If you found yourself anywhere near one of the three new train stations in Santa Monica this weekend, it was hard to miss the jubilant mood.
And why shouldn’t we celebrate? After decades of hard work and uncommon foresight on the part of grassroots activists, elected officials, and dedicated staff, the Expo light rail line brought back to L.A. County’s Westside passenger rail more than 60 years after it had vanished.
The historic return of passenger rail to the Westside represents many things: it’s the backbone of our new multimodal transportation network of bike lanes, bus routes, and safe, comfortable sidewalks that will give residents, visitors, and workers real options for getting around our city; it is a new and easier way for people to connect to and from communities like Culver City, Downtown Los Angeles, East L.A., Long Beach, South L.A. and many others; and it will make many people’s commutes that much better.
It is also the newest symbol of our region’s urban renaissance, a region that is slowly leaving behind the destructive mid-20th century obsession of building our urban environments exclusively for automobiles at the expense of people. As Santa Monica continues to be one of the best places to go along our collectively owned and loved coastline, this greatly improved form of transit welcomes everyone. We are saying to everyone come to the Beach and Pier we are all so proud of.
It is a reminder of our city’s responsibility to further that renaissance, for our own good, the good of our region, and for the good of our planet. And, on that front, there is still much more work to be done.
The leaders who made the newest edition to L.A. County’s light rail and bus rapid transit network possible deserve to be celebrated, as do the community members who persevered in supporting this project when friends and neighbors said, “No one will ride the train in L.A.”
People like Councilmember – and former mayor – Pam O’Connor, former Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez, former City Manager John Jalili, former mayors Judy Abdo and Denny Zane, as well as grassroots organizations like Friends4Expo, and many other people – too many to name here – had the vision to make this dream a reality before light rail transit existed in L.A. County.
Just 26 years ago, there wasn’t a single train in our region; today, there is more than 100 miles of tracks and bus rapid transit routes, like the Orange line. And more is coming, including the subway extension to Westwood, the Crenshaw line that will connect to LAX, and the regional connector which will eliminate the need to transfer from Expo in Downtown L.A. to connect to the Gold line.
Of course, there is still work to be done. Passengers who disembarked in Downtown Santa Monica found themselves arriving at a proper destination: a place that was designed for people with comfortable sidewalks, clear signs and visible landmarks, and, most importantly there were things in the immediate area for people to do: places to shop, workplaces, and homes.
At our two other stations, however, that is not yet the case. Riders alighting at 26th Street/Bergamot Station disembark into a surface parking lot with the view across the street of a sidewalk-less construction site where a suburban office park is going up.
The stop also serves the Pico and Sunset Park neighborhoods, but bus and safe bike connections are currently lacking, which does little to encourage people who have to cross the freeway to get to that Expo station.
And, at 17th Street, riders will find signs pointing them to Santa Monica College and Memorial Park, but little else. Without signage linking the green Broadway bicycle lanes to and from downtown with the Expo Bike Path terminus at 17th Street, bicyclists may not be able to take full advantage of the safest routes.
Undoubtedly this train will be an asset for SMC students whose commutes bring them in from the far-flung corners of our region and for residents in the existing neighborhoods, but that station could serve many more people if it became a destination. Along Colorado and parts of nearby Broadway, there are many underutilized formerly industrial buildings that could be redeveloped into mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhoods, relieving development and upward rent pressures in the existing neighborhoods that surround this station.
Aside from allowing our municipal bus system the resources necessary to create better connections to the surrounding neighborhoods and filling out our bike and pedestrian network at these stations, we need to improve the built environment. At both of these stations, currently, there is “no there there.”
We are not only beneficiaries of the Expo line, we are also stewards of our short segment of this $2.5 billion public investment. It is our responsibility to make sure that it is used to its highest potential. That means it is our responsibility to create jobs and homes affordable to households at all income levels — in short, places — around this public investment so that more people can benefit from it.
As U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx put it to a Los Angeles audience recently:
“When transit is done right, it actually brings opportunity to people’s doorsteps,” he said. “That’s why communities with inclusionary zoning ordinances and those making effective use of affordable-housing incentives along transit lines have a better chance of creating the sustainability that’s necessary over the long term.”
As we celebrate the new train line, let’s remember that it’s the start of something big and it’s up to us to make sure we do it right.
Judy Abdo, Richard Brand, Elena Christopoulos, Leslie Lambert, Shawn Landres, Carl Hansen, Abby Arnold, Cynthia Rose, and Jason Islas for Santa Monica Forward. To read more, visit santamonicaforward.org.