Hahn Courts Black Support by Pushing Transit Line

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

At a time when L.A. Mayor James Hahn is looking to repair frayed relations with the city's African-American community, his administration is pushing a long-stalled proposal for a light rail line or dedicated bus lanes along Crenshaw Boulevard, through the heart of the city's black neighborhood.

The rail line or bus lanes would run 10 miles down Crenshaw, from Wilshire Boulevard on the north to the Century (105) Freeway and the Green Line on the south. Plans for improved mass transit on this underserved corridor have been on hold because of political expediency or lack of funds or both. A light rail line would cost nearly $1 billion to build; dedicated bus lanes would cost several hundred million dollars.

Cost alone makes any light rail or dedicated bus lanes a long shot for Crenshaw. Even if the funding were obtained, it would take at least a decade to plan and build a light rail line and almost as long to construct the dedicated bus lanes.

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority is studying the options for the Crenshaw corridor; that study is due to be released shortly after Labor Day. After a series of public hearings, the MTA board could vote on one of those options by the end of the year.

Late last month, Hahn's deputy mayor for transportation, Brian Williams, repeatedly told a group of transit professionals that finding the money for a Crenshaw line was a top priority for the Hahn administration.

"We want to ensure that light rail or BRT (construction) gets started before Mayor Hahn leaves office," Williams said. (BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit, which involves express buses running in bus-only lanes.) Factoring in his expectation that Hahn gets re-elected in 2005, Williams said that leaves another seven years.

"This project has been on the back burner for too long," Williams told the Business Journal last week. He said a united front must be presented in Washington and Sacramento to pry loose some funding for Crenshaw.



Parks related?

The timing of the Hahn administration's push for a light rail/dedicated bus line comes five months after Hahn angered black leaders with his refusal to back former L.A. Police Chief Bernard Parks for a second term.

Hahn won election as mayor in large part because of overwhelming support in the African-American community, and there was an expectation among black leaders that he would not oppose Parks' bid for another term.

In the weeks following his call for Parks to step aside, Hahn's public approval ratings among blacks fell precipitously, while black leaders accused the mayor of betraying them. Some black leaders went so far to say they would not back Hahn for re-election; businessman and former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson has even contemplated running against Hahn in 2005.

In the last couple of months, however, Hahn has assiduously courted the black community. He reached out to black leaders to join his campaign against secession. Then he stepped up efforts to aid African-American-owned and other minority-owned businesses gain access to capital.

Last week, Hahn's economic development deputy, Jonathan Kevles, supported black developer Chris Hammond's $145 million plan to redevelop the long-troubled Santa Barbara Plaza shopping center. The Community Redevelopment Agency voted last week to give its staff authority to negotiate with Hammond and his partners. If the plan moves ahead, it will require an estimated $42 million in redevelopment subsidies from the city.

Now comes the Crenshaw rail/bus line proposal, which would go through Crenshaw, Leimert Park and View Park all primarily African-American communities.

"There is no question that this push for a Crenshaw rail line is part of the political damage control being undertaken by Mayor Hahn after the Parks decision," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a local black author and political commentator. "All you have to do is look at the timing and the concentrated effort made by Hahn in the last few weeks with the black community."

While Hahn's long-term goal with this effort might be to regain black support for his re-election, Hutchinson said the short-term goal of defeating secession is what's driving the push.

"He's going to need every ounce of political support from the black community to keep Los Angeles together," Hutchinson said.



Rapid rollout

Williams denied that his push for light rail or dedicated bus lanes was being driven by political considerations.

"Look," he said, "I grew up in the Crenshaw area and saw this area get bypassed time and again when it came to improved mass transit. If there is any motivation beyond the objective need for this project, it's a personal motivation on my part to make sure it gets built."

The MTA plans to roll out the second phase of its Rapid Bus system along Crenshaw sometime in the next couple of years, according to David Mieger, the MTA's director of rail and busway planning.

But the Rapid Bus deployment is seen as only an interim step for the Crenshaw corridor, whose population is nearly twice as likely to take mass transit as the rest of the county, according to MTA figures.

"Getting a Crenshaw rail or dedicated bus line is a top priority for me," said L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, who represents the area and also sits on the MTA board.

Burke said that as federal and state funds were given out for future rail projects, Crenshaw lost out to the Valley. Now that the Valley line along Chandler Boulevard has been funded, Burke said it's time to turn the attention back to Crenshaw.

The big question: what kind of mass transit would be best in the long run. Light rail has the ability to carry more people, but the likely need to go above ground or below ground for significant stretches of Crenshaw makes it a costly option.

Parts of Crenshaw are narrow and have little room to accommodate a rail line without taking away lanes of traffic or forcing businesses to relocate. Also, Crenshaw crosses several major east-west streets, including Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Slauson Avenue and Century Boulevard. Having up to 40 trains crossing those intersections each day could wreak havoc on local traffic patterns.

With funding in short supply, light rail is a long shot. Far more feasible is the dedicated bus-lane concept, which is cheaper and offers more flexibility. But so far, there appears to be little support among local merchants for this option.

"The dedicated bus lane won't add anything significant to Crenshaw," said Lee Turner, president of the Hyde Park Merchants Association. "Light rail makes more sense in the long-run, since it more likely to bring a more upscale mix of stores to the area."

There's another problem: The northern terminus of Crenshaw is one mile west on Wilshire from the Metro Red Line station at Western Ave. Somehow, a rail line or dedicated bus lane must be connected to that station in order for the Crenshaw line to become part of the region's rail system.

"It's going to take some changes to connect Crenshaw with Wilshire/Western," Burke said. "So much is going to depend on how much funding we can get."

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