Angeles. As expected, Metro chose the Locally Preferred Alternative as a LRT line that traverses Crenshaw Boulevard until it reaches the Harbor Subdivision, after which it continues along that subdivision (now owned by Metro) until it reaches the Green Line Aviation Station. Most local residents and business owners are satisfied with this plan – the only matter of contention is how much of the line will be tunneled under Crenshaw and the addition of a Leimert Park station near proposed stations at Crenshaw/King and Crenshaw/Slauson. Budgetary obligations have forced Metro to only tunnel the line until about 48th Street, after which the line will run in the median of Crenshaw Boulevard and also consider eliminating the Leimert Park station. After long periods of public comment on the project’s environmental documents (EIR/EIS), Metro agreed to build the Leimert Park station. The $160 million? Metro will find it somewhere (to be decided). Even after this not-so-trivial tradeoff with the local community, Metro has still found itself embroiled in a lawsuit over the EIR. Lawsuits, massive change orders, gross negligence in construction contract writing, and public opposition nearly doomed the Exposition Line to failure and have made Expo nearly three years late and $300 million over budget. Is Crenshaw destined to follow in its footsteps?

East Link:

Yonah Freemark has the situation with East Link summed up well on his post on a Sound Transit’s compromise with the City of Bellevue. Essentially, Bellevue demanded a tunnel for its somewhat dense downtown, despite ample room on streets for the addition of Light Rail. Due to innovative engineering, a higher cost estimate for the surface option than first anticipated and crucially – a mutually beneficial agreement between Bellevue and Sound Transit, the tunneling option is now the Locally Preferred Alternative. This agreement was based upon a potentially precedent-setting decision Sound Transit made – Bellevue offered to pay for about half of the additional cost for the tunnel and Sound Transit, in the spirit of fostering community support and shrewdly avoiding possible future litigation, agreed to pay the second half. This arrangement is the ideal way to address local concerns to a regionally beneficial project. Locals win because they get their tunnel, and they did not even have to pay for all of it. The region wins due to the much lower likelihood of costly, time consuming litigation, and the general goodwill towards the project created by a selective distribution of funding to satiate local constituencies.

Like many transportation related matters, striking an appropriate balance is key in assuaging local concerns while building a transportation system that serves an entire region well. In compromising with Bellevue, Sound Transit has shown an aptitude for the political realities of transit projects while still managing to get the City to pay for a major portion of the tunnel it demanded. I would like to challenge Metro to come up with a similar arrangement for Crenshaw – offer a longer tunnel and the Leimert Park station, hust make a local contribution in the form of a parcel tax on the businesses who gain from the tunnel, or some other means, contingent to the agreement. Meeting the community halfway is the best way to proceed on alignment issues – just look at Expo. Metro refused to budge on the grade crossings at Farmdale and Trousdale/USC. What if the University had chipped in for a grade separated line until Vermont, or custom architecture at the three stations adjacent to campus? Because Metro refused to propose mutually beneficial options in good faith, as Sound Transit has now successfully done, South Los Angeles has ended up with an operationally inferior LRT line that is years late and hundreds of millions overbudget. Metro – it is time to start compromising with communities. Otherwise, see you in court.

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About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on November 8, 2011, in Los Angeles, Measure R, Metro Rail, Policy and Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think you’re assuming too much good faith on the part of the community in some of your examples (Expo). The issue at Farmdale (and, similarly, Cheviot Hills and Trousdale) is not really whether high-school students are too stupid to be hit by a loud and bright vehicle, capable of moving in only a single dimension, and whose path can only be crossed at designated points equipped with warning devices, but whether the entire project could be killed by creating cost over-runs in one specific part.

    I would blame the lead attorney in this case (who has a history of anti-transit/infrastructure activism) more than the actual plaintiffs: at every stage of the process, the most expensive alternative was demanded in the hope that it would make the entire project untenable. The ultimate solution for Farmdale was a station designed so that trains stop before crossing the intersection–I still don’t understand how a train moving at 0 mph is dangerous to high-school students, (some of who are adults) but even this solution was opposed.

    The demands by some Cheviot Hills residents for Phase II were and are just as ridiculous–a re-routing of Expo that would simultaneously: make it slower (causing decreased ridership); take the line through subdivisions with less demand for the line (causing decreased ridership); and make it more expensive to build and operate. This was a very strategic attempt to cause the line fail cost-effectiveness tests (riders per infrastructure dollar) and thereby lose eligibility for federal infrastructure funds, under the guise of ‘improving’ the line–a slightly more sophisticated attack than the one conjured up for Farmdale

    USC’s motivation for opposition to the Trousdale station is obvious: Every USC-owed parking lot and structure is full on football weekends, and parking ain’t free. So, the financial interests of the university run counter to allowing easy access to the Colosseum by means other than private automobiles. The university might have gained some traction if it weren’t for the fact that virtually every group of stakeholders (students, faculty, and staff) were overwhelming in favor of the project. Also unhelpful was the university’s official opposition to the existence of the entire line.

    That said, I agree that buying out the opposition is sometimes a good option, and working *with* the community should always be encouraged. It’s just that you sometimes need to cut your losses and forge ahead when the counter-party isn’t interested in helping to find a solution. We also need to find someone who isn’t an idiot to write the build contracts.

    • Beautifully put Hat,

      Here’s the phrase that shook my head;

      “In compromising with Bellevue, Sound Transit has shown an aptitude for the political realities of transit projects while still managing to get the City to pay for a major portion of the tunnel it demanded.”

      It can easily be argued that Sound Transit is inept in the political realities as this new compromise will cost other regions extensions of the LRT Link trains into their areas. Instead of full alignments to the destinations, they will only go partially with the rest to which will cause greater antagonism as their extensions and lines will not be build because those funds were used to build a tunnel that wasn’t necessary and now will have to be covered at a later date and a much greater financial AND political cost.

      Los Angeles, learned this lesson the hard way 15-20 years ago in building the transit projects as this Seattle style method is one of the causes of LA County taxpayers to be fed up with the subway funding and stop it all together.

      With Seattle and Los Angeles, you have the polar contrasts in how important the regional equity issue is with both regions. LA “regional equity” of making sure all the projects were funded and were built with the subregions was the cornerstone of having Measure R approved by the voters. The issue there was that if you start one prescedent here in “good faith” in which you go over budget you have to do the same thing for EVERY Project which will put in jeopardy the entire funding arrangement of the sales tax measure.

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