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RailPAC remembers longtime member Dana Gabbard

A tribute to Dana Gabbard

Brian Yanity

Vice President-South, RailPAC

Some people come to Los Angeles looking for that legendary Hollywood agent with a Rolodex filled with “all of the important people in this town”.   For me, Dana Gabbard was that “Rolodex toting” Angeleno, yet at the same time he was also one of the kindest and gentlest souls you would ever meet.  He knew and graciously connected me with key staff at all the transportation public agencies at all levels of government- rail joint powers authorities to county transportation authorities, along with staffers of key elected officials at the city, county, state and Federal levels, the assistant vice presidents at Class I railroads, retired heads of metropolitan planning organizations who still had some incredible ‘tribal knowledge’, past and present members of important transportation commissions and boards. The list goes on and on.  When I recently expressed my amazement of his ‘virtual Rolodex’, he reminded me that it is all about reaching out to people, communicating and maintaining good relationships with them whenever possible, and encouraged me to do the same.

We were both natives of the Pacific Northwest who chose to settle in the vast, sprawling LA Basin, which according to a longstanding popular belief, is ‘transit-hostile’.  Yet thanks in part to Dana’s hard work for improving transit and passenger rail transportation over the past three decades, our region is less so.

Dana always emphasized the importance of us advocates actually showing up and speaking at transportation agency board meetings. In carefully reading board meeting agendas, minutes and staff reports, he sometimes uncovered bombshells as well as just important and fascinating things going on that the public needed to know about. He always got out and attended (over the internet in recent times) so many meetings and events.

Dana cared just as much about improving the LADOT and Metro buses in his LA neighborhood of MacArthur Park, as he was about the Metro Red Line, the Pacific Surfliner, as the Amtrak Coast Starlight.  Because he was a person would indeed catch the bus to get on the Red Line subway to LA Union Station to ride the Coast Starlight or Sunset Limited out of state.  He understood the connections (and connection deficiencies) and interrelationships between local transit, regional intercity rail and long-distance passenger trains. 

He was such a strong advocate for all of these things because buses, subways and trains were his primary mode of getting around as he chose not own a car in his four decades as an Angeleno. Dana’s disability gave him further insights into public transport that a lot of us didn’t have, and how facilities and rolling stock could be improved for better access. 

In the several weeks since his passing, I have been reading his vast catalog of articles in Streetsblog, the Rail Users Network Newsletter, Steel Wheels, the Transit Advocate, and elsewhere. Honestly it will take me weeks to read some of his vast catalog of over 100 articles on the Streetsblog website archives alone.  I was always struck by the attention to detail in his articles. This lengthy Streetsblog article he wrote on LOSSAN way back in 2012, has so many insights still relevant to the Pacific Surfliner train operations today.

Some of Dana’s work that I most appreciated was his telling the history of public transportation agencies, and how they were created by their political masters, still weighs heavily upon the present.

We will sure be missing his informative articles, which were so well-researched, to put it mildly.  In his own writing or the numerous times he was quoted in the media about transit issues, he always stuck to the facts in a very accessible way, breaking down complex issues in a way anyone could understand (how so). Dana also always gave ample credit to those who provided information in his articles, and many references and weblinks.  As described by Paul Dyson in the 1st Quarter 2022 issue of Steel Wheels:

“I remember him best for the many occasions at such events as National Train Day when Dana manned the SoCaTa booth alongside us at RailPAC. In the last few years he kept SoCaTa running almost single-handedly. Dana had a formidable memory and a deep knowledge of public transportation in southern California. It was his only means of getting around. Bart Reed of the Transit Coalition recalled: “Dana was absolutely passionate about transportation. He had a deep knowledge of the service and the policies behind transit and the power structure and financing that developed and provided Southern California mobility. His research skillset was incredible.” The latter point is especially significant, as Dana was a subject expert long before the internet made research easy for everyone.”

He was also quick to give credit to his fellow activists for their achievements, in his ‘histories’ as well as reports on current events. His history of how the Expo Line came to be is an inspiring story of how a small group of committed transit activists can really get the ball rolling to bring a new light rail line to life:

While Angelenos and other Southern Californians know of Gabbard through his work with Southern California Transit Advocates (SO. CA. TA.) he was also a longtime board member of the national nonprofit, the Rail Users Network (RUN), as well as a longtime RailPAC member.  He did great work there on behalf of Amtrak long distance trains and corridor trains. Dana was passionate about the Amtrak National Network, and had a deep knowledge of railroads around the entire Western U.S. A friend from out of state who read his recent article on Northern California passenger rail projects for the RUN newsletter and RailPAC’s Steel Wheels, assumed that he was from the Bay Area. With his law librarian background, he did some valuable research recently on Federal law concerning appointees of Amtrak board members, about which he reported in the Winter 2022 Rail Users Network Newsletter.  His article in the Fall 2021 issue of the same publication about Amtrak Connects US was mostly lengthy quotes from rail advocates and a few public agency managers from around the country.  It was great way to explore the depth and complexity of the issue, just hearing a dozen different people’s perspectives on Amtrak’s plans.

I had the privilege of knowing Dana Gabbard only for the last few years of his life, but he taught me so much about how to be a rail and transit activist.  His ‘rules of transit advocacy’, dating from the year 2000 (fresh from the bruising yet successful LA transit battles of 1990s), still ring true today:

   1) There are no magic bullets

    2) Transit’s main purpose is to move people, not solve pollution, social equity, congestion, etc.

    2a) Transit is a means (mobility) to an end (the destination), not an end in itself

    3) Beware (and be aware) of unintended consequences

    4)Things can always get worse; change should be for the better not just for the sake of change

    5) The greatest challenge is changing perceptions

    6) Parochialism will always rear its ugly head (aka “fair share”)

    6a) Also NIMBYism

    7) Never promise congestion relief resulting from a transit project

    8) Always get the actual documents and studies; don’t rely on summaries or media stories about them

    9) Everyone is a transportation expert, just ask them

Dana by no means discounted the pollution, economic, social equity and congestion benefits of transit and passenger rail (his rule #2 above), far from it. I interpret that line to mean that for public transportation to make a difference for any of those things, it first had to be good at moving people, and be something that people wanted to use.  He had faith that Los Angeles could shake its polluting and destructive automobile dependency, and important it was to get more people to ride trains and buses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dana and I talked often on the phone in the last year of his life, having long lively conversations about everything from LA Metro, OCTA, Amtrak’s long-distance and Connects US plans, High Speed Rail, to political strategy to achieve and improve all of these.  Dana always had the time to explain to me the byzantine world of LA, county and state politics. During one of these recent phone conversations, about two weeks before his death, Dana said that he considered me a protégé, and I was honored.

I first met Dana several years ago at a meeting of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Transportation Committee. Two days before his passing, Dana participated in the inaugural online meeting of the Sierra Club’s national volunteer ‘rail interest group’.  He was a founding member of the group, and had high hopes for it. Dana shared with us a childhood memory of seeing the electric Milwaukee Road freight trains running through the countryside of Central Washington. As he would have wanted us to do, we are going to try our hardest to see electric trains crossing America once again.

If you want a California, and a country, with world-class public transportation, including good intercity passenger trains, be like Dana and fight for it.