South LA’s star is rising. It’s not just because of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project, though the increased mobility that a rail line brings — especially a rail line that comes within a mile of LAX — is a catalytic force that can bring all kinds of changes. It’s also because South LA has a powerful advocate at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serving as chair of the board. (The Supervisor is photographed with students from LA Trade Tech, LA Community College District Board of Trustees Vice President Mike Eng, Denny Zane, and Michael Woo, dean of Cal Poly Pomona's College of Environmental Design, at a board meeting about the feasibility of a universal student transit pass program; more about that below.)
This is a critical time for LA Metro, with the rail construction program getting into full swing: Trains are being tested on the Expo extension to Santa Monica, and the Gold Line to Azusa — with both lines scheduled to open early next year—and construction is underway not only on the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project but also the Purple Line subway extension to Westwood and the downtown Regional Connector.
There’s a lot going on at Metro — with a relatively new CEO, Phil Washington, and a new Chief Innovation Officer, Joshua Schank, formerly of the Eno Foundation, who is heading up the new Office of Extraordinary Innovation. There’s a full social media team blogging and posting not just about the development of the transit system and the land around it but also on the art, culture, fashion, food and music happening near transit — all with the goal of creating a transit-oriented culture in LA.
Metro is also updating its long-range transportation plan, and is heading into the season when the decision will be made about whether to go to the ballot with a new sales tax measure next year. Will it be an “augment and extend” measure that could raise $120 billion by extending the Measure R sales tax beyond 2039 and augmenting it with a new tax? Which projects will sales tax proceeds fund? These are some of the big decisions that will be made before summer of next year.
Says Supervisor Ridley-Thomas: “Angelenos have made it clear they’re displeased with the amount of traffic congestion in the region, and they know a variety of tools need to be deployed—light rail lines, buses and bike lanes are just a few. Yes we are in the midst of an ambitious capital campaign but we still have a lot to do.”
He remains very certain of his No. 1 priority: getting public transportation to LAX. “How can we call it a regional rail system if it doesn’t even go to the airport? It’s the height of irony that we haven’t been able to complete a project with such a high level of support,” he says. “But this board is committed to making good on the mistakes of the past and we will get it done.”
The Supervisor is no less passionate about his priorities for LA County’s Second District, which he has represented since 2008: There’s the “massive redo” of the notorious double-decker Willowbrook/Rosa Parks station, which the Los Angeles Times has called “one of the busiest, dreariest and most crime-ridden” light-rail stops in the county. It is also the 4th busiest in Metro’s rail system, serving 30,000 riders a week on the Blue or Green Lines, six Metro bus lines and/or other municipal buses and shuttles.
The $66-million station renovation is part of a $1 billion investment underway in the Willowbrook community. The station is just a block from the refurbished Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital and medical campus, which will be connected to the station via a pedestrian crossing, bikeways, and a hub for carshare and bikeshare. A sheriff’s substation, library, and affordable housing for seniors is also planned.
It will be the biggest investment Metro has ever made in a transit terminal, bigger even than the $60 million invested in the El Monte Station. “This illustrates the most important point I could make about investment in transit,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas says. “It is catalytic in terms of both community development and economic development.”
This is why the supervisor is also focused on revitalizing a long neglected stretch of former Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way that runs from Inglewood to the LA River, mostly along Slauson Avenue. “I am declaring war on blight,” he says, “and the epicenter of that blight in my district is the Slauson Corridor.”
Slauson Corridor is the site of the not-yet-built Rail-to-River Corridor, a project that the supervisor likens to New York City’s High Line, the 1.5 mile linear park in Manhattan that opened in 1993 on an elevated section of a disused New York Central Railroad spur. He also compares it to the Whittier Greenway Trail, another abandoned railroad right-of-way transformed into a 4.5-mile recreational trail, pedestrian path and commuter bikeway that allows people to hike and bike right through the City of Whittier, past homes and parks and shopping areas, schools and transit stops.
The Rail-to-River trail would be developed along another mostly abandoned rail line called the Harbor Subdivision, and it would travel from the Crenshaw/LAX line east to downtown Huntington Park and through Maywood and Vernon before reaching the LA River —connecting the Crenshaw/LAX line to the Green Line along the way. Described in the media as a “desolate stretch,” a “shabby dirt path” and “a sad reminder of the bustling manufacturing sector that once prospered there,” the Slauson Corridor has proven resistant to revitalization efforts.
But Supervisor Ridley-Thomas is undaunted, and community groups in South LA strongly support the project. “We have to think about the transit investment broadly, not narrowly,” he says. “We need to think about the triple bottom line. The transit investment is not just about getting people from here to there. It’s about greening the environment and improving air quality. It’s about community and economic development. And it’s about a high-quality customer experience and providing all people with a higher quality of life.”
The project just received a $15 million federal TIGER grant that when combined with $20 million available in local and state funding will pay for the revitalization of the corridor between the Crenshaw Line and the Slauson Blue Line Station.
There is no way these kinds of improvements in LA’s super-hot housing market won’t change South LA neighborhoods in ways that will lead to the disruption and displacement of both residents and businesses. Even on this topic Supervisor Ridley-Thomas is upfront: “I don’t think that major infrastructure projects happen without disruption. It really can’t be avoided, and neither can displacement.
"Displacement, however, can be mitigated," he adds with emphasis. "What we need is to agree upon, and then implement, mitigation strategies that are appropriate.”
Here, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has brought lots of ideas and energy to the table, introducing a motion to develop a Business Interruption Fund at Metro for local “mom-and-pop” businesses along the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project, Purple Line extension and the Regional Connector. That fund has already provided over $1.1 million in grants to more than 60 businesses that have struggled because of construction activities, and Metro is authorized to allocate another $10 million annually. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas was also responsible for creating the Business Solutions Center to provide technical, financial and marketing assistance to help businesses through this difficult period.
He also introduced the motion requiring that 30% of all housing units built on Metro-owned property be affordable, and allowing Metro to discount this property when it’s sold or leased to affordable housing developers so that Metro can contribute to the cost of the development. He also championed the idea of a loan fund for transit-oriented affordable housing that would help community development institutions access financing for affordable projects and fund tenant improvements to spur activity in chronically-vacant, transit-adjacent retail spaces.
Metro will also be developing memoranda of understanding with other cities along transit corridors, in order to promote similar co-investments. And residents of these developments will be provided with transit passes!
“LA Metro can and should use the agency’s real estate holdings not just to counteract blight but to address the housing crisis in LA because it is daunting — we are doing exactly what we should be doing,” says the Supervisor. “If the transit investment is about providing a high quality of life for everyone — including students, seniors, and the disabled — then it has to be affordable because you can’t experience it if you can’t afford it. This is an enlightened and prudent way to operate a transit system.”
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has also long worked alongside unions to champion project labor agreements, construction careers programs, and “local hire” policies. These create jobs with good, middle-class wages for the people who live in the communities that have been hardest-hit by construction on new rail projects and also projects like the MLK Community Hospital.
Move LA currently has the honor of working with the supervisor as he champions one of his proposals to help people attain a high quality of life: Supervisor Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion a couple of months ago asking Metro staff to study the feasibility of implementing a universal student transit pass program with the goal of increasing transit ridership and also providing students with more affordable access to education, jobs and opportunity. That motion was adopted unanimously by the board, and the staff report on the feasibility was received and filed last week by the Executive Management Committee with another unanimous vote. It includes a recommendation to create a working group to discuss, plan and coordinate next steps, with the possibility that the program could begin next year.
"Mark Ridley -Thomas is the kind of public official that understands the art of leveraging public dollars for transportation to get maximum impact for everyday people,” said Nolan Rollins of the Urban League, who works with the Supervisor on the problems of “disruption and displacement.” “He understands the importance of progress, but he also understands we have to be very careful about what happens to what I’ll call South LA’s 'indigenous people'."
Rollins cites the Empowerment Congress, which the Supervisor founded shortly after becoming an LA City Councilmember, and South LA was still reeling from the Rodney King beating, and the tragic death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was shot in the head by a liquor store owner after a disagreement over a bottle of orange juice.
This was a very difficult period in South LA, which had already been suffering from a decade of public and private disinvestment. Banks, stores and factories were closing in what was then called “South Central,” social services were underfunded, jobs were disappearing, and poor people were waiting in long lines at down-sized public agencies. Those were the days of redlining, PCP and crack, and then-Councilman Ridley-Thomas created the Empowerment Congress to turn anger and dysfunction into activism against police brutality and for equality in everything, from the enforcement of building codes to street cleaning. It launched his career in politics.
The Empowerment Congress has become a successful 23-year-old experiment in neighborhood participation in government decision-making, and remains robust to this day. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas moved from the LA City Council to the State Legislature in 2002, where he served in the Assembly and then the Senate. Since 2008, he has been on the Board of Supervisors and the Metro board, where he was instrumental in convincing the federal government to provide Metro with a TIGER grant to build the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project.
Said Rollins: “Mark Ridley-Thomas is a man who’s not afraid of starting conversations about the most difficult issues — whether it’s lack of economic opportunity or racial challenges, or how people should work together and build coalitions for the greater good. Because at the end of the day it’s about the change—not talking about the change. And it’s through coalition-building that anything and everything can be achieved.”
(Photos: The Supervisor is photographed with students from LA Trade Tech, LA Community College District Board of Trustees Vice President Mike Eng, Denny Zane, and Michael Woo, dean of Cal Poly Pomona's College of Environmental Design; the Supervisor with Metro CEO Phil Washington; the Supervisor keynotes Move LA's annual Transportation Conversation in 2014; the Supervisor at a press conference about Metro's Business Interruption Fund; the Supervisor at an Empowerment Congress press conference in 1991; the Supervisor, Mike Eng and Trade Tech students take selfies.)