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Editorial: A gondola to Dodger stadium? Tunnels under the Westside? No idea is too crazy to help fix L.A.'s traffic

A rendering shows a gondola car carrying passengers from Union Station to Dodger Stadium.
(Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies LLC)

A private company has put forward an intriguing idea to help baseball fans avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic jam outside Dodger Stadium: a gondola that could carry passengers from Union Station to the ballpark in just five minutes.

The proposal by a company called Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies LLC calls for the construction of a roughly $125 million tram that could whisk 5,000 passengers an hour to the stadium. It would offer fans a fast, convenient alternative to driving or taking the shuttle bus, both of which get stuck in clogged surface streets. The fare would be less than the price of parking at the stadium, currently $20, and the gondola could also operate on non-game days to serve visitors to Elysian Park.

The project would be built entirely with private dollars, its proponents say, including funding from former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, whose son founded the company. To show that the whole thing is not a fantastical pipe dream, the concept was unveiled during a Metro board meeting Thursday by no less than Mayor Eric Garcetti, sending a clear sign that the project has already overcome one major hurdle by getting political backing.

There are not enough public dollars to solve the region’s infamous traffic and travel problems, and private investors and ideas will be necessary.

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It’s an interesting idea, to be sure, with certain obvious benefits. But can it work? Will it really be safe and self-sufficient? Will it benefit the people of Los Angeles as well as the people who build it?

For starters, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the only proposed transportation project on the horizon that would be built using private dollars.

Councilman David Ryu and the city’s Recreation and Parks Department are looking at a possible public-private partnership to build an aerial tram to the Hollywood sign. That project is designed to make it easier for tourists and hikers to reach the famed landmark and to reduce some of car traffic on narrow hillside streets. Elon Musk’s The Boring Company wants to build a network of tunnels that would whisk cars and pods of people and cyclists across the city, avoiding congested freeway and street traffic. The company has said the system would be privately funded and would offer fares comparable to public transit.

Privately funded projects of this sort are not unheard of. While most transportation projects in recent decades have been developed and funded with taxpayer dollars, that wasn’t always the case. Most of the nation’s first mass transit lines were built by private companies.

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In Los Angeles, the trolley and streetcar lines were built and operated by private enterprises. The Pacific Electric Railway was largely a real estate venture, with the line built to carry people to and from the new suburban developments across the region. The Los Angeles Electric Incline Railway Company built the Angels Flight funicular to connect the mansions on top of Bunker Hill with the jobs and shops below.

These were the original private-sector transportation innovators, building new ways for people in growing cities to get around. But these projects are also a cautionary tale. Times changed and modes of travel evolved, and the innovators soon got left behind. The streetcars fell out of favor as more people owned automobiles and the lines were eventually sold to the predecessor agency of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Angels Flight was dismantled in 1969 to make way for urban renewal and skyscrapers. It was moved and rebuilt two decades later by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. But the funicular was closed for long stretches because of safety problems and only reopened last year under a public-private partnership in which several firms agreed to help pay for upgrades and maintenance for a share of ticket sales.

The point is, Los Angeles leaders are right to welcome innovation and private investment in transportation. There are not enough public dollars to solve the region’s infamous traffic and travel problems, and private investors and ideas will be necessary.

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But officials also need to be cautious. History has shown that private interests have their own motives for building transportation infrastructure. If and when those projects have served their purpose or become money losers, the public sector is often forced to step in. Before Los Angeles agencies grant rights, leases, permissions or approvals, officials need to feel confident that these projects will pencil out and that the public won’t be stuck with the tab or with a stranded asset.

L.A. leaders should have their eyes wide open — some of these public-partnerships may be game changers; some may be boondoggles in the making. Ultimately, we need to ensure the public interest is protected.

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