Mass Transit and a Public Works Pilgrimage to Hoover Dam

05/14/2010 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thinking as I always am these days about the 30/10 Initiative and the need for more subways, light rail and dedicated lane bus rapid transit (BRT) for Los Angeles, earlier this month I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Hoover Dam. Mass transit, Los Angeles and Hoover Dam - for me it's all about well conceived infrastructure and a vision of what is possible.

You see, I've been reading Kevin Starr's, Material Dreams - Southern California Through the 1920s, and much of it brings up for me our correctible failure when it comes to mass transit in America's most car-addicted region. Take for example these Starr observations about the interurban Pacific Electric system that linked communities across the region during the first decade of the last century. According to Starr, California's de facto resident historian,

Speedy, efficient, unhampered by competing automobile traffic, the interurban cars allowed Los Angelenos to live in 45 communities scattered over a 35-mile radius while working downtown or in the adjacent industrial areas.

But as automobile traffic increased,

The yellow cars of the urban Los Angeles Railway ... and the red cars of the interurban Pacific Electric found themselves in increasingly disadvantageous competition. In the 1910s, the very time other American and European cities were building subways and elevated to bring mass transit into and out of the central city above or below street traffic, Los Angeles was rejecting such alternatives in the belief that Los Angeles County would peak with 100,000 automobiles by 1919.

Without major action taken to "save the mass transit system with subway tunnels or major overpasses" our traffic history was written a century ago as the number of cars coming onto the streets exploded.

It's time to rewrite that history. The Hoover Dam was an engineering and public works inspiration when it was built, and today still represents a sort of what if for me in thinking about mass transit. With one foot in Nevada and the other in anti-immigrant Arizona, the massive dam regulates the flow of the Colorado River and generates power for the surrounding area. While we can't turn back the clock we can and must build now in LA what we failed to build a century ago.

Visiting the dam, which was constructed during the height of the Depression, in under five years between 1931 and 1935, was also a memorial trip of sorts for me. I combined my research with a stop to pay my respects to a relative named Florence Greene who lived out the end of her life nearby. Like the hard-working souls who built the dam, Depression era workers who busted their butts every day of their lives, Florrie and her husband Oscar, who left this world for heaven two years ago, set the standard in my house and in their community for hard work. At times Florrie and Oscar worked as many as three jobs to provide for their growing family and others they supported. As it pleads for a bridge loan from the Feds to get started on a dozen critical transportation projects, LA needs more tireless workers and advocates like Florrie who also rose during her life to become President of Teamsters Local 832.

She'd joined them rather than another union because the Teamsters got things done and legislation passed like none of the others. As a labor leader, Florrie fit right in, employing a certain four letter word that begins with "f" and ends with "k," which she sprinkled liberally throughout her ceaseless commentary about everything. She was as animated and unrestrained talking to young and older about workers rights or birth control and sex as she was sharing her views about American politics in the last years of her life.

Florrie left the world and the people she loved, worked, and lived with a better place. In her world and at Hoover Dam, it was no fat finger asleep at the wheel as America and the world struggled to get back on its feet financially. And that mighty dam is testimony to the country's ability to construct a visionary public works and job creating machine in the midst of the most adverse conditions, not unlike the economic situation in LA and many other cities today.

Like the thousands of workers who came to the Southwest to tame the Colorado River, it is time for Los Angeles to tame its infamous traffic with a massive transit infrastructure building project that will put Angelenos back to work and free the region from the crippling congestion that chokes our economic development.

"Flood Control, Navigation, Irrigation, Water Storage, Power" reads one of the social realist-inspired carvings on the dam itself. Seeing this inspiring masterpiece of public works I can't help but think of the mass transit infrastructure building opportunities that abound for LA and other cities across the country. A small plaque on a rock wall on the Nevada side of the dam pays tribute to the engineers who built the "civic engineering monument of the millennium." I look forward to the day when we will be presenting similar awards to the engineers and sandhogs who tunnel their way to Santa Monica, connect the San Fernando Valley to Westwood, build the downtown regional connector, and complete 30/10's other critical transportation projects.

As Einstein said, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." It's time we overcame our partisan differences about spending that benefits us all and will jump start the economy. Let's get back to work. When it comes to mass transit and other critical infrastructure projects, we have a lot of lost time to make up for.