Ethan N. Elkind | LA Times

With the Crenshaw/LAX light-rail line groundbreaking last week, Los Angeles now has three rail transit projects under construction — an example of how the city is leading the country in a rail renaissance. The “city that destroyed cities,” as GQ recently described L.A. for pioneering auto-oriented development, has been planning and building a multibillion-dollar rail network, thanks in part to up to $13 billion in local sales tax funds from a successful 2008 measure.

But these billions risk being wasted if city leaders do not promote, and residents do not allow, new growth around rail stations and corridors. Why? Rail is expensive to build, operate and maintain compared with other forms of transit. It only becomes cost-effective with high ridership. And the best way to boost ridership is to locate new jobs, housing and retail near stations.

Focusing development around rail provides multiple benefits. It allows the region to accommodate new residents and natural population growth without building endless subdivisions on open space and worsening traffic and air pollution. It can reduce the high cost of housing by boosting in-town supply, making it easier for businesses to attract and retain talented employees. Finally, rail-accessible development can create convenient, walkable neighborhoods that meet the growing demand among millennials, childless professionals and empty nesters to move “back to the city” — as many recent urban success stories attest.

But the modern history of rail and land development patterns shows that politics and economics conspire to prevent new growth around rail. Decision-makers typically locate rail lines in less dense or develop-able areas to save costs and accommodate powerful interest groups around the region, running lines through blighted areas or along freeways to save land-acquisition and construction costs and to minimize neighborhood objections. {….}

Expo Line
A Metro train passes by the groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the new Crenshaw/LAX line at the Expo/Crenshaw stop. The new line will connect the Expo and Green lines. (Los Angeles Times)