60 Years Ago This Week: Los Angeles Gets Its First Publicly-Governed Transportation Planning Agency

A few days ago, we marked an important milestone in Los Angeles’ transit and transportation history.

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA) was formed as the city’s first publicly-run transit planning agency by the State of California on July 24, 1951.

Sometimes referred to as “the first MTA,” it was empowered to formulate plans and policy for a publicly owned/operated mass rapid transit system that would replace the crumbling infrastructure of privately owned and operated systems.

The enabling legislation mandated that the Governor appoint the LAMTA’s seven member Board of Directors in consultation with local officials.

New LAMTA Dreamliner bus

LAMTA oversaw the demise of the streetcar system while celebrating new modern coaches such as this "Dreamliner" in 1962 (Click to enlarge)

As we wrote about last month in our post about the divergent transit plans of 1948, new proposals for a monorail system in Los Angeles emerged shortly thereafter in 1949.

The system, as envisioned when LAMTA was created, was to study a monorail system’s feasibility.

The agency’s powers were expanded in 1954 to authorize the study of an even more extensive monorail regional transit system, stretching from Long Beach to Panorama City via downtown Los Angeles.

In 1957, the State legislature gave the LAMTA still more power  — this time to purchase and operate existing privately owned bus lines with capital provided by the sale of revenue bonds.

The LAMTA Act of 1957 stated:

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of California to develop mass rapid transit systems in the various metropolitan areas within the State for the benefit of the people.

A necessity exists within Los Angeles County for such a system.

Because of the numerous separate municipal corporations and unincorporated populated areas in the metropolitan area, only a specially created authority can operate effectively.

Because of the unique problem presented in Los Angeles County and the facts and circumstances related to the establishment of a mass rapid transit system therein, the adoption of a special act and the creation of a special authority is required.”

Effective March 3, 1958, LAMTA acquired the Los Angeles Transit Lines (successor to Los Angeles Railway and Los Angeles Motor Bus/Coach companies), Metropolitan Coach Lines (successor to Pacific Electric Railway and other independent bus companies), and Asbury Rapid Transit System to create the first publicly owned and governed transit system in Los Angeles.

Prior to the creation of  the public agency to operate transit services in Los Angeles, the California Public Utilities Commission approved all fare and routes modifications, line by line.

Now, the new LAMTA now had the power to approve those changes at the local level.

During its tenure, the LAMTA presented three major mass rapid transit system proposals for Los Angeles County, including the now infamous proposed monorail plans.

1961 New Proposed Backbone Route Plan Map (Click to enlarge)

The LAMTA’s final plan was knows as the “Backbone Route”, elevated rail from El Monte to Downtown and then subway from Downtown to Century City along Wilshire Boulevard.

That story is fascinating in and of itself, as we explained here.

It is also worth noting that LAMTA’s original monorail proposals suggested a north-south route through the County, while the Backbone Route proposal had an east-west “spine.”

While never built, LAMTA even held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Backbone Route in 1962 with the media and Governor Pat Brown in attendance touting the project as vitally important.

Unfortunately, without adequate powers of its own and without state and federal funding partners (they hadn’t been formed yet), the Backbone Route project went nowhere.

The 1961 Backbone Route's Wilshire Boulevard subway route featured fallout shelters (Click to enlarge)

In 1964, the state legislature recognized that they had granted limited authority to the LAMTA to solve the transit problems of the Southern California area.

The organization and powers of LAMTA rendered it unable to deliver the needed comprehensive mass rapid transit system.

It did not have the power to levy taxes for any purpose whatsoever, its board did not wield sufficient political influence to build broad public support, and it did not have the right to acquire real property by eminent domain.

While it could issue revenue bonds, it did not have sufficient revenue sources to implement a large-scale system with broad local support.

Within six years, the LAMTA had gobbled up the streetcar system and several independent bus companies, but couldn’t plan or execute a viable rapid transit solution for Los Angeles.

The agency was finally reorganized and relaunched as the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) in September, 1964.

SCRTD merged with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1993 to form the present-day Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.