Southland transit is in need of big ideas

The traffic in L.A. bites -- you know that. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Are we going to continue down our current path, pouring money into gridlocked streets and freeways, bickering endlessly about our pathetic urban rail system?

Or are we going to embrace a grander -- and much costlier -- plan to redefine quality of life in Southern California?

In other words, subway or monorail?

Brian C. Brooks, an L.A. County Department of Public Works employee, believes he has the answer, which he shared with me after laying out a map of the county's system of flood channels.

"If you had a monorail system all over Los Angeles, along all the flood channels, it would be like having a magic carpet, carrying you above all the traffic," he said. "Absolutely this would work."

Transit activist Damien Goodmon believes he too has the answer, which he presented in the form of a map of the region crisscrossed with colorful (and imaginary) subway lines.

"This is the Los Angeles that anyone would want to live in," he said. "Nobody would want to pay the rising cost of gas or sit alone in their car for an hour when there's an attractive alternative."

My colleague Steve Lopez has done typically admirable work looking at traffic problems from the political side of things. But for me, this is first and foremost a business story, one that affects every consumer and company in Southern California.

In its 2007 "Urban Mobility Study," the Texas Transportation Institute ranked the L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana area as having the worst traffic jams nationwide, with an annual average 72 hours stuck behind the wheel and 57 gallons of wasted gas per traveler.

It's estimated that the region's chronic congestion wallops the local economy to the tune of about $12 billion a year in lost wages, productivity and fuel. Businesses and consumers are pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere because road conditions have made life unbearable.

Then there's the growing gap between Westside-generated jobs and the availability of affordable housing, forcing many workers to spend hours commuting from the Inland Empire and equally distant locations.

Brooks, the monorail maven, knows how ugly it can get. He said it often takes as much as an hour and a half for him to travel from his home in Pomona to his job in Alhambra just 25 miles away.

Brooks is 61. He has gray hair and blue eyes, and a button-down, pens-in-the-shirt-pocket manner that all but shouts "bureaucrat." He works as a real estate appraiser for the Public Works Department.

Brooks said his interest in monorails began a couple of years ago as construction estimates for the multibillion-dollar L.A. subway system continued to soar.

"I figured there had to be a better way," he said. "There had to be some way we could use the 500 miles of county-owned flood channels. So I started studying."

Brooks said it took several months for him to become conversant in state-of-the-art monorail technology. He then spent another couple of months trying to find all the ways such a system wouldn't work in L.A.

"At the end of all that, I was more convinced than ever that monorails are the answer," Brooks said.

At Disneyland, of course, a futuristic (for the 1960s) monorail whisks theme park visitors to and from nearby hotels and around the park. It's safe, fun and convenient.

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