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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Leo Baeck Temple fosters passionate support for transit improvements in Sepulveda Pass

In the midst of a hotly contested election season, dozens of community members representing churches and synagogues from across Los Angeles County met on April 10 at Leo Baeck Temple to discuss the very real possibility of getting another name on the November ballot: the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

For Leo Baeck, a Reform congregation that resides in the shadow of the always-buzzing 405 Freeway, the center of conversation with MTA’s CEO Phil Washington was Measure R2, a $120 billion county bond proposal that could allocate funds over a 40-year period for a variety of transportation improvements — including rapid transit along the Sepulveda Pass. The chief source of funding would be an additional countywide half-cent sales tax.

A minimum two-thirds vote at an MTA board meeting on June 23 is needed to assure Measure R2’s place on the November ballot. Washington is seeking pubic input after the drafting of the measure last month, and Sunday’s meeting was an opportunity for residents to raise concerns as well as ensure that the MTA board is committed to getting R2 in front of voters this upcoming election season. 

“We welcome you here today to build on our relationship with you, Mr. Washington, and to make our goals a reality,” said Eric Stockell, co-chairman of Leo Baeck’s community organizing team. 

Measure R2 is essentially an add-on to 2008’s Measure R, which was passed to plug gaps in L.A.’s existing mass transit system. It would fund local pothole repair and street repaving, maintenance, security, and regional bike and pedestrian projects, but a lynchpin of the measure is the proposed Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor, the first phase being a 12-mile tunnel hosting a rail line connecting the Van Nuys Metrolink Station and the Wilshire/Westwood Purple Line extension. Its construction is contingent on R2 passing. 

Support for this was the afternoon’s main talking point at Leo Baeck, a member of the broad-based organizing network OneLA-IAF and a congregation that has pursued the issue of improving public transportation for years. In 2012, a Leo Baeck congregant recounted a story about missing an important job interview because of heavy traffic on the 405. After hearing many more personal narratives in this vein, Stockell and his cohorts pressed for change. 

What followed were years of regular meetings with members of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s staff, as well as transit aides for L.A. County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas. It also won support from prominent county institutions such as UCLA, Los Angeles International Airport, the Skirball Cultural Center and many area churches. 

“The issue of transportation is so important to us,” Sue Meltzer, a Leo Baeck member, told the Journal. “Traffic is so bad that some members can’t even get here for services.”

Attendees shared stories about 405-related congestion and its hindrance to crosstown visits to friends, cultural landmarks and places of worship. 

“My friend couldn’t get to a funeral for someone he loved dearly because of traffic on the 405. He literally turned around and went home,” Jerry Goldstein, a Leo Baeck member, said. 

Other audience members included congregants from Temple Beth Am, Temple Isaiah and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, who spoke of the same challenges. Susan Bartholomew, a Temple Isaiah member in attendance, told the Journal that the current state of affairs on the 405 and surrounding area leaves her feeling trapped and isolated on her side of town. 

“My husband teaches at UCLA, so we moved nearby. Our lives are completely prescribed by that. We don’t do anything or go anywhere, it seems. We really feel restricted,” Bartholomew said. “The L.A. Times Festival of Books was this weekend. We would’ve loved to have gone but it would be too stressful getting there.”

The ambitious Sepulveda Pass venture — dubbed by some, including Washington, as the “opportunity line” — would break ground in 2024 with an estimated completion date sometime in 2033. Stockell voiced his displeasure with MTA’s current timetable, but Washington tried to quell any fears.

“We are looking to accelerate the Sepulveda Pass,” Washington said, his words met with applause. “I believe we will. People who want to build this rail line are already discussing it. The big challenge is being successful in November.” 

Washington has been in his current post with MTA for just over a year after a unanimous vote by board members in March 2015. He previously headed Denver’s Regional Transportation District, a position he held for six years. 

On Sunday, Washington, a South Side Chicago native, referenced his emotional ties to public transportation and how that wills him to do his work. 

“I grew up in public housing. My mother took the bus to work. The bus frequency was about once every 30 minutes. She’d work a 14-hour day and if she missed the last bus, sometimes she couldn’t even make it home,” Washington said. “Transportation is a vital part of my makeup. It’s very important to me.”

One challenge that Washington faces regarding R2 is criticism of the potential for disruption to communities along the proposed lines. With the advent of new rapid transit and increased connectivity, new development is sure to bring about higher rents and, ultimately, the displacing of lower-income families. Some in attendance testified that the expansion of the Expo Line to downtown Santa Monica, slated to open in May, is already tripling rents in some areas. 

“We need to ensure affordable housing and encourage local hiring. We need to make sure that people who live on the line can use the line,” Stockell said.

Washington responded by saying that he shares such concerns, and that the MTA board voted to make sure that 35 percent of housing in communities along proposed rail lines be affordable. Then he added, “In terms of gentrification and displacement, the farther people move away from the urban core, I have to build trains there. It affects my bottom line.”

He also said MTA is working with local community colleges to help train a workforce for new jobs that are created in this process. 

“We conducted studies to pin down the hardest-to-fill positions in the transportation industry. We’re partnering with community colleges to put together curriculums to train that workforce,” he said. “We don’t want workers from impoverished communities to just be flagmen and women on the line. We want them to have careers.”

Although mostly satisfied with what she heard, Debbie Stein, another Leo Baeck member, left the meeting feeling as though one important topic went unaddressed. 

“I would like to see more done toward helping people figure out how to use the new lines,” Stein told the Journal. “There should more education on where the lines are, how I can get from one place to another. I don’t even know where a lot of the lines are.”

Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen, who led everyone in a blessing before addressing the crowd, made it clear that getting everyone together in a room is an accomplishment, but getting things done is the ultimate goal.

“This is a most proud day for our congregation but also a day of urgent accountability,” Chasen said.

On May 21, the Leo Baeck Temple community organizing team is hosting a Havdalah service at the Santa Monica beach. Everyone will meet at the Culver City Metro station and ride the new extended Expo Line to the beach to show support for continued expansion of the city’s public transportation.

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