Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Reshaping Mobility in the Valley by Max Podemski, Pacoima Beautiful’s Planning Director and Investing in Place Advisory Board Member

Max Podemski is an Advisory Board Member at Investing in Place and the Planning Director at Pacoima Beautiful, a member-based environmental health and justice nonprofit working in the Northeast San Fernando Valley where he has led the organization’s efforts to improve mobility and open space. Mr. Podemski co-authored the Pacoima Wash Vision Plan which calls for the conversion of the channelized Pacoima Wash into a multi-modal greenway and park. This plan has been incorporated into official planning documents for the City of Los Angeles and the first park along the Wash is set to open in the coming year. He has also spearheaded efforts to create the Bradley Plaza, one of the first new public spaces built under the city’s People St. Program. Mr. Podemski also serves on the cities Pedestrian Advisory Committee as the representative for Council District 6.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Urban and Environmental Policy from Occidental College and a Master of Science in Urban Planning from Columbia University.

On March 3rd State Senator Robert Hertzberg convened a large meeting of local and city-wide elected officials for the Valley Transportation Summit at Cal State Northridge. This event served both as a conversation about transportation priorities as well as a rally to support a pending Metro sales tax increase for the November ballot. The San Fernando Valley has a long and tormented relationship with mass transit and this history looms over recent discussions of how the area will prioritize transit projects.

There is no more potent symbol of the Valley’s relationship to transit and Metro than the Orange Line. Arguably one of the most successful BRT’s in the US it carries nearly 30,000 riders a day between Chatsworth in the far northwestern fringe of LA County, to the North Hollywood Red Line station. The line was built in 2005 and was expanded in 2009 via funds from Measure R. Instead of celebrating this facility, it is cited as an example of the Valley getting shortchanged with a bus instead of rail. Yet, when rail was proposed along the same alignment in the 1980’s, it was vigorously fought by nearby residents. This ultimately led to a law being passed that banned an above ground train, which was not overturned until 2014.

However, public opinion in the Valley has begun to favor mass transit recently.  Seeking to capitalize on new investments in transit, organizations like the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA) formed the Valley on Track initiative several years ago. The goal of this group is to advocate for transportation projects with three main priorities:

  • Convert the Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit to Light Rail.
  • Build the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor along Van Nuys Boulevard as light rail.
  • Construct a rail line through the Sepulveda Pass to connect the Valley with the Westside.

Many of these projects emanate from the first Measure R, however, they were not fully funded. The exception is the Orange Line conversion. This is where politics and history seem to get in the way of prioritizing projects that would truly improve mobility for Valley residents. Instead of converting the Orange Line to rail, arguably the focal point of Valley On Track (hence the name), it could be greatly enhanced through much cheaper means. Bogota’s BRT system for example carries more than twice the daily ridership of the Orange Line per hour.

Politics and history aside, what could a vision to enhance mobility in the Valley look like? While Valley on Track argues that the area only contains two rail stations, there are actually seven additional stations in the San Fernando Valley. They are not part of the Metro system however, but the much beleaguered Metrolink, which bisects the Valley in two directions linking a diverse array of neighborhoods and connecting important centers like CSUN, Van Nuys, and Burbank Airport. What if this system was upgraded to provide fast, frequent, and affordable connections to downtown Los Angeles and the rest of the Metro system?

The Valley is crisscrossed by a grid of large arterial streets. The streets are designed for a sprawling suburban enclave, in spite of the fact that the Valley has become a dense and diverse urban center with a large youth and transit dependent population. Many of these streets lack basic pedestrian infrastructure like crosswalks, sidewalks, and basic bus service. What if we reimagined these arterials to reflect the multi-modal reality of the Valley? Large traffic clogged streets like Sherman Way and Sepulveda Blvd., could be reimagined with wide, well-lit sidewalks that capture and infiltrate storm water runoff with a robust tree canopy creating walkable communities. Bus rapid transit lanes and cycle tracks could funnel commuters across neighborhoods to the Orange Line, Red Line, and enhanced Metrolink system.

Other opportunities include the waterways that cut across the San Fernando Valley. The Tujunga and Pacoima Wash as well as the LA River span the entire Valley and many schools, community colleges, business districts, and parks are adjacent to the channels. Creating multimodal greenways along these rivers would provide a virtual bike and pedestrian freeway knitting the Valley together. The Pacoima Wash also provides a regional benefit of connecting directly to the Angeles National Forest.

This is not to say that the projects espoused by the Valley on Track coalition have no merit. A light rail line on Van Nuys Boulevard going under the Sepulveda Pass would be transformative, both for the low income transit, dependent neighborhoods of the East Valley and the region as a whole. However, leaders seem to have a single focus on rail infrastructure while ignoring more cost effective projects that would have similar effect on improving mobility for the area. With a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape transit in the region in the new ballot measure, the time is now for the San Fernando Valley  to get over the slights of the past and create a real mobility vision for the future.

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