The video begins with a hand twisting open a gas main. "Methane gas, toxic chemicals and teenagers don't mix," a voice says. "But this dangerous combination is on the verge of exploding at Beverly High, turning the school into a megadisaster." Then, boom! A huge fireball erupts on screen, accompanied by the sound of an explosion. The scene segues into footage of students walking peacefully to class, suggesting to viewers that innocent teenagers could soon be reduced to ashes.
Released by the Beverly Hills school district's parent-teacher council, the video is the latest escalation in a battle over a proposed subway extension between the small, affluent community and the Los Angeles transportation agency, known as Metro. The agency wants to build a rail line connecting downtown to Westside communities including Century City, Beverly Hills and Westwood. Metro says the new part of the line would service an estimated 49,000 commuters a day, helping to create more transit options for residents dealing with snarling Los Angeles traffic.
A proposed subway stop in Century City, however, would require tunneling under Beverly Hills High School, a plan that local officials and parents say could endanger students because it could cause flammable gases to arise from old oil wells that sit under the school. Metro approved the project's environmental review and says its engineers have deemed the project safe. As for the video, Metro officials dismiss it as having no scientific basis. "It's a little over the top, and it's unfortunate," says community-relations manager Jody Litvak. Still, the Beverly Hills school district has threatened to sue if Metro goes ahead with its plan.
Emotions are running so high that it's hard to get an objective read on the matter. Both sides say they have engineers who prove they're right. Some advocates of the subway have accused Beverly Hills of using safety concerns to mask a deeper fear that rail could take unwanted residents of poorer areas to an area known for housing movie-star mansions. "The NIMBY's of B.H. should get on board," read a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, using the pejorative acronym for "not in my backyard," used to refer to those who oppose new public development. "Beverly Hills needs to live down its obstructionist reputation and be a team player for a transit system of benefit to Angelenos and visitors alike," read another Times op-ed.
Beverly Hills responds that its main concern is safety and that it also believes tunneling under the school would spoil plans to expand the campus. The school district says it has no problem with letting a subway run through its city and suggests that Metro instead build a station at an alternate location nearby that wouldn't require tunneling under the school. Beverly Hills says that option would be cheaper and attract more passengers. Metro, though, says earthquake concerns make it unwise to build at the alternate site because of active fault lines there. "It is very unfortunate that people have tried to cast this as some kind of class warfare and make Beverly Hills look bad," says Brian Goldberg, president of the Beverly Hills Unified School District board. "It's easy to pick on Beverly Hills because of the image of wealth and success, but the reality is, it continues to be supportive of the Westside expansion."
Regardless of who's right, it's this kind of bickering and controversy that has for decades prevented Los Angeles from presenting more public-transportation options to relieve residents who battle the worst traffic in the U.S. "L.A. hasn't been as up to speed with developing its public-transportation network. There's no question about that," says Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California.
It hasn't always been that way. Nearly a century ago, when streetcars crisscrossed the city, Los Angeles relied more on rails than did New York City or Boston, says Martin Wachs, a senior urban-planning researcher at Rand Corp. But when those lines were dismantled around the middle of the past century, the city gravitated toward the mighty automobile, and Los Angeles was left without the public-transit options that many large U.S. cities now take for granted. Since then, winning political consensus on bringing rail back has been a herculean task.
Many things have slowed the process. Elected officials have disagreed over whether improving the bus system might be better than adding rail, and residents with safety and environmental concerns have thwarted other plans, Wachs says. "Look at what's happening with Beverly Hills right now. That's why it takes a long time," says Wachs, who is also a professor at UCLA. "People have ideas and others think they're bad; then people go to court." Another problem has been public skepticism toward Metro after a series of commuter deaths were reported on the city's Blue Line, Meshkati says. "There's a mistrust and distrust of the organization, of the Metro, because of their track record," he says.
Nowhere has building the subway been more of a challenge than on the Westside. Plans for a line down Wilshire Boulevard have been contemplated for a half a century, and ground has yet to be broken. After a methane-gas explosion at a clothing store in the Fairfax district in the 1980s, a federal lawmaker from Los Angeles encouraged Congress to withhold funds that would pay for drilling tunnels to the Westside. Some in the city believed this was a ploy to keep the less well off out of wealthy neighborhoods, according to Wachs. A 2005 LA Weekly article said failure to build state-of-the-art mass transit was less about the Fairfax fire and more due to factors including "opportunist politicians pandering to racist Westside NIMBYism." "In this gridlocked city, it somehow became politically correct to hate the subway and embrace buses as the only solution to crawling traffic," the story said. True or not, after the explosion, the subway was delayed for decades.
In recent years, the tide of public sentiment toward rail has been turning, albeit slowly. Although it took decades, Metro has succeeded in building rail lines across most of Los Angeles. In 2008, voters in Los Angeles County approved a ballot measure to raise the sales tax to pay for public-transportation projects. And traffic has gotten so bad on the Westside that residents who might have shunned the idea of a subway before now favor it. "People have come to accept rail transit in L.A.," says David Mieger, project director for the Westside extension. "If you went out 15 years ago to much of L.A., and the Westside, people had a lot of questions and they didn't understand the subway. When we went out this time, we all marveled at what a sea change it was. Everybody wanted the project."
Well, maybe not everyone. Not in the way Metro is proposing it. Certainly not in Beverly Hills. The outcome of the Beverly Hills High saga will be an indicator of how Los Angeles' quest for public transport will fare. Metro has yet to approve the part of the Westside line that would pass under the high school, heeding Beverly Hills' request for a special hearing on the matter. That session will take place May 17, and it's likely to be heated.