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Subway

Establishing public policy through voter initiative is a dangerous game, but the process does have its plusses: namely, the ability to empower voters on certain issues in which legislators are unwilling or unable to resolve. It's the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" factor and it can be quite potent in guiding local and state policymaking.

Here in Los Angeles, voters used that opportunity to pass Proposition A, which outlaws the spending of transit sales tax money for the construction of underground rail lines.

Essentially, it means that once the Metro Rail extension to North Hollywood is finished in 2000, all subway construction will be halted. Our long regional nightmare, perpetuated for years by ineptitude, corruption and parochialism, will be over.

At last, the subway will be dead.

It shouldn't have come down to this. It should have become clear to board members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that building an underground subway in the city of Los Angeles was a misguided idea. It should have been obvious that Southern California requires a transportation network that's not tied to just a few inflexible routes, but to a network of bus and light rail connections made more efficient through the use of existing right-of-ways.

You don't solve the area's transportation woes at $300 million a mile (and $7 billion in MTA debt, most of it subway-related). And yet, well after Metro Rail was pretty much acknowledged to be doomed, political interests kept trying to keep it moving just one more stretch, one or two more station stops. What's another couple of billion dollars, right?

Opponents of the initiative, including County Supervisor Gloria Molina and a coalition of Eastside activists and construction trade unions, wouldn't quite put it that way. They would argue that for lower-income Eastside residents, the subway has been a long-promised alternative to the daily grind of surface congestion. They might also suggest that Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who led the Proposition A effort, was using the initiative as a political prop in pursuit of the mayor's job.

Well, it's true that opposing more subway construction is a political no-brainer (one that might be parlayed into a mayoral campaign in a couple of years). And it's also true that the Eastside is woefully underserved when it comes to mass transit. But none of that justifies spending one dollar more for this boondoggle of a public works project. Thankfully, last week's vote crossed all geographic boundaries. Even in Councilman Richard Alatorre's district, where the Eastside line would be running, Proposition A passed with 64.8 percent of the vote.

What's so disheartening about Metro Rail is the thought of what could have been. If only the billions of dollars had been spent on mass transit alternatives more suitable to Southern California. If only the political decision-makers 15 and 20 years ago recognized that Los Angeles would never be like New York, Chicago or other older cities where subway systems make sense. And if only the MTA board members had the gumption to go beyond their own political interests and reassess Metro Rail before it got so out of hand.

When all else failed, when none of the usual checks and balances seemed to work, it came down to a vote of the people and the people spoke with an impressive 68 percent of the vote. In the long, tortuous history of L.A.'s subway system, Nov. 3, 1998 was clearly the high point the one and only high point.

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