What the Regional Connector will bring us
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What the Regional Connector will bring us

Aug 27, 2023

What, if anything, will the Regional Connector bring us?

Or has it come too late?

The June 16 opening of a two-mile rail tunnel under downtown L.A. might not seem like a big deal. But L.A. is opening the most significant piece of its 21st-century Metro rail system when public transit faces maximum peril.

The pandemic, along with work-from-home policies and crime fears, cratered ridership on transit systems. Now, at the height of the state budget season, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature are preparing to address the deficit by cutting more than $2 billion for transit infrastructure .

As a result, the opening of the Regional Connector risks becoming a triumph worthy of Emily Dickinson, who wrote, "Victory comes late / And is held low to freezing lips … How sweet it would have tasted."

Please forgive the poetry. But I feel wistful thinking of the places to which the Regional Connector might have connected me, had it been built decades ago. It was first envisioned in the 1980s, seriously studied in the 1990s, and planned in the 2000s.

The $1.7 billion Regional Connector's purpose lies in its name: It connects three of the L.A. region's separate light-rail lines into one integrated system.

In practice, the connector creates a north-south line, running from Azusa through downtown to Long Beach, and an east-west line, from East L.A. to Santa Monica. It adds three new underground stations along its downtown path.

Oh, how I wish the Regional Connector had been finished in the 2010s, when I worked in Santa Monica, and spent two hours on trains commuting from the San Gabriel Valley. It would have been super-convenient in the 2000s, back when I worked at the LA Times downtown — the connector's new Historic Broadway station is across the street from the old Times headquarters. For most of my life, I would have loved to have taken the north-south line down to Long Beach to visit my cousins on my father's side. But they are all dead, or moved elsewhere.

Transit delayed is transit denied. If L.A. hadn't spent the second half of the 20th century dithering on transit, we’d be better connected now. Transit investment might have given L.A. some ballast to withstand the economic retrenchment of the 1990s, and to prevent the current shrinking and aging of the population. More transit would have cemented connections, fostering new development, new businesses, new housing, new friendships, new families.

The Regional Connector will arrive too late — unless we change our defeatist mindset that wealthy California can't transform itself. I hope its new, integrated rail lines bring many more people downtown, and draw more ambitious young people here. I hope they become the favored way for people in East L.A. to travel to West Side beaches and jobs. I hope they pull us away from our screens and out of our homes, to see each other again.

This summer, every Californian should read Henry George's once famous 1868 essay, "What the Railroad Will Bring Us," in which he contemplated how the state might take advantage of the a much larger regional connector, the transcontinental railroad.

At that time, as now, California seemed too expensive for average people to make it here. But George counseled that the state was struggling, not stuck. Indeed, its problems demonstrated its potential.

"For years," George wrote, "the high rate of interest and the high rate of wages prevailing in California have been special subjects for the lamentation of a certain school of local political economists, who could not see that high wages and high interest were indications that the natural wealth of the country was not yet monopolized, that great opportunities were open to all."

Let's recapture George's spirit now. If we get on board, if we open new connections, maybe L.A. and California can relocate their true selves. And we can grow again.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.