By Alfredo Santana
LOS ANGELES — The proposed West Santa Ana Branch Corridor light rail line is about to get a new name, one more attuned with the Southeast Los Angeles communities where the initial 14.8 miles of tracks and nine stations are blueprinted for construction.
Such is the proposal of County Supervisor Janice Hahn, after her motion unveiled at last week’s executive management meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority received unanimous approval from its six voting members.
With the approval, the rebranding measure moved forward as part of the agenda slated for discussion by the full MTA Board of Directors at its monthly meeting March 23.
The item is expected to garner support from most of the board members.
Hahn, who chairs the MTA board, wants to engage the area’s schools, community residents, businesses, chambers of commerce and nonprofits to join a rebranding contest and learn about the future light rail line.
“I’m trying to be positive,” Hahn said. “Someday, the West Santa Ana Branch would deliver a high quality transit to almost a million residents in Southeast L.A. County, most of whom are transit dependent in areas with some of the worst air quality in our country,” Hahn said.
“But what does the West Santa Ana Branch name mean? This comes up lots of times in our communities. Many people are like why do we have a transit line named after a city in Orange County, or why is it a branch, or when will it be its own branch,” Hahn said.
Hahn said that the project needs a reboot to stay in synch with the geographical area of its footprint, to honor the cultures and communities of Southeast Los Angeles, and make it more identifiable to state advocates and federal agencies to qualify for funding.
Minutes before, Hahn vent her frustration on MTA staff after receiving a report and listening to financial representatives who identified potential federal programs to apply for billions of dollars in funds.
Hahn gave staff a failing grade, arguing they have not secured any money for the initial light rail segment to run from Artesia through Paramount, Downey, South Gate, Bell, Cudahy, Huntington Park and end at the juncture with the A-line’s Slauson Avenue station.
Prior to last year, building estimates for the line’s initial segment had been estimated at between $4.9 and $5.1 billion.
Early last year, the MTA Board voted to extend the project to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and make it a one-seat ride, adding 4.5 miles of tracks and between $3.6 and $4.4 billion in costs.
So far, the MTA has identified about $4 billion in funds through Measure M and other sources.
The need for rebranding the line was never more evident than when new Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass joined the MTA Board of Director and asked what the West Santa Ana Branch Corridor was.
Hahn said a new name would spur more activity at local levels, and make the light rail line more recognizable.
“I don’t know that’s going to change us getting funding, but I do feel like it’s been getting difficult to make the case because people can’t visualize what this transit line is, where it is,” she said. “Maybe changing the name would get more support and rally the troops to get this project built.”
Moments before the votes were cast, Bell City Councilman Ali Saleh phoned in to encourage the project’s rebranding, and said a new name will be positive for all residents in the mostly blue collar neighborhoods.
“A lot of our communities don’t know much about this project, but engaging them with a rebranding would mean a lot for the communities hoping that we can come up with a name that works for the whole region,” Saleh said. “It will work for the whole region from Southeast L.A. to downtown LA as well.”
Huntington Park Councilwoman Karina Macias said rebranding the light rail line is long overdue because its current name does not honor its communities and diversity.
“Most of the cities … are in the Southeast L.A. region,” Macias said. “This is an opportunity I think will bring the community together, to talk about the project again, to make sure that they know where is the project at this moment.”
Hahn’s motion also calls for the MTA to work with several public agencies such as the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, the Eco Rapid Transit Joint Powers Authority, local elected leaders and area colleges to submit new titles for the project.
According to the motion’s text, the new name should represent the community character and local context, and develop “a robust communication strategy to get input” from community-based organizations, area residents, key stakeholders and report back to the Board of Directors with progress made quarterly beginning in June.
A new name is expected to be chosen by next January.
The West Santa Ana Branch light rail project was christened after the old Pacific Electric Railway’s Santa Ana route linking Los Angeles and Orange counties in the early 1900s.
Hahn added that a distinctive name will help bring equity to communities suffering from high smog emissions and right historic wrongs.
“I think this project is key for L.A. County,” Hahn said. “It needs to be important at the state and national level, and I think a name that makes it clear is only one part of communicating that importance.”