LA Metro's Rapid Bus Plan Is Tearing Eagle Rock Apart
Angelenos have a lot of feelings about public transit. Lately, that's been especially true of the bus — the humble workhorse of Metro Los Angeles' transportation fleet.
Metro's plans to expand its transit network with bus rapid transit (BRT) has drawn a lot of attention and energy, most recently in Northeast L.A., where Metro plans to run a new bus line that would connect North Hollywood to Pasadena by way of Burbank, Glendale and Eagle Rock.
BRT functions like "light rail on wheels," as Metro explains, and the eventual route will likely include some forms of bus-only lanes, improved bus stops that resemble rail station platforms, more frequent service, and priority at traffic signals.
The goal is to take buses out of gridlocked traffic lanes and into their own dedicated lanes, speeding up service and encouraging more people to opt for the bus, which Metro hopes will boost its declining ridership and get more cars off SoCal's congested roads.
The NoHo to Pasadena route is now in its environmental review phase, and Metro staff have been holding public scoping meetings to get feedback from local residents and stakeholders about what they'd like to see from the project.
Brian Haas, a spokesman for the transit agency, said officials expected last Saturday's meeting at Eagle Rock Plaza to be better attended and more "spirited" than the rest. That turned out to be an understatement.
The meeting space was jam-packed. An estimated 300 people turned out, though many weren't able to squeeze into the space when it became a standing-room only situation. Attendees spilled out onto the walkways of the mall, and it got so loud Metro staff gave several requests for quiet and calm so a court reporter could accurately document the proceeding.
Eagle Rock meeting on @metrolosangeles rapid bus project along Colorado Boulevard is PACKED. Metro staff said they're at capacity and will be holding a separate meeting at Occidental College pic.twitter.com/mUrKrBVQ2x— Ryan Fonseca (@RyFons) July 13, 2019
We've already written about the existential battle brewing over a BRT project in the Valley, where long-established homeowners are at odds with public transit riders and advocates over where the bus routes should go and whether the impacts — both short-term and long-term — will be worth it.
These community clashes have plenty of nuance; different people support or oppose the projects for different reasons. But a few defining fault lines have emerged: between the short-term impacts to car-based mobility and the long view of mitigating the negative effects of air pollution and climate change; between those who see this as a threat to the character of their neighborhood and those who believe more transit options will make for a better community; and between those who have no plans to take the bus and don't want the pole position of motorists weakened, and those who believe that attitude comes at the expense of fellow Angelenos in need of reliable transit and social equity.
Those divisions, and more, were on display in Eagle Rock on Saturday. But before we get into that, here's a brief overview of the BRT project and why it's pitting neighbors against each other.
WHAT WE DO (AND DON'T) KNOW ABOUT THE NOHO-TO-PASADENA PROJECT
Metro staff is recommending a bus route with North Hollywood at the west end, connecting to the Red Line and existing Orange Line rapid bus route, running to Pasadena on the east end, linking up with the Gold Line in the process.
We've included a detailed map below (and you can view an extra-large version here), but here's the play-by-play:
- From existing Metro hub in NoHo, buses would go south along Lankershim Boulevard or Vineland Avenue
- Then merge on the west 134 Freeway at Riverside Drive
- Continue west on the 134, then exit in the Burbank Media District
- Then cut northwest on Olive Street to downtown Burbank, crossing the 5 Freeway
- Turn southwest on Glenoaks Boulevard to Glendale
- Go south at Central Avenue and continue on one of three potential routes:
- Hop on the 134 Freeway, bypassing surface streets in downtown Glendale
- Take Central down to Broadway, continuing until it merges into Colorado Boulevard
- Take Central down to Colorado Street, continuing until it merges into Colorado Boulevard
- Exit the 134 at Fair Oaks Avenue, take Walnut Avenue to Raymond Avenue, connect with the Gold Line station at Memorial Park, then continue east on Colorado Boulevard to Hill Avenue
- Exit the 134 at Orange Grove Boulevard and continue east on Colorado to Hill
- Or, exit the 134 and split the route using the one-way streets Green (going east) and Union (going west) to Hill and back
While the routes that would include freeway travel were deemed cheaper, Metro staff projects the street-running option will attract the most riders. In a 2019 study of the alternative routes, Metro projects the street-running option would carry about 29,570 daily weekday riders by 2042. An earlier technical study of a similar route concept anticipated about 17,770 daily weekday riders in the first year of service, currently expected in 2022.
Several route and street alignment options are being considered, but no matter what ends up getting built, one thing is clear: the projects will affect motor vehicle traffic, parking and potentially medians and greenspace along roadways. Metro will study all of that during the environmental review phase and officials say they'll look for ways to offset potential impacts.
Transit officials say they aren't recommending any specific street alignments for any roadways at the moment, other than in Pasadena, where, according to Metro project manager Scott Hartwell, there will decidedly not be dedicated bus lanes. Buses would travel in mixed-flow lanes, just like they operate now, everywhere east of the Gold Line station at Memorial Park, he said.
This bus project is one of three Metro is pursuing. The other two routes are being studied for a 12.5-mile stretch of Vermont Boulevard from Hollywood Boulevard down to 120th Street and in the north San Fernando Valley through portions of Sun Valley, Panorama City, North Hills, Northridge and Chatsworth.
None of the BRT projects include plans to cut or replace existing Metro bus service, Haas said, but Metro's broader NextGen Bus Study is taking that into account and staff will make recommendations based on that study.
A BATTLE OF WILLS AT EAGLE ROCK PLAZA
On Saturday, more than 50 people spoke during the public comment period, often punctuated with a mix of boos, cheers and dismissive mutterings. Fears and outrage over the potential for fewer car lanes, lost medians and parking chaos mingled with positivity and excitement for faster, greener, more reliable public transportation. It was tense.
One pro-Colorado-route speaker pointed to the looming effects of climate change as a reason to get more cars off the roads and get people in buses. "Oh, here we go," muttered someone seated near the front.
When a resident opposed to running the bus on Colorado went over her allotted two-minute speaking time, some attendees yelled at her to sit down.
"We don't want to ride the buses," another speaker said, calling them "dirty and unsafe."
One woman had a suggestion for residents who don't take the bus: try it out sometime and make an effort to meet people different than yourself. That was met with a fair share of boos.
"How dare you come to our community and try to destroy it," one resident said to Metro staff at the front of the room. "Colorado is not for sale."
As he spoke, fellow attendees unfurled a banner filled with signatures of fellow residents and business owners he said also opposed the route.
"There's going to be trouble — lots of trouble," he added, vowing to sic lawyers on the transit agency.
Despite the outbursts and charged atmosphere, Brian Haas from Metro said the meetings have accomplished their mission.
"The purpose of this is to get feedback — and we definitely got feedback," he said. "Even if some people are angry or nervous or afraid, this is what we need to hear."
'I DON'T THINK ANYBODY'S CONVINCING ANYBODY ELSE OF ANYTHING'
"I understand people who don't want to see their community change," said Eric Gill, who biked to the meeting. "I'm a little bit amused by people who refer to Eagle Rock as a small community, because to me, it's just part of L.A. — it doesn't really seem separate, and the fact that they see themselves separate is kind of a delusion, I think."
Gill, who's called L.A. home for 33 years, currently lives in Highland Park, but commutes to Sun Valley for work. He said he tries to avoid taking his car whenever he can, relying on his bike and Metrolink to get to and from work. But train service is "infrequent" and "not sufficient to service my needs," he said.
He said the BRT project would benefit him with more frequent service and another hub to northeast L.A. That would mean biking from his office to downtown Burbank, hopping on the bus there and taking it to Eagle Rock, then biking the rest of the way home.
If that commute sounds inconvenient either way, Gill agrees.
"I don't ride a bicycle because it's a benefit to me. It's hard work," he said. "But I just feel very strongly that... it's the single most effective thing that I can do to help cut down greenhouse gases, so I'm dedicated to doing it as much as I can."
Gill said he initially feared "NIMBY interests would probably shout out the few environmentalists" at the meeting, but was encouraged by a roughly even turnout from those for and against the Colorado route. Still, he said it was "absurd" at times.
"I don't think anybody's convincing anybody else of anything ... everybody feels what they feel," he added. "I don't expect to convince anybody of anything. I just want the government to know that there are people who support these programs and are willing to make sacrifices to see them come through."
When the Eagle Rock section came up pic.twitter.com/JRSVEwHwws— Ryan Fonseca (@RyFons) July 13, 2019
BUS VS. BUSINESS
Business owner Sue Keh Bennett opened her sandwich shop, Bite Me Gourm•Asian, on Colorado Boulevard about six months ago, following her "first dream" inspired in part by her childhood, when she'd combine "Wonder Bread, sliced American cheese and my mom's kimchi." Now she says she wishes she'd never signed her lease.
"If this goes through at the end of 2020, which is when my lease is up, I will not renew and I will have to either sell my business or relocate," she said after the meeting Saturday. "I just don't know if I can survive construction."
Speaking at the meeting, Keh Bennett, who commutes to her business from West L.A., said she's not against public transportation and is all for the bus line if it runs on the 134 Freeway, where she contends it can connect riders to Eagle Rock without disrupting traffic and businesses on Colorado Boulevard.
"I am 100% for anything we can do to make our planet greener," she said. "But I don't think that ramming a bus down Colorado Boulevard is actually doing that."
The worst part of all this, Keh Bennett said, is the rift the bus debate has caused in the community.
"People are mean and they are vitriolic and the things that you see online... it's like we can love our community, but we don't love our neighbor," she said. "And at the end of the day, when this is all over, you have to still live with your neighbor."
Asked about fellow business owners and residents' vows of legal action against Metro, Keh Bennett said she's prepared to take it there if it comes to that.
"I have fought for my dream," she said. "I have saved, I have begged, I have borrowed. I have worked really hard to get here. So of course I'm going to fight to save it."
A TALE OF TWO PETITIONS
The Eagle Rock bus route battle is also shaping up online with dueling Change.org petitions for and against the Colorado Boulevard path.
The anti-Colorado Boulevard petition, titled "Support Mass Public Transit on the 134 Freeway" was started by an unnamed "group of local residents and business owners who are concerned about the impact Metro's proposed BRT project will have on Eagle Rock," according to the group's website. They're calling on Metro to put a freeway option back on the table, with one stop at the intersection of Broadway and Harvey Drive over the border in Glendale, and another at Colorado and Figueroa Street near the east end of the neighborhood.
The petition for those in favor of Metro's recommended route, dubbed "Support a More Sustainable Colorado Boulevard for Eagle Rock!" was started by Felicia Garcia, a public transit rider and lifelong Eagle Rock resident.
Garcia is on the board of Los Angeles Walks, a nonprofit that advocates for pedestrian safety in the city. But her full-time job is as a public school librarian in the San Gabriel Valley, where she commutes during the week by riding her bike and taking the bus.
"We need to bring equity to our transportation system," Garcia said during her public comment time at Saturday's meeting. "In a diverse neighborhood like Eagle Rock, it's important we offer transit options that benefit all members of the community — not just the privileged few who have free time to come to meetings like this."
That was met with some boos.
"I ride the bus," she continued. "I want something more convenient for me and the other people I see on the bus and they're not here and so I'm speaking out for them."
Garcia is no stranger to criticism from her neighbors. After starting the pro-Colorado petition, Garcia said she became a target on the community Nextdoor, where some fellow residents called her a "moron" and "a green hypocrite." She said she was even accused of being in the pocket of New York-based development interests trying to conduct a social experiment in L.A.
"I make $15 an hour... I'm just a real person," she told LAist after the meeting. "I'm not part of this big conspiracy theory. That's the kind of conversation that's been going on on Nextdoor. So I've kind of backed out, because I don't know how you address some of the lunacy."
Garcia said she considered skipping Saturday's meeting because of the level of resistance and animus she's been met with.
"It's traumatic to feel like [you're] the only bus rider [with] all these people... arguing against and saying that you don't exist," she said. "I really was not looking forward to today, but I came out because it is important, I feel, to speak up for those who [are] on the bus right now."
WHAT'S THE CONCERN ABOUT UP-ZONING?
One frequent outcry among homeowners near the planned BRT routes is that it will lead to automatic up-zoning, or changing the rules around what can and can't be built in certain neighborhoods.
Their concern is that creating a new mass transit corridor creates the possibility for developers to build taller, denser housing along that route — and that communities currently zoned for single-family homes could see that change. That's driving a lot of the opposition in Eagle Rock, where the majority of the land is occupied by single-family homes (according to this online city map and legend).
Critics of the BRT have often brought up Senate Bill 50 when voicing these concerns. And while that bill would eliminate certain zoning restrictions near major transit routes and economic hubs, it's been tabled until 2020.
Still, it could well pass and be implemented before Metro builds and opens its BRT lines. But it's worth noting that a similar law already exists in the city of Los Angeles, which could affect zoning in Eagle Rock automatically — pending a change from lawmakers in Sacramento.
Measure JJJ, which Angelenos passed in 2016, required the Department of City Planning to create a program that encourages developers to build affordable housing "within a half mile of major transit stops by providing additional density, reduced parking, and other incentives for projects that include covenanted affordable units."
In the guidelines for their Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program, "major transit stop" is defined as "a site containing a rail station or the intersection of two or more bus routes with a service interval of 15 minutes or less during the morning and afternoon peak commute periods."
As written, BRT lines are not included, according to Agnes Sibal from L.A.'s city planning department, since the proposed projects are single bus routes and "BRT is treated the same as any bus today under the Major Transit Stop... definition."
But the state legislature, which set that definition, is considering amending it to include BRT projects so they would qualify under the guidelines, she told LAist Wednesday.
WHAT'S HAPPENING NEXT?
Metro held another scoping meeting in Burbank Monday evening, and the last in the series is happening in Glendale Wednesday (more information can be found here).
Given the heavy turnout and interest in Eagle Rock, Metro officials announced an additional meeting would be held in a larger space, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 7 at Occidental College.
Haas reiterated that nothing is set in stone (or asphalt) yet. The study phase is just beginning and the environmental review phase is projected to last until fall 2020, with more public meetings and community feedback happening throughout.
As for the threats of lawsuits by local neighborhood groups, Haas said that's "just part of the game" Metro is used to at this point.
"Our priority is just to get the project done in a smart way," he said.
You can stay up to date with all Metro's bus rapid transit projects on the agency's BRT resources page.
Wednesday, July 17, 2:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.
This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 16.