A Rare Chance to Right a Wrong of Our Youth : Public Transit: Old railroad rights-of-way are available, but this may be our last opportunity to regain the advantages lost when the Red Cars went under.

Dennis Zane is mayor of Santa Monica.

It rarely happens that we have the opportunity to reverse some grievous error thoughtlessly made in our youth. But that is exactly the opportunity that has been placed before the citizens of Los Angeles and neighboring communities by a decision of Southern Pacific Railroad to sell more than 150 miles of abandoned rail rights-of-way.

If acquired by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, these rights-of-way would allow the restoration of the electric trolley system that threaded through the area only a few short decades ago--before congestion and air pollution were pervasive facts of life. Nowadays the system could feature modern, quiet, non-polluting electric trains, two or three cars long, going over or under arterial intersections.

This opportunity could not have come at a better time.

Never before have the citizens of this region expressed so much concern about the environmental problems caused by more and more people driving more and more cars greater and greater distances. We know it will only get worse, much worse, if dramatic steps aren't taken soon to address our lack of a viable transportation alternative.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments predicts that this six-county region County will add about 5 million people to its current population of 13.7 million by the year 2010. The average speed on our highways will decline from the current 35 m.p.h. to 19 m.p.h. That means a lot more congestion, more air pollution, more headaches and a lot more wasted time and energy for everyone.

In addition, the Los Angeles Basin has been out of compliance with federal clean air standards for years. The recently adopted Air Quality Management Plan requires employers to adopt strategies to reduce their employees' reliance on one-person, one-car habits. The development of a proven rail transit system, such as light rail, in conjunction with other systems, including expanded bus service, would make a major contribution to a successful campaign to clean the air.

As with any transit system, responsible public officials must assure residents living near any transit line that all environmental concerns--noise, commercial development, congestion and the like--are addressed and mitigated. But these problems are far easier to solve than the daunting mess that will be created by continued reliance on automobile transportation.

For example, the Exposition Boulevard right-of-way stretches 14 miles from Santa Monica past the Coliseum and Exposition Park into the downtown area, where it intersects the nearly completed Long Beach light-rail line. It is the same route on which the old Pacific Electric Red Car system used to operate years ago. It is still a contiguous right-of-way that can be purchased intact by the transportation commission. If we do not take the opportunity to purchase this right-of-way, we will lose a valuable corridor. Southern Pacific will sell it parcel by parcel to private developers, just as occurred along the old rail routes on Santa Monica and Sepulveda boulevards and other major arteries in and around Los Angeles County.

If the transportation commission does acquire this right-of-way, a light-rail system or other transit system could be carrying passengers between downtown Los Angeles and the coast by the year 2000. The potential relief to congestion at the Santa Monica Freeway--one of the busiest freeways in the world--is easy to appreciate.

Light-rail systems are much less expensive than the subways that must be built in higher-density areas. Transit specialists say that a light-rail system along the 14-mile Exposition right-of-way would cost no more than 2 miles of the Metrorail system. Ridership estimates are easily encouraging enough to take the step to place the right-of-way into public ownership.

The cost of the land is not greatly at issue. Price negotiations between the transportation commission and the railroad have not yet begun, so no dollar figures have been set for any of the rights-of-way. But if the land is later determined not to be suited for a transportation corridor or other public use, it can certainly be resold at no loss. It is clearly in the public interest to secure the rights-of-way.

The biggest mistake we could make would be to lose this opportunity to put Los Angeles back "on track" toward a flexible regional transit system. The second-biggest mistake would be to design a system that fails to account for legitimate claims of neighbors along the right-of-way.

Let's not make either mistake. Opportunities like this, once lost, are usually lost forever.

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