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If Last Week’s Hearing Was Any Indication, Enthusiasm Is Low for Downtown L.A. Streetcar

Last week, on the Facebook group for Southern Cal Transit Fans a link was posted to an article in the Downtown News on an upcoming public hearing for the downtown Los Angeles Streetcar proposal. Out of curiosity, to gauge the level of support for the project, I decided to attend.

I have been tracking this proposal since becoming aware in the mid-90s of the effort by the original proponent, George Eslinger, a retired director of the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting. The history of the proposal is complicated, involving successive entities as sponsor before becoming the pet project of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar as part of his Bringing Back Broadway initiative.

The latest step of the process is the release of a draft Environmental Assessment required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, Metro and City of Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation are jointly managing the development of the project and its environmental review process as the local lead agencies. The Federal Transit Administration is the federal lead agency.

Last Thursday, the hearing for public comments began at 6 p.m. on the first floor of the Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles (1st and Main Street). I had a medical appointment that day so I arrived late, but luckily local transit activist (and Vice President of Southern California Transit Advocates) Perias Pillay was there from the start and after the meeting gave me the gist of what happened before I arrived.

At 6:15 p.m. Shiraz Tangri, General Counsel of Los Angeles Streetcar, Inc. began a PowerPoint on the project which lasted until 6:30 p.m. About a dozen members of the public were in attendance.

There were only a few who made comments after the end of the presentation. These included:

    • Philip Capo, local activist, who stated opposition to the loop and having single track service in opposite directions on parallel streets.
    • An older gentleman who stated he surely was the only one in the room who had actually ridden the streetcars spoke glowingly of how it beautified Broadway when the tracks and overhead wires were removed. He seemed perplexed at why the project was being proposed.
    • John Ulloth, another local activist and a member of Southern California Transit Advocates, made extensive notes for his comments that had to be truncated due to the 2 minute limit but he kindly shared the notes which I have posted online. He was overall unsupportive but provided input in case the project goes forward.
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Not the largest crowd. Photo: Dana Gabbard
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One has to wonder based on this event how much support the project actually has. Of the speakers none were unabashed supporters. Besides one commenter who was puzzled about why it was even being proposed, the few others who spoke had quibbles shared on the basis of, “well, if you are set on doing it.”

I sought in vain to perceive the sort of community consensus that is essential to securing the federal funding proponents are seeking. L.A. Subway Inc. has held community meetings that reportedly had a good turnout. Why didn’t they spread the word to ensure supporters were present to speak fervently in favor of it? Staffers from various agencies almost outnumbered members of the public, which is not a good sign.

While one meeting having a paucity of turnout (and seemingly zero promotion in advance) is not fatal to the project it is troubling. As is that it has been over a year since the website and Facebook page of the proponents have been updated. Also I have heard buzz that other L.A. city electeds object to so much transportation funding being sunk into a single council district, for a project with at best tepid projected ridership. One wonders if construction doesn’t commence while the chief proponent is in office, Huizar is termed out in 2020, what the prospects of the project are . Will it slowly fade into obscurity, the fate that many other proposals in our region have met since the start of the millennium?

While I was researching a Southern California streetcar proposal survey for the Spring 2017 issue of the Rail Users’ Network newsletter some notable activists privately shared with me qualms about this project. John Ulloth was dismayed at the hearing staffers he questioned spoke more about the streetcar drawing development than its value as transportation.

Personally, I have always seen it as being more for tourists and likely to often be stuck in traffic due to the lack of a dedicated lane. A video I saw a few years ago on the creation of the Portland streetcar (which is credited for the revival of interest in urban streetcars) impressed me so I will concede it may be a viable idea in some instances. But for all this money being spent what do we get from this project that isn’t already provided by the existing DASH system? And nowadays does downtown actually need any help to spur development? One wonders.

The Environmental Assessment is posted on the Engineering Bureau website along with three volumes of Appendices. Comments are being taken through August 21st and can be submitted to:

City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works
Bureau of Engineering
1149 S. Broadway, Suite 600
Los Angeles, CA 90015-2213
Attention: William Jones

eng.lastreetcarproject[at]lacity.org

For those interested in learning more about the streetcar movement the Streetcar Subcommittee of the American Public Transportation Association (a trade group) has a very informative website that includes news on projects nationwide, and is regularly updated.

My thanks to John Ulloth, Perias Pillay and Shiraz Tangri for their kind assistance.

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