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Old Whine About Transit Is Sour Grapes

“The Valley has been the most neglected sector of the county on every issue of transportation.”

That’s what Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky had to say at the recent “transportation summit” of San Fernando Valley civic leaders. The line was a crowd-pleaser.

The assembled pooh-bahs enthusiastically applauded a sentiment that is popular in these parts, especially among secession-minded Valleyistas.

“Live free or die,” American revolutionaries once declared. You know the Valley battle cry: “We’re not getting our fair share.”

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The transit argument goes like this: Not only is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bloated and dysfunctional, but it’s screwing the Valley.

It’s taking our sales tax money and spending it everywhere else but here. All we have to show for our billions is a pathetic 1 1/2-mile stub of subway construction from North Hollywood to Universal City. . . .

At first blush it seems to make sense. When Valleyista leader Richard Close of Sherman Oaks made this point to me, it sounded more or less valid.

It sounded reasonable from Mel Wilson of Northridge, MTA board member and president of the Valley Board of Realtors. And Yaroslavsky, obviously, was preaching to the choir.

The political spin has become so strong it’s even infected some news coverage as hard fact.

All of which calls for a serious reality check.

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Sorry, Zev, but the Valley is not the most neglected sector of the county on every issue of transportation. To the contrary, of all the commuters in Los Angeles County, Valley residents will someday be the greatest beneficiaries of the most expensive, grandest (and grandiose) element of L.A.'s regional transit system--the Metro Rail subway from North Hollywood to downtown.

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Think about it. Let’s look 10 years hence and pray that we can assume Metro Rail is running to NoHo Station. Only a fraction of Valley residents will use it, but the trains will still be packed with people who work downtown. They’ll drive, walk, take a bus or jitney to the NoHo and Universal City stations and swoosh beneath the jammed freeways through Hollywood, down to Wilshire and into downtown.

Westsiders won’t be able to do that. Neither will people from the South Bay or Long Beach. Nor will people in the southeast cities or the San Gabriel Valley. To get downtown, they’ll all have to rely on their own cars on the freeways, on bus service and slower-moving surface rail systems--most of which are too inconvenient for the masses.

Think some more. More than $6 billion will have been spent on the subway from downtown to North Hollywood. Even in the East Valley, ridership will never exceed a tiny fraction of the populace--those who live close enough to walk or bicycle to a station, those transferring from buses, and those who find it practical to park their cars and hop on the subway to avoid the molasses that is the Hollywood Freeway during rush hours. Whether the MTA is still running bus lines or an alternative Valley transit district is formed, the Metro Rail stations will be important hubs.

Every Metro Rail user will get some value from this boondoggle, but Valley commuters will travel farther and thus get the biggest bang from the billions. Some Valley residents may drive, singly or with neighbors, to Metro Rail stations rather than fight the freeway traffic. People who live “over the hill” but too distant from a Metro Rail station to walk will find it simpler to drive or bus to work.

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Who else will use the subway? Mostly tourists. Conventioneers will ride it from downtown to Universal Studios Hollywood and CityWalk--and maybe even NoHo, if dreams of a vibrant theater district come to pass. Who else will benefit from the subway? Not Westside and South Bay merchants and property owners. The Metro Rail construction in North Hollywood, now such a headache, will someday juice the local economy.

So is the Valley getting its fair share from the MTA? No, that’s not it. Nobody’s getting a fair share in the misconceived, mismanaged mess.

In the grand scheme--and scheme is the right word--the public as a whole has been getting a raw deal from the 1% sales tax voters approved in hopes of improving transportation countywide. The fair-share issue has never been as meaningful as the question of who is getting their unfair share of those billions--the empire-building bureaucrats who padded payrolls and abused expense accounts, the contractors who fattened up on cost overruns, the lobbyists who help them get the contracts, the pols who were greased with contributions, legal and otherwise. . . .

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Strange have been the twists and turns that led us down this primrose path into the subterranean gloom of mass transit. Think 10 years back, when debate raged over where L.A.'s vaunted “world-class” subway should go once the first leg, from Union Station to MacArthur Park, was completed.

This taxpayer covered some of those meetings--and then, unlike now, I lacked the journalistic license to put in my own two cents. The idea of subways in a land so dependent on cars and freeways always seemed a bit bizarre and ludicrously wasteful. Smarter, it seemed, would be improved bus service and fast-tracking light-rail construction wherever and whenever a good right-of-way could be obtained--such as the Burbank-Chandler route. Imagine how many miles of light rail those billions would have bought. But Mayor Tom Bradley and other leaders fretted that other “world-class” cities--Paris, London, New York--had those nifty trains that ran underground. L.A. suffered from subway envy. Besides, there was all that federal money to be had.

If a subway made sense anywhere in L.A., planners agreed, it would be along the most densely populated corridor of L.A.--straight out Wilshire through Beverly Hills to the Westside. Now everybody was upset. Why should the county’s taxpayers subsidize public transit for some of L.A.'s wealthiest communities? The funny thing was, Westsiders tended to regard the subway as a NIMBY issue and the local congressman, Henry Waxman, cited methane danger along the route. Now politics, not urban planning, would determine the route. Valley reps lined up and pushed for the turn north through Hollywood and then under the Santa Monica Mountains. Now some of the same politicians who won that fight moan about the Valley’s mass transit plight.

Costs were already so high that there was talk of bringing Metro Rail above ground in Hollywood. But the L.A. powers didn’t want to settle for anything second-class. Light rail might be good enough for Long Beach, but for a world-class city only a shiny, swift multibillion-dollar subway would do--one that would zip you from the Valley to downtown.

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And so that is, it seems, what L.A. will wind up with. Not much comfort to the West Valley residents, but the long commute has always been part of the trade-off, and some neighbors may work out carpools to the Metro Rail. Prospects are good that someday the Valley will have a very nice subway, as far as it goes, which may not be very far, but far enough for some.

So when you hear that familiar refrain about how the Valley’s been neglected and it’s all so unfair, think of what the good people of West Covina or Cerritos or Torrance might say:

What? You think you’re getting screwed?!?

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com Please include a phone number.

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