Los Angeles Transit Expansion Empowered by State Policies, Priorities

For many years synonymous with car culture and some of the nation’s worst traffic, the city of Los Angeles is in the midst of what city leaders hope will be an extended period of investment in public transit that is already transforming how Los Angelenos live, work and play.  

“This area has the potential and will likely be the infrastructure capital of the world,” said Philip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro for short), the area’s transit provider. “We are going out with a ballot measure (this fall) that … will generate $120 billion over a 40-year period. We are doing 18 projects in the first 15 years. We are doing 40 megaprojects in 40 years.”

Washington, who previously led the successful efforts to improve transit in the Denver area, was among the speakers in May at a forum in Los Angeles hosted by the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Institute.

“We already have many projects under construction but we are planning to do even more here in Los Angeles,” he said. “We have an existing half-cent sales tax called Measure R that was successful in 2008 and we are looking to go back to the ballot to extend that existing half-cent sales tax and augment (it) with another half-cent sales tax. … We are being very, very aggressive in our approach.”

Developers believe L.A.’s transit expansion provides unique opportunities for development around stations.

“Essentially it’s doubling the size of the rail system in L.A.,” said Thomas Wulf of Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Investment & Development/Management Company. “We’re adding over 80 stations, over 93 miles of rail.”

But it’s not just the L.A. Metro system expansion that’s expected to bring development. Los Angeles also figures prominently in plans for the state’s high-speed rail system.

“Here in California, high-speed rail can be transformational in terms of development,” said Eric Eldlin of the California High Speed Rail Authority. “There is a lot of economic development potential in the station areas. … We need powerful champions who can forcefully advocate for their visions of high speed rail stations and station areas. … We need carefully conceived phasing plans that will foresee how station areas will evolve into more compact and urban places over time. … And I think you need some sort of over-arching governance agency early on in the planning process to avoid our tendencies toward piecemeal planning.”

Ron Diridon of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association showed the TOD Institute Conference attendees a map of plans for high-speed rail around the country.

“The only little problem with that is that none of it is built,” he said. “It’s just a map. And now with President Obama’s high-speed rail plans being blocked in Congress, none of it is under construction except here in California. And it’s being constructed here in California because we’re putting our own money on it to build it.”

James Ledford, who is serving his 12th term as Mayor of Palmdale, California—a town in the Central Valley that is a 62 mile, two-hour drive from Los Angeles but that’s expected to be an epicenter of activity once high-speed rail is built—believes it could be transformational, especially for the estimated 70,000 Palmdale residents that make the commute daily.

“(High-speed rail) is a game changer for our community,” he said. “Downtown L.A. in 30 minutes. That’s unbelievable. My commuters now become investors in the community. They become the soccer coaches. They become volunteers. It’s a game changer for lifestyle.”

Ledford hopes his area’s ample room for growth and proximity to the city can help attract jobs to Palmdale as well.

“Our vision is we want to be the manufacturing center for Los Angeles,” Ledford said. “Keep your headquarters down here (in Los Angeles) but bring the manufacturing up to a place that people can afford to own their home and have a great quality of life and a place to raise a family.”

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute said it’s important to understand the potential impact of high-speed rail from the perspectives of various stakeholders. Relaying those potential benefits to those who are more skeptical about high-speed rail could help to sell the concept in a way that the gee whiz factor of the high speed train equipment cannot, he said.

“If I happen to be living in Palmdale and I was looking for a job in Los Angeles, I’d be really excited about high-speed rail,” Litman said. “But for the vast majority of people in Palmdale, it’s not about the speed of travel. It’s going to be about the potential for development. And that’s where I think we have not done a really good job of looking at it from those stakeholder perspectives.”

Building Transit-Oriented Communities

Many believe it will be important for Los Angeles and California as a whole to focus on the principles of transit-oriented development as they undergo these changes. Such principles include an emphasis on higher density, mixed-use, walkable developments.

“(TOD) gives us an opportunity to fix a lot of the problems that we had with all the sprawl that we built,” said Andy Kunz of the TOD Institute. “It gives us an opportunity to reinvest in cities. It gives us an opportunity for people to have a lifestyle where they are not dependent on a car, they’re not adding to the climate problems and the energy problems and it’s actually a more pleasant lifestyle. You can walk and spend more time being places rather than stuck going to places.”

But transit leaders in Los Angeles say they’re also thinking beyond simply transit and development.

“When we talk about (transit-oriented developments), I think that limits us in the discussion,” said L.A. Metro’s Washington. “I like to talk about transit-oriented communities because what we’re looking at is transit in a holistic type of way, not just a (transit-oriented development), which in my mind is probably one development. … We are looking here at communities and how we can impact communities with transportation investment. We’re looking at a two-mile radius (around transit stations) … when we talk about how our transportation investments impact the various communities.”

Washington points to a transit-oriented community demonstration program he developed during his time at the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver.

“What we wanted to do with these demonstration projects was to figure out what worked for the entire community and so we did that with I believe six or seven demonstration projects, which were highly successful,” he said. “We looked at the community concerns. We talked about other community benefits in the area to see how we could impact those. We’re doing the same thing here in Los Angeles.”

Washington said the L.A. demonstration program’s projects have incorporated employment programs, affordable housing, and partnerships to bring grocery stores with nutritious foods to the communities. He believes the transit agency’s goal of 35 percent affordable housing in Metro-owned developments is particularly important to Los Angeles’ future.

“When you see the displacement of communities around our transportation assets and stations, when you see gentrification happening … that impacts my bottom line because these displacements, which are oftentimes communities of color or disadvantaged communities, those are the folks that ride public transit more often than not,” he said. “When displacement occurs … those communities are pushed further and further out from the urban core. Then I have to put a bus or a train out there where they are. So this does impact our bottom line.”

Jenna Hornstock manages L.A. Metro’s Joint Development Program, which allows the transit agency to collaborate with developers in creating transit-oriented communities around Metro-owned properties.

“It’s really the idea that rather than just looking at a site and how we can get development on this site, how can we use this site—this asset that we have—to really leverage and think about the community context,” she said. “What can we do beyond just the site? Using this opportunity to redevelop to create broader impacts and for us really to support transit ridership and get people using transit and making it part of their life.”

California State Laws Pushing Transit-Oriented Development Forward

“For us in Los Angeles, transit-oriented development is a return to the roots of our city,” said Stefanos Polyzoides of the Pasadena-based Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists.

At one time, Polyzoides notes, Los Angeles had 2,500 miles of surface and underground transit. But as happened in many U.S. cities, an extensive streetcar system was dismantled in the ‘50s and ‘60s just as construction of the area’s massive superhighways and endless sprawl of single family home neighborhoods was kicking into full gear. The city relied mostly on buses for public transit for several decades until Metro’s first light rail line opened in 1990 and first subway line opened in 1993. By that time, however, the highway system was largely built out and the area’s car culture well established. As the 21st century dawned, some city and state leaders began to recognize that renewed transit investment might be needed to help achieve some important policy goals and to create the kinds of more sustainable, urban-centered communities seen in other parts of the country. Another subway line and two more light rail lines have opened since 2003 and today, six Metro rail lines cover 111 miles and serve 104 stations in 4,751 square-mile Los Angeles County.

But it’s the latest proposed transit expansion in Los Angeles that could get the city back on a path toward recapturing some of its past.

“We spent the last 50 years exporting what we think is the ideal out to the rest of the world.” said Gunnar Hand of architectural services company Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). “So (now) we have this opportunity to create a new ideal by fixing what we’ve perhaps messed up in the past.”

The state of California is playing a number of different roles in helping to create that new ideal through strategies like transit-oriented development, said Suzanne Hague, the Senior Advisor for Community Development and Planning at the California Strategic Growth Council, a state cabinet-level sustainability council.

“It’s about setting the policy context,” she said. “Secondly, we do fund some TOD projects. We provide development-supportive infrastructure. We support regional sustainable land use planning and development. And finally, we provide technical assistance, guidance and resources and data and so forth to support planning and development.”

Hague said a variety of state laws and initiatives on the books set the policy context that has led California to lean towards more transit-oriented development. The state’s emphasis on climate change mitigation, in particular, has been the subject of numerous laws passed in recent years that touch on transit in one way or another. Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, requires a sharp reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. A 2008 piece of legislation, Senate Bill 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, supports the state’s climate action goals through coordinated transportation and land use planning with the goal of more sustainable communities. In addition, California Gov. Jerry Brown has issued a series of executive orders on sustainability. Finally, legislation approved in 2013 (Senate Bill 743) required the establishment of criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts of projects within transit priority areas to promote emission reductions, development of multimodal transportation networks and land use diversity.

Other factors setting the policy context, Hague said, include California’s expected population growth over the next few decades (10 million more people by 2050), the state’s well-known affordable housing crisis, and the initiative to construct high-speed rail.

As Hague indicated, the state is also active in providing funding for transit-oriented development through initiatives like the Affordable Housing & Sustainable Communities Grant Program, which is made possible through a $500 million allocation from the state’s cap and trade revenues this year.

“It comes with some strings attached of course because we’re not going to give you free money without putting our policy goals in there,” Hague said. “It’s directly tied to greenhouse gas reduction so we require that the housing and the transportation components are really integrally combined with one another and we require that the project proponents really collaborate with one another in a way that they have told us can be difficult and in a lot of communities unprecedented but I think has produced some really great projects.” 

California also has a cap-and-trade-funded transit and intercity rail capital grant program.

Public-Private Partnerships & Transit in Los Angeles

But these state funding opportunities and local funding from the proposed sales tax ballot measure aren’t the only potential sources of support expected to help Los Angeles realize its transit-enhanced future. The private sector could play a significant role as well.

L.A. Metro recently announced a process under which they’re accepting unsolicited proposals from the private sector to help the transit agency innovate on key projects. Joshua Schank, the former President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation who the transit agency hired last year to be its first Chief Innovation Officer, explained how it works at the InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum in New York City this June.

“What we’re doing is through the unsolicited proposal process trying to let the market tell us where there’s an opportunity to accelerate some of these projects, where there’s an opportunity to deliver some of these things faster, better, cheaper,” Schank said. “I think part of the reason (Los Angeles has) faced challenges (in the past) is that we tried to say to the market ‘well, this is where we want to see a P3 (public-private partnership).’ Now we’re saying ‘here is an array of transportation projects … and if you see one that has market value or you see an opportunity … to do something in a way that we hadn’t thought of … this is a mechanism by which we can deliver the benefits of this package through the political process faster than we would otherwise be able to do it.’”

Schank said potential opportunities for large scale P3s in the Los Angeles region might include the Sepulveda Pass, which connects the Los Angeles Basin to the San Fernando Valley via the heavily congested I-405, the San Diego Freeway. Tolling the interstate in partnership with the private sector might help fund transit through the pass and alleviate some of that congestion, some have suggested. Metro could also turn to the private sector for help in realizing the High Desert Corridor, a proposed multi-modal project that would link SR-14 in Los Angeles County and SR-18 in San Bernadino County and pass through cities like Palmdale that will one day be served by high-speed rail.

Schank noted however that Metro’s unsolicited proposal process is seeking more than innovative financing and project delivery for those kinds of major projects.

“(Our office was) created to bring best practices from around the world to Los Angeles,” said Schank. “So what we are looking to do is figure out what the best things that we should be doing are with respect to operations, with respect to customer service, with respect to any component of our organization and how it functions and try to bring those ideas to L.A. Metro. We’re also looking to build out the biggest transportation infrastructure buildout in the country. We’re doing it over the next 50 years hopefully if we’re successful in getting the ballot measure passed this November. … Our hope is that on the technology and innovation operations side that (the unsolicited proposal) process will allow innovators to come to us with ideas that we can implement quickly. Then on the infrastructure delivery side, it will allow people to approach us with ways of accelerating our infrastructure buildout and providing a better result to the taxpayer.”

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