Projects that can lift us

Bill Boyarsky, a former city editor and columnist for The Times, is the author of "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics."

The famous symbols of recovery in the West during the Depression included Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. But if proposed today, they may well have been delayed or killed by environmental purists, NIMBY activists and overly cautious politicians and bureaucrats.

That’s something to think about now as the country struggles with an economic failure that recalls the Depression. Thanks to two measures that were on the Nov. 4 ballot, we have the prospect of financing public works projects that can put the growing number of unemployed to work, just as the dams and bridges did more than 70 years ago.

The Depression projects were built in a hurry, driven by economic need. Will the new crop also be put on a fast track?

The biggest single project is a high-speed bullet train, initially to run from Los Angeles and Anaheim to San Francisco and eventually to stretch from San Diego to Sacramento. It will be jump-started by the passage of state Proposition 1A, a $9.95-billion bond issue. Others would be funded by Measure R in Los Angeles County, which would increase the sales tax in the county by half a cent to pay for the extension of three rail lines -- the Wilshire Boulevard subway, the Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica and the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley -- plus many other projects. Votes are still being counted, but officials predict the measure’s lead will hold up.

In this era of cynicism about government projects, most people wouldn’t see poetry in such undertakings. But the Depression projects inspired writers to see them as monuments that brought economic relief to a stricken nation and reminded Americans that they were a can-do people capable of big dreams.


Historian Kevin Starr, in his book, “Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California,” wrote of “the power of public works ... as therapy for a battered economy -- and symbol of shared identity and purpose ... millions experienced the healing symbolism of collective action in a time of great social crisis.”

In recent years, neighborhood organizations have fought many such projects and unrestricted development. They, along with environmental groups, have pushed politicians to adopt regulations to protect the environment. Some of their objections were valid. But over the years, great projects have been stopped or stalled.

The Wilshire subway, proposed decades ago, was long delayed by objections from residents in the affluent neighborhoods north of the area. Many mid-Wilshire residents said they were worried about whether the subway could be drilled safely, but some feared the trains would provide quick access to Hancock Park for burglars and robbers.

A current example of neighborhood activism is opposition to the Expo Line. Opponents in South Los Angeles are concerned about student safety at two schools near the line, Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center. Residents of Cheviot Hills and other Westside neighborhoods fear train noise and traffic disruption during construction and potential danger to students at nearby schools, such as Overland Elementary.

Up to now, bureaucrats, unsure of how elected officials, who are their bosses, felt about some of the controversial projects, grew accustomed to moving slowly. Roger Snoble, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, told a postelection news conference that it could take 20 years for the Wilshire subway to reach Westwood because of the project’s complexity.

On hearing that, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stepped forward at the news conference to say that he and other local officials would obtain federal funds to speed up the project. The mayor understands that the current economic crisis has changed everything. With many projects on the drawing board and high unemployment, and huge Democratic majorities in Congress, Los Angeles should be a major recipient of federal recovery funds.

“We can be a real partner in a stimulus package,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the MTA board. That’s not why the measures were proposed, he said, but it is “a collateral benefit.”

Yaroslavsky and Rep. Henry Waxman, an influential Democratic congressman from Beverly Hills, opposed the Wilshire subway for years, reflecting the feelings of powerful Westside homeowner groups. But impossible traffic has persuaded homeowners and the politicians to drop their opposition.

Yaroslavsky said he knows that many residents don’t want those projects near their homes. They’ll have to be persuaded, project by project, neighborhood by neighborhood.

That was his experience with the Orange Line, an MTA busway connecting the Red Line subway station in North Hollywood with Warner Center in Woodland Hills. There was plenty of neighborhood opposition, including that of Orthodox Jews who felt the busway would interfere with their walking to synagogue. Yaroslavsky had the MTA put in a pedestrian crossing with signals set to operate automatically on the Sabbath so Jews in the community would not have to violate religious law by pushing a button.

It’s up to Yaroslavsky and the other elected officials to bring a sense of urgency to negotiations with the activists and environmentalists and to the officials who oversee the construction. Nobody is going to get everything.

And there should be some appreciation of the historical significance, even the majesty, of the task. During the Depression, the unemployed got real jobs building the schools, bridges, libraries, dams, highways, city halls and courthouses we use today. The water that supports Southern California was delivered through the labor of workers on Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Or, as Woody Guthrie wrote of another Depression-era dam on another river, Grand Coulee on the Columbia, “Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. So roll on, Columbia, roll on.”

L.A. isn’t a place that sings songs in praise of public works. What’s important is that these projects will provide immediate work and leave a legacy for future generations, just as it happened during the Depression. Let’s get on with the job.