50 Years Ago This Week: Planning The El Monte – Century City Backbone Route (Complete With Nuclear Fallout Shelters, Large-Capacity Helicopters And A Beverly Hills Subway)

Los Angeles' Rapid Transit System "Backbone Route" proposal, unveiled May 15, 1961. (Click to enlarge)

In May of 1961, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority unveiled its plans for the Backbone Route — the 22.7-mile-long first leg of yet another rapid transit proposal for Los Angeles.

After Wilshire Corridor stakeholders squelched the idea for a Los Angeles monorail system in their area in 1960, that proposal consisting of 74.9 mile plan for mostly overhead rail lines was scrapped.

The following year, a new scaled-down plan was revealed and touted as a realistic plan for rapid transit in Los Angeles.

The Backbone Route Plan proposed a new system running from El Monte in the east to Century City in the west.  (Century City, Los Angeles’ grand “city within a city” was in the initial planning stages — its first building was completed in 1963).

It was estimated that 86,000 people would use the system in its first year of operation.

Best of all, the entire Backbone Route could be built in just three years.

The initial phase of the 1961 included 25 stations, 16 of which were part of the 12.1 mile subway portion in downtown and to the west.

Artist prepares renderings of proposed LAMTA rapid transit rail cars in freeway center strip for press conference. (Click for more information)

The west terminal would be located under Santa Monica Boulevard on the north entrance to Century City.

The route would follow Santa Monica Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, before continuing east with stops at Beverly Drive, Robertson Boulevard, Fairfax Avenue, Masselin Avenue, La Brea Avenue, Crenshaw Boulevard, Western Avenue, Normandie Avenue and Vermont Avenue.

East of Vermont, the subway was planned to turn north of MacArthur Park, with stations planned for Alvarado Street at 6th Street, Wilshire Boulevard at Lucas Street, and on to downtown at 7th Street & Hope Street, 7th Street & Broadway, Broadway between 5th & 6th, Civic Center, and Union Station.

East of downtown, the surface route was 10.6 miles long, sharing the grade-separated right of way of the Pacific Electric Railway north of the 10 freeway, with stations at State Street, Soto Street and Eastern Avenue.

Beyond Eastern, the line was to follow the railroad right of way down the center of the freeway, with stops at Fremont Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, New Avenue, San Gabriel Boulevard and Rosemead Boulevard.

Past Rosemead, the route would leave the railroad right of way to a terminal at Hoyt Avenue in El Monte.

The "Backbone Route" would eventually be supplemented by other corridor routes connecting it to Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and beyond.

The Backbone Plan was just the beginning of a comprehensive mobility solution for Los Angeles — the first step in a four-corridor, 75-mile rapid transit system.

On May 15, 1961 Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairman A.J. Eyraud and Chief Engineer Ernest R. Gerlach held a press conference to unveil the plan and explain how it’s $192 million cost could be financed by a low-interest loan that would be retired out of farebox revenues.

The LAMTA proposed that a 3% loan could pay off $40 million worth of existing bonds before covering the cost of the Backbone Route.

They specifically stated that subsidy or taxing powers were not asked for in LAMTA’s legislative program.

Backbone Route map detail depicting fallout shelter capability in western subway segment. (Click to enlarge)

At the press conference, Gerlach pointed out that one of the most unique aspects of this proposal was that the subway portion:

“could become an important factor in the development of the area’s civil defense program, serving as a fall-out shelter, and through underground links with shelter areas in major buildings adjoining the route, a means of equalizing the loads on emergency facilities and of moving personnel under shelter for the performance of critical duties.”

President Kennedy had already announced a program to spend $250 million in fallout shelters, so adaptation of subway tunnels to meet this need could possibly elicit favor in Washington as well.

By mid-June, the California State Legislature passed A.B. 2643, which contained major changes to the 1957 Transit Authority Act.

Section 4.8 of the bill was amended to authorize LAMTA to “construct a subway system without the consent of the cities through which such a route is located, so long as neither the subway nor the construction of it will interfere with or diminish the existing surface or subsurface uses of the street or highway.”

Additionally, it prohibited “the construction of any mass rapid transit structures on or over the surface of any street, highway, freeway, or other public place without consent of the public agency having jurisdiction.”

Governor Edmund G. Brown signs Assembly Bill 2643 on July 14, 1961 accompanied by political leaders and LAMTA Chairman A.J. Eyraud (right). Click for more information

Upon signing the legislation, Governor Edmund G. Brown declared:

“I consider passage of this measure one of the most significant actions of the 1961 legislative session affecting Los Angeles…It represents one of the steps we must take to fight the creeping paralysis that threatens our metropolitan areas…[LAMTA] is years ahead of public transit agencies in other parts of the country in developing a rapid transit system.”

At an October 23 progress report luncheon held for over 200 governmental, business and civic leaders, Chairman Eyraud outlined plans for a transit revenue bond insurance bill.

He explained that “by insuring the payment of principal and interest on privately sold revenue bonds, the bill will enable public transit agencies to obtain funds at interest rates not to exceed 3 5/8% per annum and repayable over a period of up to 50 years, making private financing of rapid transit possible.”

Governor Brown (left) and Chairman Eyraud (right) proudly show off L.A.'s imminent state-of-the-art rapid transit rail car, as conceived by Kaiser Industries, October 23, 1961. Click for more information

With the support of the governor, as well as Senator Clair Engle and Congressman Chet Holifield who introduced national legislation for federal loans to transit, plans for a Los Angeles rapid transit system looked more promising than at any point in the city’s history.

Chairman Eyraud declared “We’re going to build this system,” predicting that if the financing bill were passed in early 1962, construction would start in June of that year, with the backbone route opening in December, 1965.

The LAMTA Board approved construction on December 19, 1961.

The four-phase plan was now underway, with preparation to be followed by feasibility and cost studies, selling bonds, and retiring the 1958 bond issue to the tune of $40 million, purchasing rights of way, and construction. (The entire project’s timeline chart can be found on pp. 8-9 here).

By January 12, 1962 ground test drilling for the subway began at First Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.

LAMTA Chairman Eyraud noted “We are not just talking transit today — we are digging.”

Governor Edmund Brown speaking at groundbreaking ceremonies for soil drilling tests at First & Broadway, January 12, 1962. Click for more information

Governor Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Samuel M. Yorty and Chairman Ernest E. Debs of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors were all on hand for the groundbreaking ceremonies.

Two weeks later in Beverly Hills, Mayor Jack Freeman pictched in to start digging the first hole at Wilshire Boulevard & Linden Drive.

LAMTA quickly initiated talks with officials in Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley for expansion plans in the other corridors connecting to the Backbone Route.

The agency estimated that each year of delay would add “something like $10 million to the cost.”

By January, 1962 LAMTA was already planning well beyond the Backbone Route.

As considerations for the extensions to LAX, Santa Ana began, LAMTA began investigating the use of “large-capacity” helicopters to compliment the rapid transit plan.

Executive Director C.M. Gillis said:

“It is important that we look not only to the improvement of the present bus and streetcar operation and to the establishment of a rapid transit system, but that we explore every possible avenue for the establishment of the ultimate and best system in the future to serve the citizens of this area.

Helicopters offer the flexibility for extending travel free of traffic congestion to areas beyond the point where the rapid transit lines will terminate.”

However, no capital funding was made available to begin construction, and the hoped-for federal revenue insurance bond bill never materialized.

Cutaway concept of LAMTA subway station under Broadway at 6th Street. (Click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, the monorail lobby was not about to give up without a fight.

Alweg presented the City of Los Angeles with a 43-mile supported beam monorail system plan at an estimated cost of $187.5 million.

Godell presented a 75-mile suspended car monorail system at a cost of $182.3 million.

Both companies offered to build their systems for “free” in exchange for the next 40 years of passenger revenues to bond against, a difficult commitment for an agency that earned 95% of its revenues at the farebox.

LAMTA sent letters to both companies stating that any proposal submitted must include subway along the Wilshire Corridor.

The Los Angeles Times reported on August 8, 1963 that “Wilshire Boulevard businessmen and property owners…unanimously condemned any overhead rapid transit system along that thoroughfare from the Harbor Freeway to West Los Angeles.”

Beverly Hills Public Works Department head Edward Tufte stated that “Our city does not want an overhead facility.”

LAMTA was unprepared for the public confusion and political chaos that ensued over competing plans, technologies, and arguments over whether or not the construction of public transit facilities should be subsidized.

As the region’s streetcar system was entering the final stages of dismantlement and a more flexible, robust motorcoach system was being touted as the mode of the future, proposals for new fixed route system (or systems, if one includes the monorail proposals) may have seemed counter-intuitive to some.

Ultimately, the Metropolitan Transit Authority lacked adequate powers of its own and without state and federal funding partners (they hadn’t been formed yet), the Backbone Route ended up going nowhere.

By the following year, LAMTA was defunct.

"Facts You Should Know About The Backbone Route" appeared in the February, 1962 edition of The Emblem, the LAMTA employee newsletter. Click for more information

The rapid transit system as conceived was never built, but this plan came closer than ever before to realizing a rapid transit solution for the City of Los Angeles.

The State of California created the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1964 as the successor to the underpowered Metropolitan Transit Authority.

With an expanded Board of Directors, the power to issue bonds, the ability to raise funds for mass transit via voter-approved taxation and the power of eminent domain — powers that eluded the LAMTA — the SCRTD was in a much better position down the road to bring rapid transit to Los Angeles.

SCRTD’s plans got a further boost in 1964 by the creation of the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now known as the Federal Transit Administration) which assisted local agencies with capital projects.

Today, the Backbone Route lives on to some extent, as envisioned in this 1967 Rapid Transit Master Plan Concept map brought forth by SCRTD  into contemporary transit planning in the region.

Los Angeles eventually got its subway under Wilshire Boulevard (not completely, not without difficulty, and now with plans to continue westward), connecting downtown to the El Monte Busway, built along the same right-of-way as the original Backbone’s eastern section.

While heavy-duty helicopters and nuclear fallout shelters seem out of this world as part of transit planning, even the other transit corridors originally conceived in the Backbone Route were eventually constructed and operated as the Metro Blue Line and Metro Red Line.

A diverse array of transit service can be found today along these routes proposed 50 years ago.

They are composed of subway, at-grade light rail, express bus and bus rapid transit service — and could be considered the multi-modal “backbone” of Metro’s post-Measure R mobility agenda.