The Pasadena Gold Line “NOBLAG” NIMBYS

In my book Railtown, I write how the Pasadena Gold Line light rail received approval over other, more meritorious transit corridors in Los Angeles, in part because there was little organized opposition to the route. While the major factor was the strong, bipartisan political support for the line, as opposed to the opposition to rail in West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley among other places, the Pasadena line was fortunate to travel through an industrial, low-income, high-renter area. In short, it was a community that lacked the resources and desire to protest.

But longtime Angeleno Robert L. Davis, who lived near the line, recalled for me a late-entry opposition group:

Once the project looked like it would really be built, there was a group that wanted it to be in a subway, or at least a trench all the way through Pasadena. Not sure, but I think some South Pasadena residents got into the act. They called themselves “No Blue Line at Grade” [at the time the Pasadena Line was considered an extension of the Long Beach Blue Line] or to use the rather unpleasant-sounding acronym NOBLAG. They lobbied the Public Utilities Commission, which among other things has jurisdiction over grade crossings, complaining about traffic tie-ups, noise, etc. etc. Had the PUC gone along with NOBLAG’s ideas, the project probably would have been scuttled as way too expensive.

Davis wrote to the PUC to urge them to reject the NOBLAG request, and he shared his letter with me. He was unsympathetic to their concerns:

If someone said, “Have you ever lived next door to a busy railway?”, I can reply, “I lived the first eleven years of my life next to a Pacific Electric ‘Red Car’ line in Monrovia”. This had a worn-out track with bumpy joints, carrying heavy interurban cars and a daily freight train with (usually) flat wheels on some of the cars. Modern light rail trains run on welded rails and the cars are designed for quiet operation. In San Francisco the J and M rail lines pass so close to some houses you can almost see what’s on TV. The Pasadena line used to carry 70 car freight trains and 18 car passenger trains with two to seven diesel locomotives, so it’s not like trains are something never seen or heard before.

Davis also rejected the idea that the train would hurt property values:

One may hear complaints about property values dropping; in most places where light rail goes into service, values rise, and “near light rail station” is a selling point. Many cities where light rail projects were greeted with skepticism now have suburbs lobbying to be next on the list for line extensions.

I agree with his general point, although the squeaky rail cars on the twisty tracks probably hurt property values. The train seems to go almost right through some homes’ backyards. Plus, some studies I’ve seen do show a drop-off in property value for homes right next to a station, although values increase beyond that immediate affected range, as Davis indicated.

In general, I don’t begrudge a group of neighbors organizing to voice their concerns, and policy makers should mitigate negative impacts whenever feasible. But I’m glad the CPUC did not effectively kill the project based solely on those objections. The larger lesson here is that more powerful residential groups have success influencing local elected officials and litigating to delay and kill projects. The Pasadena NOBLAGs simply did not have that clout, and they lost as a result.


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