Knowledge in Action:

SPPD’s Kodama Lays Tracks for High-Speed Rail

Bridging theory with practice, his experience in the real world fuels professor’s interaction with students.

By Cristy Lytal

Michael Kodama Michael Kodama, adjunct associate professor and head of the Orangeline Development Authority
Photo by Ben Dimapindan

Adjunct associate professor Michael Kodama scribbles on the board at USC’s Von KleinSmid Center, trying to keep pace with a dozen students who are calling out transportation-related news headlines during his “Transportation Planning” class.

“The first part of the class is led by the students,” said Kodama, who teaches in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “They can talk about anything they want and put me on the spot for an hour.”

It’s a fitting way for Kodama to kick off each session, since he’s been making news himself as the new executive director of the Orangeline Development Authority.

The authority is a joint powers agency of 14 Southern California cities, extending from Palmdale to Cerritos, that is creating public-private partnerships to finance a high-speed rail project. Eventually, it may extend to Santa Ana in Orange County.

“Some of the funding comes from the cities themselves,” Kodama said. “They actually have membership dues that they pay. And then a substantial part of the funding – $240 million – is going to come from Measure R.”

The cities currently are conducting a feasibility analysis and exploring different technological options, including a system of magnets to lift and propel the trains.

Kodama supports President Barack Obama’s vision, expressed in his State of the Union address, that “there’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains.”

Still, the Orangeline won’t be hitting any record speeds, due to the urban setting and frequent stops.

“The cities want it to be as fast as possible; they want it to be as quiet as possible; they want it to be environmentally friendly,” Kodama said. “They want it to be grade separated, which means we have to elevate it, or it has to go below ground, or the road has to be elevated over the train.”

The Orangeline is just one of the many projects Kodama has worked on during his nearly 20 years as a private transportation consultant.

Over the course of his career, he’s also developed on-the-job knowledge of freeways, bus lines and parking management. A graduate of UCLA, he holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics, and a master’s degree in urban planning with an emphasis in social-policy analysis and transportation.

He enjoys bringing this expertise to the classroom and finds teaching beneficial for him as well as his students.

“The beauty of teaching is it reminds you of your basics because you’ve got to go back and teach them,” said Kodama, who has taught at USC since 2004. “But I also like working with young people. It’s rewarding in terms of just being able to help get their careers started and give them some ideas.”

Kodama primes the pump by requiring each of his students to experience Los Angeles public transportation firsthand.

Using a combination of both bus and train, students must figure out how to get from USC to one of three destinations: Pasadena, Hollywood or Los Angeles International Airport. Then they document their adventures.

He also introduces students to working professionals through a field trip – this semester’s destination is the Port of Long Beach – and individual final projects, presented to guest panelists from the transportation industry at the end of the term.

“Sometimes, one of the students will be fortunate enough to be asked to take his or her presentation outside to an agency,” Kodama noted. “Or someone will like a project and say, ‘Can you make this really happen?’ So, for example, the USC to L.A. Live shuttle, that was a student idea.”

Kodama’s students appreciate how he bridges theory with practice.

“He’s a part-time instructor here, and so his full-time job is actually in the real transportation industry,” said Lynda Baza Valencia, a public policy, management, and planning major who took the class in a previous semester. “So bringing that experience into the classroom was amazing. That made the class really interesting and fun all the time.”

Spencer Kassimir, who earned his bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages and cinema-television and is finishing up his master’s degree in East Asian languages, agreed.

“This was one of the classes I had always wanted to take, and I just never had the opportunity to as an undergrad,” he said. “It was just a fantastic class.”