Cherished Icon Threatened Once Again
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
One of the first elements of San Pedro’s waterfront development to go live—its Red Car rail service—may also be one of its first to die.
That’s apparently if port staff has its way, according to a deliberately vague and low-key presentation made to the Board of Harbor Commissioners on March 19.
It was July 19, 2003 when Councilwoman Janice Hahn spoke at the inauguration of the Red Car line. Both she and her brother, Mayor James Hahn, had ridden with their father, legendary Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, on its last day of service to Long Beach April 9, 1961. And so the spirit of rebirth had a special poignancy, which was fused with a more general spirit of waterfront renewal.
Now, however, a second death seems imminent, unless strong action is taken. Service will stop later this year, with no clear plans for resumption.
“The Red Car is your icon. It represents the port in much of your literature,” former port lawyer Pat Nave said, in the comment period of the March 19 meeting.
Commissioner Pat Castellanos echoed him. “I do think the Red Car is an icon,” she said. I’ve been on it with my nieces and nephews and it’s fun, even if it’s just for a short distance.” But she was concerned about the staff’s cost projections.
Katherine Gray, with the San Pedro Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the Red Car “exactly what we need.”
“We have people call us every week about the Red Car: ‘Is it running? How much does it cost? Where does it go?’” Gray said.
“There’s over a million people that have ridden the Red Car since it started,” added Red Car driver Bob Bryant, who is active with the Northwest Neighborhood Council.
POLA’s chief engineer, Tony Gioiello, didn’t come right out and say that the Red Car was being killed. He only said it was being suspended, as a result of the Sampson Way realignment, which is expected to take 18 months, starting in early 2016. But the existing tracks will be torn up in the process, and the Red Car service itself will be shut down months in advance. “Our plan is to suspend Red Car service after this year’s Lobster Fest, somewhere near the end of September, and it should be noted the Red Car will not return on its existing alignment,” Gioiello said.
“You have no intention to continue with our Red Car program,” said Bryant. “None. There’s nothing in our future budget.”
Gioiello presented cost projections indicating it would take $40 million to accomplish the realignment, roughly 50 percent more than the $26.35 million projected in a September 2009 feasibility study conducted for the port by Wilson & Co. of San Diego, completed the same month that POLA’s board approved the final environmental impact report for waterfront development.
“The 2009 EIR actually expanded the Red Car line, to Kaiser Point and Cabrillo Beach for example,” Nave pointed out to Random Lengths afterward. “Eliminating it also means that service will never be extended up 6th Street, which is one of the best ways to tie the downtown to the waterfront. This has been talked about many times, and explored by the port, too.”
Indeed, that EIR, which POLA’s current commissioners seem only vaguely aware of highlighted the Red Car as a vital component of the waterfront development plan. It explicitly included “extension of the Waterfront Red Car Line to City Dock No.1 on the main channel, the Outer Harbor Park and out to Cabrillo Beach,” in addition to the Sampson realignment. Further extensions to Wilmington, downtown San Pedro and North Gaffey were also contemplated and were included in the Wilson study, with specific cost projections, totaling $141.76 million for all of them.
The new projections total $192 million for the track, plus another $35 million for new cars and a maintenance facility.
But the real money problem appears to go much deeper: the port’s de facto turning its back on the whole notion of the original $1.2 billion development plan. That’s obviously a lot of money, but a good deal less than the $2 billion spent in Sydney, Australia for a much more extensive development plan, Nave pointed out. According to Australian port officials, Nave said Sydney is a much smaller population center, part of a much smaller national economy, but they have a super-streamlined development process, and only proceed with development projects when they’ve secured support from the governor of New South Wales. Los Angeles, in contrast, has no dependable development process at all.
“It’s frustrating,” Nave said. “How do we ever rely on what the city says? Seems like that changes from one day to the next.”
Harbor Commission Vice President Dave Arian was visibly torn. He wanted port staff to provide more detailed analysis involving more options. On the one hand, he said, “The money that’s being proposed here is way beyond anything that we can afford to do, in my opinion.” Then he added, “But I do think we have other options.”
First, Arian referenced expanding on the trolley recently secured by the business district.
“I think we need to experiment the next two years with these trolleys. Bring them from different parts of San Pedro and Wilmington into the port. Get them into Ports O’ Call.”
But, like Castellanos, Arian also had shared family experiences—in his case a granddaughter—informing his appreciation of the Red Car’s iconic power, and its importance in preserving Pedro’s heritage. “When I bring people into town, the first thing they want to ride is the Red Car, and I think it’s a great thing,” Arian added, “We need, in some capacity, to be running this, at least on critical days when there’s a lot of people down here, as an attraction. Maybe not every day, but during the summer and at certain times.”
Castellanos wanted to know more about options, too. “What is the cost of running a trolley compared to the cost of running the Red Car? Not that we would eliminate the Red Car, but at least so we have it as a compliment once we have more visitors, which I know is our goal,” she said. “I think it should remind all of us in Los Angeles of what we had.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Anthony Pirozzi pushed for getting something into the plans right away. “If we don’t put it into the plan now, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “You know the engineering philosophy: you’ve got to do it now, or you won’t do it… I don’t think later is going to be an option.”
All this takes place against a broader background in which San Pedro’s transit needs continue to be neglected, despite a significant improvement in overall transit planning for the region, epitomized by the Los Angeles Planning Department’s “Mobility 2035” plan, currently receiving public comments. The plan recognizes the need for diverse transit options. “A robust transportation system that offers multiple options and quality infrastructure will be crucial to achieving and maintaining economic prosperity, especially in a city and region so large and expansive,” it states. But it doesn’t include rail for San Pedro or anywhere in the Harbor Area, even as its timeline reminds us just how early in Los Angeles’ history a rail line from the port to downtown appeared.
In 1869, the timeline notes, “Twenty-one miles of Los Angeles and San Pedro railroad [were] completed, connecting downtown Los Angeles to the harbor for the first time and opening the door to global trade.” That was the same year, according to the timeline, that the Transcontinental Railroad was completed—though only to San Francisco. It would be another seven years after that before the Southern Pacific Railroad would connect Los Angeles to the rest of the nation, and 11 years until Main Street became the first paved roadway in the city. That’s how early, and how important, the San Pedro to downtown Los Angeles rail connection was.
The timeline also notes the 1887 introduction of the city’s first electric-powered streetcars, which lasted only a year because of a power plant boiler explosion. That was followed by the 1895 inauguration of Los Angeles Railway (Yellow Cars), the city’s first interurban trolley line, which connected Los Angeles and Pasadena, and the 1902 inauguration of the Pacific Electric trolley line from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. Pacific Electric reached peak ridership in 1945, when it was the world’s largest electric rail system, with 1,164 miles of track serving 125 cities throughout Southern California. But less than 20 years later, it discontinued service on the Los Angeles/Long Beach line, its last remaining line. The Blue Line established service on the same right-of-way in 1990.
The timeline tells a story of remarkable changes and developments over time that are starkly at odds with the seemingly inflexible permanence that transportation infrastructure tends to project. There were even fascinating possibilities proposed, or even begun, but not completed, which could have produced a very different regional character. In 1897, Los Angeles’ first dedicated bikeway opened, an elevated wooden turnpike connecting downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. However, only four- and-a-half of the 9 miles that were planned were built. A decade later, in 1907, a 100 mph monorail running from Pasadena to Santa Monica was proposed, but the idea never got beyond the planning stage.
All this suggests there are more possibilities than most of us usually assume, that we can have a great deal more to say about the nature of regional transportation, and how it shapes our future. The question remains: Will we fight for a better transportation system, or lose the last vestige of what was once the largest mass transit system in the nation?