Sometime in late May, I will walk across the street from the USC campus and board the Expo Line, riding all the way to Santa Monica. I am in awe.
Of course, Phase II of the train line going from Culver City to the ocean is a feat of modern engineering and excellent municipal planning. But what stuns me is the civic commitment and amazing perseverance of a grassroots group of Los Angeles volunteers who made this transportation option a reality.
In fall 2000, I was only five years old and living in North Carolina when a group called “Friends 4 Expo Transit” formed. These were citizens who were passionate about their city and convinced that public transportation was essential to relieve the growing traffic burden that was choking the Los Angeles metropolitan area and impacting the quality of life for everyone.
While some advocated a bus system or perhaps building a subway, this group favored light rail, no doubt influenced by the historic railroad right of way that existed along Exposition Boulevard. The rails first began carrying passengers and freight between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica in 1875. At first, the trains were pulled by a steam engine, but later the line became electric-powered. Known as the Air Line, this important link was a crucial factor in building today’s modern city. Passenger service ran until 1953 and the freight service continued until 1988.
When the rail service stopped, line owner Southern Pacific railway began to lease the land for parking lots, buildings and a variety of other uses. But when the railroad needed cash, it decided to sell all the property in 1991 to the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the predecessor of today’s MTA. It was a pivotal decision that set the stage for today’s modern transportation system.
With the land secured and city tax revenues passed by voters, the stage was set for more than two decades of planning and fighting. Transportation disputes are notorious for dividing cities because of the impact on property, businesses, traffic patterns and residential neighborhoods. Into this fray stepped transportation activist Darrell Clarke and others of a similar mind and determination. This was not their full-time job, and there is no way they could have foreseen the challenges ahead to make the Expo Line a reality. Over 27 years, Clarke and his friends found themselves at the center of disputes over street crossings, environmental impact studies, on-again-off-again support from elected officials, the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding, the opposition of the Los Angeles Unified School District, dawdling of the Public Utilities Commission, fights over which trees needed to be cut down and much, much more. As recently as 2013, those advocating for the Expo found themselves in a court battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court, as a group of neighborhood associations tried to block the project on environmental grounds.
“I didn’t expect it to become a life’s work,” Clarke said in an interview with L.A. Streetsblog columnist Joel Epstein. “I guess when you believe in something that much and you see an opportunity, you keep working for it. I certainly remember, it was 2000 or 2001 and the news was bad. But you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on. We were figuring it out as we went along. Around 2000, I remember someone saying we should hire a paid political consultant to work on Expo’s behalf. But we decided that it was important to remain a grassroots organization.”
What motivated these citizens to devote their time to organize more than 1,000 supporters, send out newsletters, build a website, conduct petition drives, write letters to the editor, attend seemingly endless mind-numbing public hearings and government meetings, endure insults and threats of lawsuits, and become experts in arcane environmental laws and the minutia of transportation studies? They simply said they were advocates for a fast, safe, comfortable, quiet, exhaust-free, high capacity transportation system. They knew the city desperately needed this critical leg of a metro-wide public transit system. This was pure civic engagement and democracy in action.
The tireless work of Friends 4 Expo Transit paid off in April 2012 when the Phase I 8.6 mile section opened for service. Construction on the Phase II 6.6 mile section began in 2011 and the line will open for service on May 20.
The impact is already being felt. Property values and rents are rising in the struggling neighborhoods served by the Expo west of USC and all the way to Santa Monica. Culver City, which has enjoyed the Expo benefits for four years, is becoming a growing tech hub with maker studios and high-end restaurants. Quite simply, life in the city is much more attractive when one can hop on a clean and safe train and stay off the gridlocked highways. And with tens of thousands of passengers riding the rails every day, perhaps those roads will be slightly more bearable.
I wonder if Darrell Clarke took a few moments in the late 1990s to contemplate the future benefits to a toddler who would make her way to Los Angeles and enjoy the fruits of his efforts 20+ years in the future. I hope that Clarke and his friends take a few moments as they prepare for a ribbon-cutting to consider the true value of what they have accomplished. Los Angeles is a better place because of their determination. It’s something I’ll think about every time I board the Expo.