Return of Red Trolleys, High-Speed Rail

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Pam Linn

For those who have been crawling along the 405, 101 or PCH, this one’s for you: Long a quagmire of stalled traffic, Los Angeles is finally poised to do something about it. My apologies to former President Eisenhower, GM and gasoline purveyors, but we just have too many cars.

Freeways have expanded, and every time they do, more cars clog them right back up again. The transportation engineers just don’t seem to get it — more lanes, more cars, more stalled traffic.

The answer, my friends, isn’t blowing in the wind; it’s public transportation, namely rail. From streetcars to subways to high-speed trains, people are opting for the sensible thing. Leave the car in the garage (at least on weekdays) and commute to the job in peace. Drink a cup of coffee, read the newspaper and arrive at work not in shreds, but relaxed. Save the car, if you must, for leisurely weekends out of town.

For this option, we have to thank the brave voters who passed County Measure R, a long-term investment in public rail that went into effect in 2009, according to a blog by Gregor Macdonald for TPM (Talking Points Memo). The once old, but new again Union Station has become the hub for Amtrak, commuter rail and L.A. Metro lines.

But the brightest link in that chain is the resurgence of the once-famous streetcar line that connected Pasadena with the Pacific Ocean. And guess what? The new streetcar tracks are almost exactly where they were when I was a child. I cried when misguided transit engineers ripped up those rails and mothballed the bright red carriages, forcing us to rely on parents and their automobiles.

But most folks didn’t miss them until the gas crisis of the ’70s when we had to wait in long lines to buy limited supplies of petrol. Carpooling thrived until supply was restored and we all went back to the lone driver in every car. It seems we didn’t learn anything.

When the Los Angeles Metro Expo Line extension is completed next year, it will be the first time since the ‘40s that a trip from downtown to the beach in Santa Monica will become possible by rail, according to Macdonald.

One summer, my older sister and I rode the streetcar to our summer day camp of music, drama and art in Hollywood three days a week. The streetcar picked us up a block-and-a-half from home and wound through the backyards of West Hollywood, letting us off near the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. After classes, we could walk across to the cafe at Brown’s Hotel, which served hot fudge sundaes.

On Tuesday and Thursday, we could ride the same streetcar in the opposite direction and visit the beach or go to the movies. Our mother never had to dress or get out the Packard. But convenience was secondary to the sense of independence we got from public transportation. We were free, and without smart — or even dumb — phones, we could not be contacted.

The other project that has been named the most ambitious infrastructure project of the century is the visionary high-speed train, designed to travel at 220 miles per hour. With luck, it eventually will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. The trip will be made in two-and-a-half hours — half the time it now takes to drive, barring traffic tie-ups.

High-speed rail began with a voter-approved proposition — a $9.95 billion bond measure with added stimulus money from the federal government, according to David Dayen’s Jan. 6 blog for Salon.

The project had many detractors, and was nearly ditched by lawsuits, cost overruns and disputes about route planning. It is currently scheduled to begin operation sometime in the next decade. Construction began in the Central Valley, a 29-mile stretch from Fresno to Madera, because costs there are cheaper than in the Bay Area or Los Angeles. 

State officials, led by Gov. Jerry Brown, have met the challenges, settling lawsuits over the designed route and finding dedicated funding from the state’s cap-and-trade program. Those funds must be used for carbon emission reduction and high-speed rail fits that bill by eliminating cross-state auto and air trips, according to Dayen.

As a confirmed lover of trains, I’m looking forward to riding both the rebuilt streetcar line and maybe even the bullet train — if I’m still on the planet when it’s finished. Good luck and godspeed, Gov. Brown.