Measure R2: Synagogues, museums, transit supporters unite to step on the gas!

What unites more Angelenos than a Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup victory? Distaste for the 405 Freeway. The Sepulveda Pass, in particular, which has undergone a massive construction project in recent years, still retains the ability to turn into a parking lot at any hour of the day. And yet numerous major institutions line the path of and rely upon this thoroughfare between the Westside of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. 

Now some of those institutions, including Leo Baeck Temple, the Getty Museum, California State University, Northridge, and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) have made an unlikely alliance, banding together in support of a radical mass transit overhaul of the trek through the hills.

In an unprecedented show of solidarity, representatives of these institutions and dozens of others from across Los Angeles County gathered on June 8 at the Marvin Braude San Fernando Valley Constituent Service Center in Van Nuys to discuss how to move forward to significantly expand public transportation in the region. Co-officiating the Sunday afternoon meeting — and pledging his own support — was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

“We’ve all had it with the impossibility of traveling from place to place in this town,” Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple said in the day’s introductory remarks. “We are ready — and hungry — for change.”

That change could take the form of a 2016 ballot measure to raise funds for light rail projects in all corners of the county, including a much-championed line that would travel through the Sepulveda Pass and down to LAX. The proposed initiative, nicknamed Measure R2, would build on the work of 2008’s Measure R to plug gaps in L.A.’s existing mass transit system. 

But the point of the June 8 meeting was not only to review the elements of the proposal. The group’s ultimate goal was loftier: to rally stakeholders to address the economic and social setbacks L.A. could continue to suffer unless its diverse constituents learn to work — and speak — together. 

“In order to bring the kind of growth and change to our county that we want and need, we have to begin by understanding and investing in one another,” Chasen said. “This is the start of that conversation.”

Actually, it was a continuation. The seeds for this collaboration were planted four years ago, when Leo Baeck, with help from Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, co-director of Just Congregations — a social justice initiative of the Reform movement — began the process of community organizing. A team of leaders spearheaded a “listening campaign” in which members of the congregation participated in some 300 conversations, during which they “really listened hard to what matters to people, what fires them up, what they care about deeply,” Kolin said. 

One major topic that emerged was the economy, specifically job creation. At the same time, mobility was on the minds of many Leo Baeck members, and for good reason — situated in a cleft of the Sepulveda Pass, the synagogue abuts the notoriously congested 405 Freeway, where ongoing construction has kept some worshippers from reaching the location on time for years. “On a Friday evening, when worship starts, it’s a very difficult place to get to,” Chasen said. 

Some congregants talked about how hard it is to drive to synagogue. Others living in the neighborhood said they had experienced difficulty reaching loved ones in the hospital because of traffic. One told a story about missing a crucial job interview despite leaving in plenty of time, because it took him two hours to inch from the Valley to the Westside. 

“Our quality of life is destroyed by this lack of adequate infrastructure,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Leo Baeck. “Because we haven’t been able to get our act together as a county, some parents can’t see their own children before they go to bed.”

Their answer: Build a train. In 2012, Leo Baeck, a member of the broad-based organizing network OneLA-IAF, began reaching out to other congregations to drum up support for the idea. Project leaders also learned that the transportation-focused nonprofit Move LA already was drafting a light rail proposal and suggested a partnership. 

With the mayoral race underway, Leo Baeck invited the candidates to a town hall-style forum to talk about the personal toll of L.A.’s famous gridlock. The candidates returned to the synagogue in February 2013 for a follow-up discussion. About 1,000 attendees from institutions across L.A. packed the room. There, Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF organizers asked for commitments from each of the candidates: If elected mayor, would you meet with us within your first 100 days in office? Would you collaborate with us on transportation issues? Would you co-convene a meeting to hear stakeholders’ desires to get ahead?

On all counts, Garcetti has so far upheld his “yes.” Leo Baeck leaders have met with the mayor’s office monthly since late last year, hashing out a strategy to build support for Measure R2. Based on that strategy, Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF have met with dozens of stakeholders up and down the 405 corridor to hear their traffic concerns and ask for their backing. “They all, 100 percent, said, ‘We agree — this is a gigantic unmet need in our city and county, and we need to do something about it,’ ” Timoner said. 

As for the mayor’s pledge to co-convene a meeting, that day arrived June 8. 

More than 100 people representing L.A. County businesses, schools, faith communities, government councils and labor organizations filled the meeting room, with several marveling that they had never partnered on an issue before. “It is truly rare that all of these corners of Los Angeles come together for any purpose,” Chasen said, calling the event “a grand opportunity.”

Participating institutions included UCLA, Mattel Inc., Los Angeles World Airports, Milken Community Schools, and more than a dozen churches and synagogues, including Temple Judea, Temple Isaiah and Temple Beth Am. Attendees came from the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, South Los Angeles, the South Bay, the Gateway Cities and the Westside.

The 405 corridor is “a crucial piece of the transit puzzle that we all need to work together to solve in order to make this region what it can be,” said Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF member Eric Stockel. “Traffic is a barrier to jobs, to careers, to economic growth, to protecting the environment, to community and to fulfilled lives. It is, in the end, a barrier to justice.”

Luz de la Cruz, a congregant of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Pacoima, described how her daily bus commute to Westwood could sometimes take 3 1/2 hours, depriving her of meaningful time with her four children. 

Garcetti said he appreciated the chance to hear personal stories illustrating “the human impact of the billions of dollars and the millions of hours we lose every single year because of our inability to solve this problem.”

In a moment of levity, he also quipped, “As a Jew, it’s great to see so many Jews talking about traffic — probably the most since the Exodus.”

Garcetti’s presence wasn’t just symbolic; the L.A. mayor serves as incoming vice chair of the board of directors that governs the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which ultimately will decide if Measure R2 makes it onto the 2016 ballot. He also has the power to appoint three new MTA members, whose views could influence the decision. 

Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA, believes the measure has a fighting chance. The proposal calls for a half-cent sales tax that would raise about $90 billion over 45 years for a transit plan that Zane called a “congestion buster.” Among dozens of projects, the measure could fund an extension of the Crenshaw Line to Hollywood, an extension of the Red Line to Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, the conversion of the Orange Line to light rail, and a rail line from Sylmar in the north San Fernando Valley to LAX — including a tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass that could also hold toll roads and rapid buses. The plan would create tens of thousands of jobs and apprenticeships.

Nothing is set in stone, Zane said. The current proposal is just a framework for people to “kick around and learn from and modify and tell us what they think,” he explained. “It’s a serious proposal, but it’s a discussion piece. We’re pretty confident that the categories and levels of funding involved are realistic.” The measure would require two-thirds of the vote to pass, so months of deliberations over language and funding lie ahead. 

Meanwhile, Zane said, Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF have been crucial partners. “We have a lot of fun and a good dialogue,” he said. “They’re effective and energetic. They pull together important meetings — they’re always working.”

Jewish leadership on the issue of transportation might come as a surprise to some. “Who would think that the Jews would build a train?” mused Kolin. “But it’s deeply in our values.”

“The Torah teaches us to love the stranger,” Timoner added. “This is about connecting us to one another — relating to each other face to face instead of bumper to bumper.”

For the next nine months, stakeholders will do outreach in their communities, holding forums to educate members of the public about the boons of a more comprehensive mass transit system. Next spring, the group hopes to reconvene with a clearer list of priorities for the county transportation map. 

There are still concerns to resolve. MTA board member John Fasana cautioned that county residents might have to “open our minds” about nontraditional methods of financing, such as congestion pricing. And some residents worried that unless affordable housing is built near transit stops, they could be priced out of their neighborhoods. “The rent is going to increase, and this is already a poor community,” said Rosy Cruz, a member of St. Agnes Parish, near USC. “If these big things are coming up, we’re going to get displaced.” 

On June 20, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state budget that could funnel nearly $1 billion into affordable housing over the next six years, potentially alleviating some of these fears. 

Organizers are hopeful that the county can reach a consensus. “We want to be able to speak with one voice,” Timoner said. “Our main goal is that when this measure is written, it’s written in a transparent and democratic way with the voices of the people