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.

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?

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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