Following a contentious five-and-a-half hour debate highlighted by impassioned comments by members of the public, the 15-member board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted May 26 to kill a motion that would have placed the portion of the Crenshaw-LAX rail line underground in the Park Mesa Heights area, but left open the possibility for a Leimert Park station.
The meeting’s outcome may be the beginning of a lengthy fight aimed at the MTA board and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
MTA board member and county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced the motion to build a one-mile underground stretch of the Crenshaw-LAX rail line along Crenshaw Boulevard from 48th to 59th streets, arguing that an at-grade line would threaten the safety of nearby students and senior citizens, while potentially displacing businesses, fostering more gridlock on surface streets and dividing the Crenshaw community.
An analysis by Metro staff concluded that the line could be safely built at-grade while navigating seven intersections in the area and also keeping all current traffic lanes on Crenshaw. It was also noted that impacts could be mitigated by eliminating automobile parking for patrons on both sides of Crenshaw Boulevard, reducing left turn movements, removing trees and landscaping and putting up adequate signage. Ridley-Thomas also asked that an additional station be placed at the business and cultural mecca Leimert Park Village, which is predominantly African-American.
The two projects, said Metro staff, would have further caused the $1.7 billion budget slated for the entire project to go over by another $400 million. It is estimated that the current budget is already over by more than $100 million.
It was due to financial constraints and based on Metro staff’s analysis — which contended that redirecting money to the two initiatives would delay other projects or potentially eliminate them all together, and hamper the county’s infrastructure because maintenance and renovations on crumbling lines and freeways would not be tended to — that Ridley-Thomas was unable to accrue the seven votes necessary for the Park Mesa Heights undergrounding to pass, despite demonstrating that up to $2 billion in funds from lower-priority maintenance and system enhancement projects could have been redirected to that portion of the line without affecting any new transit or highway projects. There were other potential funding sources, such as Expo Measure R funds for the “substitute project,” Measure R Green Line to LAX funds, Arbor Vitae interchange project funds and surplus property sales.
Ultimately, the board voted to include the Leimert Park/Vernon Station in the plan, but only if bidders could build the station within the already allotted $1.7 billion budget for the project. The project will go out for construction bids in 2012.
Villaraigosa, also an MTA board member, along with his three appointed board members, could have easily saved both initiatives, said Damien Goodmon, executive director of United Community Associations Inc.
Villaraigosa acknowledged that Ridley-Thomas and residents of South Los Angeles had advocated for Measure R prior to it being put before voters in 2008, and they were key drivers in making sure that it passed.
“Were it not Mark Ridley-Thomas and the [state] Senate and his leadership, we would not have been able to put Measure R on the ballot in the first place,” he said, noting that a number of the members of the Metro board rejected it. “We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if there was no Measure R. That is not something to dismiss lightly. … All of this was just a pipe dream. Time and time again, Mr. Ridley-Thomas is on the mark when he says when you look at the demographics of where the vote comes from — not just on Measure R, but virtually every school bond, library bond and park bond — it comes from the community that is here today. We wouldn’t have Measure R if it were not for that community.”
In the end, however, Villaraigosa rejected the idea of undergrounding the line in Park Mesa Heights and supported the possibility of adding a train station in Leimert Park in the plans, stating that he is confident that it will come to fruition based on bids for other projects, which have been coming in at 30 percent under expected costs.
“The mayor stabbed us in the back. He doomed the Park Mesa Heights merchants. He basically wrote them a death certificate, and doomed the Crenshaw corridor community to second-class status,” Goodmon said. “I was a bit insulted with the motion that did pass regarding the Leimert Park Village station; it was quite ridiculous. The money clearly was there. The votes — [Supervisors Ridley-Thomas, Michael Antonovich and Gloria Molina] — clearly were there. The mayor just simply did not care to represent our community, which I guess isn’t anything new.
“The mayor controls four votes,” Goodmon added, referring to Villaraigosa and his appointed members Mel Wilson, Richard Katz and Jose Huizar. “So, basically, if we had the mayor of Los Angeles represent South Los Angeles and the people who elected him we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, we would be throwing a big party and planning for the future of Crenshaw Boulevard.”
Goodmon said that he has seen the catastrophes that have occurred from other at-grade lines in South Los Angeles, Watts and Willowbrook, where a number of people have been injured or killed while passing, and said that communities have been decimated with the construction of the Santa Monica (10), the Harbor (110), the Glenn Anderson (105) and the Santa Ana (5) freeways, which have cut through the communities, displaced residents and created walls and have killed businesses left and right.
“There is a history of poor transportation impacts on communities of color in this region,” Goodmon added. “We went in positive, believing that if the mayor saw the community, the activist community, the political community and the residential community all united that he would do the right thing. The mayor did the wrong thing and he should pay for it … [Villaraigosa] was the only person to whom we elected who was not for us. It’s a betrayal. It’s a slap in the face to the memory of [former mayor] Tom Bradley and other African-American leaders who all got behind this guy and got him into office and convinced him to run when Jimmy Hahn was up for re-election.”
The Crenshaw corridor, Goodmon said, has already been impacted by years of street level construction and permanent traffic. The undergrounding of Park Mesa Heights would have been the “first time, probably in transportation decisions ever in Los Angeles County, an opportunity to reap the benefits of a regional transportation system.”
At the May 26 board meeting, Molina used her own district as an example as to how at-grade lines have devastated her First Supervisorial District. “The east side is grateful to be a part of the transit system at this point in time,” she said. “But in those areas where it goes above ground, the traffic is unbearable [and] the businesses are suffering. … I have been at the mercy of inconsistency at the hands of this board on a regular basis as a community on the east side. It’s not just this project alone. This is not fair.”
According to Goodmon, the decision made by the board has nothing to do with political resources or monetary resources; rather, he said, this was an issue about political will and environmental racism.
“They have been short-changing us, and the mayor has been short-changing our projects for years,” he said. “The long-term vision of this line is to not end at Exposition but go all the way to Hollywood, north of the 10 freeway. Every single inch of this line that is north of the 10 freeway is supposed to be underground. There is not supposed to be one street-level crossing. If you don’t think that creating a line where every intersection north of the 10 freeway is underground, but you have street level sections in the Crenshaw community, that will ruin Crenshaw businesses and jeopardize Crenshaw lives — especially students of View Park Prep.” Dividing Crenshaw communities is wrong, he said, if that’s not environmental racism then “I don’t know what is,” he said.
At present, over 55 percent of the 8.5 mile alignment is set to be grade separated, with 36 percent in a below-grade tunnel and 19 percent above-grade. The track through Hyde Park and Slauson to West Boulevard has been changed from above-grade to below-grade.
Blair Taylor, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, said the board’s decision was “a tremendous error … one that should not be taken lightly by our community. It will have staggering ramifications. This rail system represents the single largest economic development project in the history of the Crenshaw area. … For our community to not be afforded the same treatment as other communities is, frankly, unacceptable. None of us should be happy with this decision. It will significantly impact our local businesses on Crenshaw. It will negatively effect the safety our our children and senior citizens. And it will adversely impact the overall economic viability of the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood.”
Goodmon said his organization and various other stakeholders in the community such as the Los Angeles Urban League, the Leimert Park Village Merchants Association and the West Angeles Community Development Corporation are not going away, and that they will continue to apply pressure to the board and the mayor.
Ridley-Thomas, who held a press conference last week with numerous stakeholders, agreed that the fight is not over.
“We are not going to give up on a station at Leimert Park Village,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We are going to advocate for Park Mesa Heights. We’re going to keep pushing — it ain’t over til it’s over.”
According to Ridley-Thomas, the stipulations that come with possibly having a train station in Leimert Park Village — that being that the station will be erected only if it can be built within the existing $1.7 billion budget allocated for the Crenshaw-LAX rail line — “leaves its fate up in the air.”
If contract bids for the light rail line project come in at lower-than-expected numbers, then savings will be used to fund the stop, which would be located at Vernon Street and Crenshaw Boulevard. Despite this, Ridley-Thomas said that he is optimistic, and that the board’s vote is “a victory with a small ‘v.’”
Caption: This Metropolitan Transportation Authority map shows the planned Crenshaw-LAX rail line’s path through South Los Angeles.