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  • Desmond Molloy

A Los Angeles transporation referendum lost in the 2016 election

The duel between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the centerpiece of the 2016 electoral cycle, seizing popular attention. But as usual, some of the most tangible impacts from Nov. 8 will come from measures further down the ballot. In Maine, Massachusetts and California, voters chose to “legalize” marijuana (the drug remains prohibited under federal law). In Arizona, the minimum wage was increased by referendum. And in Los Angeles, voters passed Measure M, which enacted a permanent half-cent sales tax increase to fund massive renovations to the city’s transportation infrastructure. The majority of Measure M’s revenue will go to repairing L.A.’s notoriously bad surface roads. But 35 percent of the funds will be dedicated to expanding the Los Angeles Metro, adding new subway lines and extending existing service into previously car-dependent parts of the city.

Los Angeles was made for the automobile. The city’s early magnates, who exerted great influence over the planning board, had significant holdings in the tire and petroleum industries and successfully pushed for a metropolitan sprawl bereft of mass transit. The City of Angels was once graced by an extensive streetcar system, but it was allowed to decay in the 1920s, eventually becoming obsolete. But after decades of traffic congestion and declining air quality, environmentalists and city leaders joined forces to push funding for the system through Congress in 1985. Five years later, the Blue Line, linking Long Beach with downtown L.A., opened for business, followed by the Red Line to Hollywood in 1993, and the Green Line spanning the southern end of the city in 1995. At the same time, negotiations with freight railways that had started in 1989 finally gave the city ownership of a network of railways in and around Los Angeles County. This infrastructure was used as a base for a commuter rail system, known as Metrolink, which opened for business in 1993.

Two decades later, the LA Metro is flourishing. A look at the system map shows considerable growth since 1993, with subway lines crisscrossing the city itself, and the Metrolink stretching from Oxnard in the north to San Diego County in the far south. But L.A.’s mass transit system still pales in comparison to that of older cities like New York, Boston or Chicago. East Coast subway systems often eliminate the need for cars: someone living in Somerville outside of Boston or the North Side of Chicago can get to work or school, shop and go out on the weekends using only the train. By contrast, the LA Metro only covers narrow corridors of the city’s residential areas. Densely populated East Los Angeles, long a hub of Latino cultural life on the West Coast, has just one subway line; more suburban neighborhoods like Inglewood and Torrance have none; and Los Angeles International Airport currently lacks any transit connection. Measure M promises drastic changes. In an era when most subway and light rail systems expand by a few miles and a handful of new stations at a time, Measure M’s sheer ambition can be staggering: the plan will expand all five subway lines, while adding a new commuter rail line, two subway lines and more than forty new stations. The plan is also unusually long-term; the projects will be carried out over the next four decades.

Such expansion is necessary to improve Angelenos’ quality of life. Despite earlier Metro construction, the city still suffers from some of the country’s worst traffic. Even more concerning is the cost of living: Los Angeles is among the most expensive cities in the United States. A strong transit system is therefore important to attract young professionals. As a group, millennials prefer walkable, mixed-use communities like Cambridge and Brooklyn. But these urban cores are increasingly expensive, driving many to seek high-density “inner suburbs” close to downtown. The L.A. metropolitan area has its share of small cities and dense suburbs, many within a few miles of Chinatown, the Fashion District and the city’s other downtown highlights. But without a good rapid transit system, Angeleno traffic renders these peripheral areas distant from the nightlife and job opportunities of Los Angeles proper. With commuter rail and subways, cities like Altadena and Garden Grove will become somewhat like Westchester or Nassau Counties in New York, where residents generally live in walkable small towns and commute into the city without being trapped in rush hour traffic. Measure M is not without its shortcomings. The length of the transit projects proposed is likely to swamp parts of Los Angeles with construction sites for years to come. Activists have accused the city of trying to “gentrify” blue-collar areas like East L.A. by connecting them to the business district downtown. But neither side disputes the measure’s enormous impact. Given the perpetual deadlock of national American politics, the passage of Measure M, along with the changes it brings to Los Angeles, may be one of the most consequential results from this year’s Election Day.

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