Southland transit is in need of big ideas

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, a poorly conceived $650-million monorail line has steadily lost money since opening for business in 2004. A planned $500-million extension will expand the system to McCarran International Airport.

Brooks believes a monorail network can be built along L.A.'s flood channels for less than $35 million per mile, or a tenth the estimated cost of expanding the existing subway system. A 10-mile monorail line could be up and running in less than three years, he said.

"Californians are an above-ground people," Brooks said. "We don't want to be underground in a dark tunnel. We want to be above it all, in the light."

I conveyed this sentiment to Goodmon, the subway advocate, when we met shortly afterward. He laughed and said he's heard that before from Brooks.

"People care more about getting quickly from one point to another than they do about whether the sun is shining outside," Goodmon responded. "Look, monorails have had a hundred years to prove themselves as the technology of the future. They haven't."

He pointed toward his conceptual subway map, which resembled the intricate systems in subway-friendly places like Tokyo, London and Paris.

"The freeway experiment has failed," Goodmon said. "That's not even up for debate any more. What we need to do now is connect the various communities that make up Los Angeles, not just major intersections."

By this thinking, you wouldn't have subway stations simply where they're convenient to build. You'd have them where people want to go. To get from downtown to the Getty Center, you'd take Goodmon's Purple Line to Westwood Village and then transfer to the Bronze Line, which stops right at the museum.

Sounds great, right? That is, until Goodmon reveals his estimated cost of as much as $50 billion (the actual cost would almost certainly be higher) and decades-long time frame.

Goodmon is just 25. He's a former Harvard University student and part-time political consultant who gets by doing odd jobs.

His passion is for public transportation, and he spends most days making the rounds of political offices and community groups, articulately arguing for why we need to get serious about subways and why we need to do it soon.

"Once you put this map in front of someone and say you can connect LAX with the Valley, once you get people thinking about what things could be like rather than the way things are, I believe this is pretty cut-and-dried," Goodmon said.

Needless to say, nothing is cut-and-dried on the transportation front until the money's in place, and that goes for both subways and monorails. All sorts of ideas are floating around -- taxes, bonds, state and federal grants. There's no reason for optimism.

But what appeals to me about both Goodmon's and Brooks' proposals is that they encourage us to see the big picture, the L.A. we'd actually want to live in, rather than asking us to make do with solutions whose sole merit is political feasibility.

Having lived abroad for many years, including seven years in Japan, I can claim some experience with mega-subways and monorails. Both work. But I come down in the end on Goodmon's side.

Constructing monorail tracks along flood channels might be economically and politically preferable.

But our true goal should be a complete reinvention of L.A. from boundless sprawl to an interlinked collection of urban villages, where getting from Point A to Point B is both simple and routine.

This is by all means a business story. Think of it -- L.A. without the traffic hassles. Who wouldn't buy that product?

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