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South Los Angeles residents push to transform railway to 8-mile greenbelt

Jameca Marshall has navigated Slauson Avenue all her life, and she knows how dangerous it is.

"I see folks there walking, I see them biking. I see folks pushing strollers in conditions that most of us would not want to be pushing baby strollers, and moving and trying to get to work," said Marshall, a life-long resident of South Los Angeles.

She was one of about three-dozen residents who attended a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week, asking them to move forward with a project to transform eight miles of abandoned roadway into a bike and pedestrian path. Most of the property is owned by the MTA.

Residents told the board the project was needed in a community known for high obesity and a low rate of car ownership. Many noted that South Los Angeles is also "park poor," with less than 2 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents. By comparion, West Los Angeles has more than 50 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents.

The proposal before the MTA was authored by board member Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

After an hour-long discussion, the board approved $2.8 million to plan a "rail-to-river" path along Slauson Avenue from the Los Angeles River to the Crenshaw Metro line — one of the most blighted parts of the city.

The total price tag is expected to be $35 million, and the project could take up to 10 years to complete.

And that's where MTA members disagreed.

"I think it's a good project," said Don Knabe, a county supervisor who sits on the board. "My concern is the funding is not really available"

"If we go ahead and push this thing forward at this particular point in time with project planning," he added, "the money is going to have to come from some other project."

Mayor Eric Garcetti, who chairs the MTA, told board members "money begets money." He said the initial investment will prime the pump for larger investments from government funds and grants.

"This is one of the ugliest corridors in Los Angeles right now. One of the most blighted, most poorly designed, most overgrown," he said.

Rail-to-trail projects have gained ground over the past 30 years. There are nearly 2,000 trails nationwide.

Most of those in Southern California are recreation paths in suburban or beach areas, like the Chandler Bikeway in Burbank.

Joy Forbes, Burbank's Community Development Director, helped coordinate Burbank's project for much of the 10-year planning and construction process. 

Forbes said funding came relatively easily through several different grant and government streams. She agreed with Garcetti that initial investment is key because it will foster more funding channels in the future.

"Once you start a project, then people start to see it happening," she said. "People are more willing to say, 'oh well I'll put money forth because it’s matching the free money you already got somewhere else.' "

For Burbank, the bigger challenges were in the planning and design — in part because MTA wanted to leave open the possibility of returning the strip to a railway if it were needed in the future.

Malcolm Harris, who lives and works in South Los Angeles, bikes each day to work on Slauson Avenue and has seen many near-misses between cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. 

"I’m kind of used to it, but it can be a little scary at times," he said. He attended last week's meeting to support the bikeway project.

"Having this development along this corridor will bring such an important asset to this community," he said.