THE BLOG
05/18/2015 09:50 pm ET Updated May 18, 2016

A Road Trip for Public Transportation

Sometimes I need a good road trip to think about public transportation. Last week I took a much needed working vacation by flying to Reno. A friend met me there and we started our adventure, by car, in the rapidly hipsterfying Midtown neighborhood. Aside from the slots everywhere and the off in the distance neon signs of the casinos downtown, I could have been on York Blvd in Highland Park or in LA's Arts District. It's a big country and not everyone is sold on, or can afford to live in the growing Bohemian colonies of Los Angeles, Oakland, Brooklyn, Portland and San Francisco. And in general I think the world is a tastier, and maybe better, place for it.

From Reno we made our way to the Kit Carson Wilderness and the Hope Valley south of Lake Tahoe. With an elevation of 7,000 feet (2,134 m), the only thing missing in the Hope Valley is snow. This year's snowfall was around 160 cm or five and a quarter feet. In a 'normal' year, the Hope Valley's snowfall should be ~500 inches (1,300 cm).

But all was not lost. The next day, thanks to a freak, late-season storm, I was hiking through the Hope Valley covered in a half a foot (15.24 cm) of fresh snow, in May. Not enough to put a dent in our dire drought reality but welcome nonetheless for the Sierra and the state.

On Friday, during a break in the storm, we headed out of the mountains along beautiful Mormon Emigrant Trail toward Sacramento. With the Bay Area our destination but with no desire to jump onto I-80 for the white knuckle drive, we took a slower but far more interesting route southwest along 160, River Road, through the Sacramento Delta. If not for the heavily agricultural Delta which now sits largely below sea level protected by levees, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California wouldn't have the water they need to survive. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, roughly half the total river flow in California passes through the Delta, with water exported to the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and parts of the Bay Area. In all, these sources supply water to 1,130,000 acres (460,000 ha) of farmland and 23 million people in central and Southern California.

The Save Our Delta, Stop the Tunnels signs dotting the landscape attest to the widespread local concern that Governor Brown's plans for a peripheral canal will further decimate the sensitive Delta's already challenged environment.

As can be with much of one's travel in the West, the drive proved a history lesson as we stopped to take in the towns of Locke, Walnut Grove and Isleton which were once home to large Chinese and Japanese communities. Walnut Grove had a big Japanese population as early as 1914. The town remained racially segregated until the start of the Second World War and Executive Order 9066 which ordered the wartime internment of the Japanese.

From Isleton we had one more stop to make before we hit the Bay Area proper, in Brentwood, to pick cherries at a u-pick farm. The cherries were fine but more interesting was seeing the bedroom suburb sprouting up from some of the state's best farmland, even before BART has extended its tracks into the space between the lanes along the freeway.

Water in the West is not an easy nut to crack but the need for greater public transportation in Los Angeles is no brain teaser.

Every time I visit the Bay Area I am struck by the success of BART in all but Marin County and the way it is accepted that much of the track run along the freeways. Sure, it's nicer to stand on a train platform in a bucolic setting looking at the sunset than at traffic crawling by on the 405. But at this point I'd almost rather stand on the platform at Jefferson Park along the Kennedy Expressway in the dead of winter waiting for the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) Blue Line to downtown Chicago than wait any longer for a Metro train through the Sepulveda Pass.

Of course, the BART and CTA are far from perfect, are relatively expensive and are showing their age in look and design. But still, maybe their success underscores our own current overemphasis on esthetics rather than functionality when it comes to building out Los Angeles public transportation network.

Or maybe we are off to a great start with a new CEO at Metro.

In his recent interview with Gloria Ohland at Move LA, Metro's new CEO Phil Washington suggested that there may be ways to privately fund the Sepulveda Pass/I-405 rail tunnel (as a public private partnership - P3). "... the private sector has money sitting on the shelf -- from pension funds and private equity -- that's just waiting to be invested somewhere that provides a decent return. Transportation infrastructure is a good investment opportunity when it's kept in a state of good repair, and it's an investment opportunity that's not going away. So if we do it right and negotiate these contracts properly we know there can be benefit for both the public and private sectors because we have complementary needs and assets. The big benefit for the public sector is that P3s allow for the acceleration of projects -- because the private sector has money that is ready to be invested while the transit agency has to depend on a long, slow trickle of sales tax revenues and other funding over decades, during which time costs escalate and the full benefits of the transit build-out aren't realized. P3s allow us to build the projects now and pay for them over a longer period of time..."

Building projects like a rail line from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay now and paying for it over a longer period of time. That sounds like a good idea to me. And one that puts in place public transportation for the present as well as the future. Kind of like BART which opened in 1972.

Thanks to climate change and its resultant reduction in snowpack and the fact that California's population will not be declining anytime soon, we face an unprecedented challenge to conserve water and use what we must efficiently. Likewise, we are overdue for a public transportation building boom that gives us the system we need for today with the root stock we need for the future. We can do this through a combination of publicly and P3-funded projects. Can you say Measure R2, the possible transportation voter initiative on next year's ballot? I can.

Yours in transit,
Joel