Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ethan N. Elkind's "Railtown"

Ethan Elkind is an attorney who researches and writes on environmental law for the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He also has an appointment at the UCLA School of Law Environmental Law Center and Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment. His areas of focus include land use, transportation, electric vehicles, energy storage, and renewable energy.

Elkind applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City:
Page 99 provides a decent snapshot of Railtown, my book on the history of the modern Los Angeles rail system. Actually, (spoiler alert) it provides a real-life snapshot of local leaders celebrating the groundbreaking of the subway portion of the system in 1986. That picture takes up half the page, making my job here easier.

My overall argument is that the L.A. Metro Rail system barely came to be, due to intense political opposition and financial constraints. Local leaders cobbled together a supportive coalition by making serious compromises to the route locations and by building it as cheaply as they could. Rail went to the path of least resistance, serving areas of political power when local leaders wanted it and not serving areas with wealthy and well-organized homeowner groups that opposed rail in their neighborhoods.

Page 99 underscores that reality by celebrating a groundbreaking for a puny 4.4 mile subway that was all rail leaders could achieve with the dollars they squeezed from a hostile Reagan Administration. They took a huge risk in hoping that more money would come. Leading the charge for over ten years to get to that point was Mayor Bradley, pictured in the photo and quoted in the celebration ceremony:

“I couldn’t be happier if the Dodgers, Raiders, and Lakers all won world championships this year.”

The harsh funding realities also become clear in this statement from him:

“I am confident that the same coalition will prevail in Congress to secure the remaining $203 million over the next two years, and the federal support needed to take Metro Rail past the 4.4-mile starter line.”

The page also highlights the dispersed nature of political power in Los Angeles. Just as the city sprawls over a huge land mass, political power sprawls. With no strong central entity responsible for coordinating land use and transit decisions across the region, leaders like Bradley needed to find allies wherever they could. The photo, for example, shows Bradley with transit agency board member Nick Patsaouras, Los Angeles county supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Hahn chief deputy Nate Holden. The city-county alliance was critical to getting the rail program started.

But without more federal support, the story on the page warns that new subway was at risk of becoming a “just a stranded minisubway of 4.4 miles at a cost of over a billion dollars.”
Learn more about the book and author at Ethan N. Elkind's website and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: Railtown.

--Marshal Zeringue