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Los Angeles - February 2006

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Larchmont Chronicle
February 3, 2006


By Ken Bernstein

Los Angeles once boasted one of the world’s most extensive railway networks—a network of streetcars, with about 1,200 miles of track and over 900 cars at its peak. Well before our city became known for its freeways, it was actually Los Angeles’ rail system that shaped the far-flung growth and development of the city.

But the streetcars fell into gradual disuse after World War II and stopped operating by 1961, whether through natural obsolescence or the more sinister insinuations of conspiracy after the system was taken over by a consortium of auto-oriented companies, including General Motors.

Today, with the recent renaissance of both rail transit and downtown Los Angeles, a group of community leaders, including the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Central City Association, have created the “L.A. Red Car Project” to revive the historic trolley as a downtown circulator.

(A short digression for historic purists: Yes, the “Red Car” was historically the Pacific Electric Railway’s interurban trains connecting Los Angeles’ communities, while the Los Angeles Railway’s “Yellow Car” operated within downtown and the central city area. But, some-how, it is the image of the “Red Car” that has remained etched in Los Angeles’ collective consciousness).

The Red Car Project was originally the brainchild of George Eslinger, the former general manager of the City’s Bureau of Street Lighting. Thanks to his advocacy and the support of other organizations, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard secured a $100,000 federal appropriation for a study to assess the feasibility of reviving the Red Car.

The study, conducted for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles by a consultant team led by the IBI Group, has just been re-leased and has concluded that a vintage-style trolley system is feasible and would make tremendous contributions to downtown’s ongoing revival.

Reviving historic trolley service in downtowns is hardly a radical idea: such systems have already become a key element of revitalization efforts in many other cities, including Dallas, Tampa, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco (which actually uses [cars painted as] some of Los Angeles’ historic trolley cars on its Market Street “F” Line). Locally, the Port of Los Angeles recently funded a Waterfront Red Car Line in San Pedro, connecting the waterfront cruise terminals to downtown San Pedro’s business district.

Why bring back a streetcar system to downtown? First, it could become an attraction in itself for hotel and convention visitors to the city, offering a fun and easy way to see the heart of our city. Our downtown is an unusually large urban center, with many distinct sub-districts such as the Civic Center, Little Tokyo, the financial district, historic downtown, the jewelry and fashion Districts. A streetcar system can link these disconnected centers of downtown.

The trolley system would provide a fixed, easy way for thousands of new downtown residents to circulate throughout downtown while leaving their cars behind. Finally, a revived Red Car could serve as a key component of the revitalization of the Broadway Historic Theater District, the largest collection of historic movie palaces in the world, fostering a more “historic” ambiance in the Broadway district and connecting Broadway to downtown’s newer cultural attractions.

The recently completed study found that the trolley could share city streets with other traffic and then pull out to stations either at the curb on the far side of intersections or at a 10-foot wide raised median. The consultant team evaluated four potential routes, ranging from 3.1 to 4.6 miles long. The proposed alignments all include a north-south connection along the Broadway Historic District as a backbone of the system. The endpoints of the system focus on the Convention Center/Staples Center/LA Live entertainment center on the south end, and the Music Center, Disney Concert Hall and Grand Avenue Project at the north. Users could board the system at any point, and access it conveniently from other communities near many of the down-town Red Line subway stations. The line could eventually connect to another similar system being proposed by residents of Angelino Heights, Los Angeles’ first historic district, just up Sunset Boulevard from downtown.

The estimated construction costs of the system are $60 million to $73 million—a significant expense, to be sure, but a small fraction of the price tag for recent heavy rail and light rail systems. Other cities have funded their trolley systems through a mix of federal, state, and local funding, and private sector participation through private contributions or assessment districts.

With this initial feasibility study now complete, the next step is to develop a more detailed operational and financing plan and to begin engineering and design of the system. Given the right mix of community, political, and private sector support, Los Angeles could again be seeing trolley cars on its streets within a few years. All aboard!

Ken Bernstein is director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. For more information on the Conservancy, visit www.laconservancy.org.

A NETWORK of streetcars predated the city’s freeways.

Larchmont Chronicle
542½ Larchmont Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90004

Editor & Publisher: Jane Gilman
Associate Publisher: Irwin Gilman

Established 1963
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Copyright 2005 Larchmont Chronicle

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