Rails of Future Past


In 2008 Los Angeles County passed Measure R, a half cent sales tax, dedicated to public transportation.  The tax was to fund 30 years of projects: freeways, bus lines and rail.

Thirty years.

Six years later, the Unseen Hands Which Have No Self Interest But Our Greater Good are back, with another half-cent sales tax,  Son of R, or Measure R2, to augment the first one.  That would bring sales tax close to a dime on the dollar.

Why so soon?

Condensed version: They (UHWHNSIBOGG, inc.) spent most of the money already, borrowing against all those pennies to be collected decades into the future, to build stuff now.  On the Westside, mostly.  Like the Expo Line.  Now they need more of our future pennies to borrow against.

To soften up Valley voters, who are still waiting to reap tangible benefits of the last mordita,  billboards are going up around the Valley this week, touting the shiny rail projects to come, here, up in the Valley.  Soon.  Just as soon as we pass another tax increase.  “We’re building the future right now.”  We promise.

There is exactly one transportation project under serious consideration in the Valley, on Van Nuys Blvd. It might take the form of light rail. Or it might be a trolley. Then again it might take the form of a dedicated bus line up the median.  Then again it might merely consist of lane re-striping and synchronized traffic signals for buses running along curb lines all the way up to San Fernando.  Then again, they might not build anything at all.

Rail to San Fernando? This sounds oddly familiar.   Let’s take a trip down memory lane:

The Red Car, in Valentino's Day
The Red Car, in Valentino’s Day

In 1925, before talking movies, you could ride a trolley from the Mission all the way to Long Beach. You could ride as far east as Pomona. As far south as Santa Ana. You could ride West from downtown along Venice Blvd, to the beach, then along the coast to Redondo.  You could pack a picnic basket and ride to the top of Mt. Lowe and take in the view. Watts was a major junction. Amoco Oil had its own spur east of downtown, as did a place called Wingfoot off Slauson Blvd.  Panorama City was known as Broadmoor (!) and one realizes now the sweeping curve on to Parthenia St. in front of the El Super is paved atop old rail lines, as is the other sweeping curve on to Sepulveda right in front of Green Arrow.

Pacific Electric Trolley, 1947
Pacific Electric Trolley, 1947

I once worked a Habitat for Humanity project re-habbing an old boarding house in Venice which served as a getaway for women who worked in factories downtown.  They would tie a ribbon in their hair and ride the trolley out to the beach for the weekend. It was endowed by a benefactor who felt women who toiled in sweatshops were entitled to sun and light and space and joy, now and then. There was no charge to stay.

Why is this not a bike path?
Why is this not a bike path already?

In the spirit of CicLAvia, which is coming to the Valley on Sunday, I have a modest proposal.

Perhaps some of these billions in bonded future pennies,  a sliver of them, the spare change of our future change, the tip jar to the $15 lattes we will be buying 20 years hence, could be put to use developing greenway bike paths along the LA River System and its tributaries, the Pacoima and Tujunga Wash, Bull and Aliso Creek.  Here’s a little civic secret: the pavement is already there.  It’s  half-built already.

Because while much of the old Pacific Electric of Raymond Chandler Los Angeles may return in a modernist form on the Westside and Downtown, the only streetcar we will see in the Valley is the one on the billboard. The apartment blocks of Langdon Street will not be known again as Mission Acres.  That City is a memory.

Memory, to paraphrase John Le Carre, is a whore.

One thought on “Rails of Future Past”

  1. The western end of Chandler where it becomes the two sweeps flanking the car wash on Van Nuys Blvd. is still recognizable as a railroad “Wye”, where trains and Red Cars once turned around or turned north onto Van Nuys. At least they left some beautifully wide boulevards, the landscaped center median strips the last vestiges of the era. Sometimes driving down Sherman Way or Chandler I can imagine a porthole-windowed Red Car coming towards me, bell clanging and dust flying. But as in the song, red is gray, and yellow white… And as quickly as that, they were gone.

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