It was a triumph of citizen activism — the Pasadena City Council's unanimous repudiation last week of plans to extend the long-stalled Long Beach (710) Freeway through town.
Someday, we might look back at what happened Monday night as a historic moment in the battle for Los Angeles and the quality of all our lives.
People I know, such as Dr. Ron Paler and attorney John Shaffer, came together with their neighbors and went to work acquiring facts, getting on the same page, contacting hundreds of neighbors who might never have known what could happen until it was too late to do anything about it.
So began the San Rafael Neighborhoods Assn., which in just a few short weeks, got the Pasadena City Council to call a special meeting to handle what was expected to be a large crowd.
Monday night, more than 500 people showed up and they all had something to say, but they spoke in one voice: Not in my backyard, or my neighbor's, either. These are not NIMBYs, they are preservationists, ordinary folks fighting for their homes, their neighborhoods, the quality of their lives.
Through four hours of enthusiastic hoots, hollers, jeers and cheers Monday night, there was a lot of tough questioning of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials about their proposals to close the 710 Freeway gap — and, more importantly, about whether the agency was trying to create the appearance of public participation without really engaging the public, the art of political illusion.
For Michelle Smith, the MTA's project manager for the 710 extension, it was a tough crowd to face — unhappy people from Eastside L.A. communities like Highland Park and historic Garavanza, to South Pasadena, Pasadena and La Cañada-Flintridge.
These people came from different communities and backgrounds, but were united in saying that while they want public transit to work, they don't want to see an unneeded highway destroy their neighborhoods just to benefit the trucking industry and bail out the ports, which are facing a lot of tough years ahead with increased competition from the Panama Canal to every port north.
Smith seemed shaken by the intensity of emotions when she defended the MTA's feeble, if costly, efforts at community outreach, saying things like, “we'll be interfacing with the public throughout the process,” and in the end, conceding to the City Council she will “retool” the outreach program.
The meeting came just days after the county Board of Supervisors and the MTA board of directors decided to put Measure J on the November ballot to extend for another 30 years — until 2069 — the one-half percent sales tax increase narrowly approved by voters in 2008 known as Measure R.
MTA is borrowing against the estimated $40 billion that Measure R will bring in with the intent of spending the money in 10 years to speed construction of the subway-to-the-sea and dozens of other transit, highway and bike-path projects throughout the county. When that money is gone, they want to mortgage Measure J's billions so they can actually complete the projects they promised four years ago.
In theory, if there was real planning for healthy and sustainable communities and a transit system with great connections and high frequency of service, what is being undertaken would actually live up to the hyped promises that have been made.
But that isn't true.
This is, first and foremost, about creating union construction jobs, feeding the contractors, consultants and political operatives who profit at the public expense, and creating opportunities for densification of our neighborhoods. It is not about building an efficient system that serves the transit-dependent and gets others out of their cars because they can get where they want to go efficiently by bus and rail.
Even as $1 billion is being spent to add a single HOV lane northbound through Sepulveda Pass on the San Diego (405) Freeway, and the subway-to-the-sea is costing $1 billion or more a mile, the MTA is cutting bus services and deferring maintenance on existing rail lines, which may have a lot to do with terrible safety record of the heavily-used Blue Line from Long Beach.
The Expo line just opened, years late, with massive cost overruns. It has serious engineering problems and is the target of lawsuits. Plans for the Crenshaw light-rail line has caused sparks in South L.A., and Beverly Hills is in an uproar over the subway running under a high school with active oil and gas fields.
The extraordinary organizing skills displayed by the people of the San Rafael neighborhood in recent weeks is hopefully just the beginning of forming a coalition to bring together the people whose lives are most affected and get them a seat at the table of power where decisions of great public importance should be made.
The fate of Measure J — the sales tax extension — may hang in the balance.
RON KAYE can be reached at email@example.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.