Transit Nerds Making Themselves Heard

Times Staff Writer

Mad about gridlock, these everyday Angelenos are fighting like mad to do something about it.

They spend countless hours working for free, hosting packed community meetings, cornering politicians, lobbying for light rail.

They attack the matter with gusto, armed with volumes of statistics, flow charts, demographic data and a Web site where they plot, plan and rage.


They are so single-minded, and pay such detailed attention to arcane transit data, that they sometimes self-deprecatingly call themselves “the transit nerds.”

“All we need is the shirt pocket protector for the pens,” said Darrell Clarke, a co-founder of the all-volunteer group Friends4Expo Transit.

The group came together to push for construction of the proposed 14-mile light railway connecting Los Angeles to Santa Monica, running mostly down the middle of Exposition Boulevard.

With engineering studies on that project underway, Friends4Expo’s goals have grown. It is lobbying elected officials to build more mass transit infrastructure all over the region -- mostly light rail -- to ease the traffic nightmare.

The officials -- partly bothered by the bold tenacity of Friends4Expo, partly awed by members’ transit knowledge -- are listening.

Case in point: When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted in September to reengage in an against-the-odds fight to extend the Red Line subway to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Friends4Expo members complained loudly that the subway plan would take money and attention from their project, which is cheaper and much closer to taking shape. MTA officials quickly agreed: The Expo Line will have first crack at federal funds.

“Those people, they’re a vital force,” said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the proposed Expo Line. Watson noted that, although full funding is not in place, engineering for the Expo Line is getting underway. That’s quite a feat because, until a crucial MTA vote last year, the Exposition right of way was being touted by some for use as a bus line.

Clarke’s group met with almost every top transit official in the region before the vote, showing off scores of signatures supporting its rail plan. Watson said the lobbying was crucial: “If it wasn’t for their willingness to show there was a community that wanted rail, the Expo Line would not have gotten this far.”

Operating largely under the radar, Friends4Expo is part of a burgeoning movement that could have a major effect on the way the metropolis deals with congestion.

In the past, transit planners could build major projects -- freeways or rail lines -- with little regard for community groups. Today, ordinary people are demanding more say in the matter, even proposing rail routes and busways. Without the full support of the community, said John Catoe, deputy chief executive of the MTA, “there’s little chance new projects will get off the ground.”

Aware of this, and with commuters grinding nearly to a halt and pollution clogging the skies, scores of new grass-roots transit advocacy groups are sprouting.

From Los Angeles -- home of the nation’s worst traffic -- to cities such as Seattle, St. Louis, San Francisco and Phoenix, well-organized transit advocacy groups have formed, some operating with no funding.

Seattle voters last week may have approved financing plans for a 14-mile elevated monorail, the culmination of efforts by a quirky taxi driver who has been pushing for monorail in the city since the mid-1990s. Absentee ballots were still being counted at week’s end.

Across the nation and in Los Angeles, such groups are avidly pushing officials and policymakers to back the construction of big-money infrastructure: rail lines, dedicated busways, subway systems and monorails. Some also push exclusively for more and better bus service.

Almost all of the transit advocacy groups have slick Web sites that beckon recruits, break down policy issues and urge people who fight traffic every day to get involved.

For example, the Web site features thorough explanations of the efficacy of light rail, and chat rooms where frustrated commuters post rants against politicians who are seen as obstructing progress.

The groups vary in size, stature and nature. Some promote a particular rail line, some a particular philosophy. They don’t always get along; at times they express outright hatred for one another. Emotions are driven sometimes by outsized egos, and often by the many earnest debates swirling around transit. Does it make sense, for example, to work for more buses, more trains, or both?

In Los Angeles, the advocacy groups include vigorous outsiders such as the Bus Riders Union, a left-leaning, anti-rail powerhouse. It first sued the MTA, claiming civil rights violations, and then, in 1996, forced the agency into a 10-year court agreement requiring the MTA to increase bus service. Because of its legal victory, most observers say the group is the most powerful advocacy organization in the region.

More modestly successful, and more mainstream, is the Southern California Transit Advocates, considered the oldest of the Los Angeles advocacy groups, around since the late 1980s.

Then there is Madres del Este Los Angeles Santa Isabel, a vocal body of poor Latino mothers working for better civic amenities, including busways. (After a turf and power battle, two groups called Madres del Este Los Angeles have emerged: The pro-bus body, and a vocal group supporting a planned light railway. Each claims to be the legitimate voice of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.)


Forming Alliances

It’s not uncommon for a member of one advocacy group to be a member of two or three others. Friends4Expo members, for example, are forming alliances with other advocates, fighting for a variety of other transit projects, including extensions of the Green Line railway to Los Angeles International Airport, a light-rail plan in Venice and the almost-finished Pasadena Gold Line railway. For people like Clarke, the analytical Friends4Expo co-founder, praise from officials such as Watson is an affirmation of the years of hard work done in obscurity, when few seemed to be listening.

A 48-year-old Santa Monica resident, Clarke got hooked on transit as a student at UC Berkeley in the early 1970s, when he watched construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system come to an end. He was such a fan that in 1974 he was on the first BART train to be open to the public traveling from Oakland to San Francisco.

In the late 1980s he joined a vocal group of Culver City and South Los Angeles residents who were trying to get the city to buy and transform the dormant Exposition Boulevard railway for transit.

Back then, a schedule he maintains a dozen years later emerged out of necessity. Clarke would arrive home from his job as an information technology manager at IBM, take a short break, then spend as much as five hours working at the battle for the light-rail line: organizing and running community meetings, knocking on neighborhood doors in a search for supporters or holing up in front of his computer.

He hoarded armfuls of data that he and the others still use: census and economic figures, traffic and cost estimates and demographic breakdowns. The statistics were a handy way to support the argument for light rail.

For all of the exuberance Clarke and others showed, by the mid-1990s, as the MTA turned almost all of its attention to building costly subways, the effort to put trains on Exposition had withered. It was reborn only in 1998, when a financially crippled MTA turned away from subway construction and began looking for ways to build more for less money.

Clarke and a crew of about 20 others in the group’s inner circle were at it again, officially forming Friends4Expo, making the rounds of transportation meetings, prodding officials to fight for the Expo Line.

Always at the ready were the statistics and projections: 837,000 people live within two miles of the Expo Line! Clarke would say. That’s 13,300 per square mile! That would be the 12th-largest city in the U.S.! That’s much more dense than San Diego and Portland, Ore., where light rail has been a huge success!

The advocates counted about 200 members then. Today there are nearly 1,500, most of them engaged with the group through the Internet or by attending community meetings hosted by Friends4Expo, often at local high schools. “There were times that I would be up there and I would just be feeling like a gnat, capital G-N-A-T, gnat,” said Clarke, who lightheartedly uses the nickname “transit nerds” for himself and others in his group for their tendency to go on about the length of rail cars, rail costs per mile, overload capacity and the like.

They’re an eclectic bunch. Among the inner circle are urban planners, lawyers and inventors from the Crenshaw district, middle-class mothers from Santa Monica, businesswomen from Cheviot Hills, train buffs, bus riders, filmmakers, teachers and political aides.

The group also has its share of iconoclasts.

One of the most charismatic is Dr. Ken Alpern, a Westside dermatologist who calls himself Friends4Expo’s “token Republican.”

“I have my family and my work and my hobby,” says Alpern. “It ain’t golf. It’s transit.”

Alpern is known for punching out late-night pro-rail screeds over the Internet and for aggressive lobbying of politicians.

A forceful, energetic man who lives on just a few hours of sleep each night, Alpern often rises at 4:30, the better to prepare for the 5 a.m. teleconferences he schedules with Washington officials and congressional aides, conversations in which he pumps them for information and pleads for them to bring home federal dollars to Los Angeles.

Another is Bart Reed. An eccentric, intelligent sort, Reed is a man seemingly everywhere at once. In addition to his involvement in Friends4Expo, Reed runs his own group, the Transit Coalition, from his cramped little home in Sylmar. Living hand to mouth, he has no job and no car, preferring to get about on trains and buses.


Ubiquitous Advocate

And get around he does. Attend almost any public transportation meeting of any note in Los Angeles -- and there are usually between 10 and 15 each month -- and there’s a good chance that Reed will be there, dressed in his fraying gray, 16-year-old suit, greeting almost everyone with a knowing glance through his Coke-bottle glasses and his signature 10-word opening line: “Hi, I’m Bart Reed. Can I have your business card?”

He’s uncommonly effective, simply because he gets top officials to listen. They usually grimace when speaking of Reed, then admit that his squeaky-wheel brand of advocacy has their attention.

By his estimate, over the last two years, Reed has set up more than 200 face-to-face meetings with top politicians and transit officials, opportunities that he and the others used to press their case for changes.

“You turn around, the guy is right there, drilling you,” said Catoe, the MTA official, recalling the time Reed made his way to a state-sponsored conference in Sacramento. “But you soon realize: He really knows his stuff.”

Clarke, who because of the attention he has received was recently hired by the Orange County Transportation Authority to work on community outreach, notes that the Friends4Expo group still has significant hurdles to overcome.

In a time of tight budgets, federal and state funding for construction of the first nine-mile phase of the Expo Line -- from downtown to near Culver City -- is in question. The way things are going, the Expo Line might never be built.

What’s more, county Supervisor and MTA board member Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, no fan of the Expo Line beyond a spur from downtown to USC, is floating plans to put cheaper electric buses on Exposition Boulevard instead of trains.

Aware of the grass-roots clout held by Friends4Expo, Burke recently dispatched her top transit aide to a private meeting with the advocates.

The transit nerds are listening. But so far, says Clarke, they aren’t budging.