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The man behind the Mills Act

Senator Mills’s beloved creation, the San Diego Trolley.
Senator Mills’s beloved creation, the San Diego Trolley.

(To the tune of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’).

  • Bulldoze, through the redwoods
  • Through the big trees,
  • And the old folks’ home,
  • Come rampage through the redwoods with me
  • On my new Caterpillar tractor...

This was James Mills’ own fight song, over the half-century he fought Caltrans and other agencies and developers playing fast and loose with San Diego’s sustainable future.

“That was the kind of song Dad kept on the down low, because that was not promoting cooperation between Caltrans and anybody else,” says Mills’s grown son Bill. “But we all sang it in the family.”

State Senator James Mills, father of the San Diego Trolley.

And thank goodness! Just think what San Diego’s James Mills, this conservation warrior, achieved. Because of him we have: The Star of India, Old Town State Park, The San Diego Trolley, The Port District, and The Mills Act. And then there’s Mills’s book The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate, his imagined life of Pilate as politician facing the pressures that Mills, a consummate politician, knew so well.

On and on. He was a state senator, he turned railroad tracks into bike tracks, helped save Amtrak, and with the Mills Act, still saves countless historic houses from destruction.

Bill Mills’s dad, former California State Senator James Mills, was a walking hurricane, even though what he most liked to do was ride bikes and catch trains. That’s the thing about him. James Mills loved trains. “If there was a new train line, no matter where we were, like in Chicago for the Democratic Convention in 1968, he’d have to ride the new train lines before he even got to his hotel.”

Because, says Bill, his dad was aware of the shenanigans that Detroit had gotten up to after WW2, to utterly destroy train and streetcar transportation. “There was an active, aggressive program to try to sell buses at the cost of killing streetcar systems. The Firestone Tire Company and GM Buses and Standard Oil went through different municipalities, selling buses to them, and they said, ‘We’ll make you a fantastic deal on these new buses. But what you have to do is get rid of your streetcar systems. And not just get rid of them; you have to pave over the tracks.’ And then there was, ‘Oh, and you also need to guarantee to buy Firestone bus tires for 30 years, and you’ve got to buy your oil from Standard Oil. And we’ll give you a great price.’ They were playing the long game to kill the streetcar systems.

“And they succeeded at it! And this is part of that passion that dad had about transit. He was, ‘I want those streetcars to come back because they were better!’ At one point, Bill says, quoting his dad, you could get around most parts of San Diego on streetcars. “They were electric, more sustainable. They took more people at less cost. We did it better, and then the automobile screwed it all up.”

Cover of Sen. Mills’s novel of politics and religion - Renaissance Man.

This was the passion behind Mills’s greatest creation, the San Diego Trolley.

And with automobiles now primary culprits in greenhouse gas emissions — another of Mills’s passions — the ultimate justification for reviving light rail is nothing less than our very survival on earth.

James Mills was born in 1927. Half of his professional life was spent in the California State Senate, the other half, developing San Diego’s trolley and bus systems. Mills’s mixed memories of building a career in the State Senate come out in another of his books, A Disorderly House: The Brown-Unruh years in Sacramento.

“‘Disorderly House’ is also a euphemism for a whorehouse,” says son Bill. “The mid-’80s is when things changed over to a lot more money-politics. Dad talked about it at the time, the polarization, the fringes starting to grab the party away from the center.”

Bill quotes how James and [prominent Sacramento politician] Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh met a group of freshmen coming into the assembly in 1961, six or eight of them, newly elected. “Jess Unruh told the freshmen (and they were all men), ‘Look, there are lobbyists here and they have money, and they’re going to spend it on you. And we don’t make a lot. And if you cannot eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, and then [still] vote against them, you’ve got no business being up here.’ So they were still expecting that people were voting their conscience, and doing the right thing. And a lot of the things that got done during those years were because they were still working across the aisle. And people were playing that long game of ‘How do I want things to look, 20, 30 years from now?’”

Bill says one of the reasons we’re seeing transit happen again today in different areas, (with places like LA taking a page from San Diego’s book) is the state financing from the ’70s, when there was a piece of legislation that carried a gas tax, for transit but specifically not highways. It wasn’t enough for anybody to [spend] now, but different counties in California could borrow against it. More than anything else, this slow-drip income, part of a state motor vehicle fuel tax, has made the long trip back to Mills’s streetcar dream possible.

But James Mills didn’t always win. Take the Fashion Valley trolley stop: At the time of construction, the shopping center folks didn’t want to lose parking space. And they apparently believed they wouldn’t get the kind of desirable customers they wanted via trolley. “They said ‘Absolutely not,’” says Bill. “‘We’re not going to give you any of our parking lot space.’ And if you look today, Fashion Valley’s trolley stop is still hemmed in by those parking lots. And that’s one of the few places where you’ve got a trolley line that didn’t cause development around it.”

Bill, who works at Microsoft, says he is sometimes tempted by politics himself. Once, he approached his dad. “I said: ‘Dad, should I think about getting into politics?’ And he said ‘I think you should only get into politics if you have problems that you want to solve. If you don’t have a reason and a goal, it’s not pleasant. It’s not a good life, unless you have something to make it worthwhile.’”

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Senator Mills’s beloved creation, the San Diego Trolley.
Senator Mills’s beloved creation, the San Diego Trolley.

(To the tune of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’).

  • Bulldoze, through the redwoods
  • Through the big trees,
  • And the old folks’ home,
  • Come rampage through the redwoods with me
  • On my new Caterpillar tractor...

This was James Mills’ own fight song, over the half-century he fought Caltrans and other agencies and developers playing fast and loose with San Diego’s sustainable future.

“That was the kind of song Dad kept on the down low, because that was not promoting cooperation between Caltrans and anybody else,” says Mills’s grown son Bill. “But we all sang it in the family.”

State Senator James Mills, father of the San Diego Trolley.

And thank goodness! Just think what San Diego’s James Mills, this conservation warrior, achieved. Because of him we have: The Star of India, Old Town State Park, The San Diego Trolley, The Port District, and The Mills Act. And then there’s Mills’s book The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate, his imagined life of Pilate as politician facing the pressures that Mills, a consummate politician, knew so well.

On and on. He was a state senator, he turned railroad tracks into bike tracks, helped save Amtrak, and with the Mills Act, still saves countless historic houses from destruction.

Bill Mills’s dad, former California State Senator James Mills, was a walking hurricane, even though what he most liked to do was ride bikes and catch trains. That’s the thing about him. James Mills loved trains. “If there was a new train line, no matter where we were, like in Chicago for the Democratic Convention in 1968, he’d have to ride the new train lines before he even got to his hotel.”

Because, says Bill, his dad was aware of the shenanigans that Detroit had gotten up to after WW2, to utterly destroy train and streetcar transportation. “There was an active, aggressive program to try to sell buses at the cost of killing streetcar systems. The Firestone Tire Company and GM Buses and Standard Oil went through different municipalities, selling buses to them, and they said, ‘We’ll make you a fantastic deal on these new buses. But what you have to do is get rid of your streetcar systems. And not just get rid of them; you have to pave over the tracks.’ And then there was, ‘Oh, and you also need to guarantee to buy Firestone bus tires for 30 years, and you’ve got to buy your oil from Standard Oil. And we’ll give you a great price.’ They were playing the long game to kill the streetcar systems.

“And they succeeded at it! And this is part of that passion that dad had about transit. He was, ‘I want those streetcars to come back because they were better!’ At one point, Bill says, quoting his dad, you could get around most parts of San Diego on streetcars. “They were electric, more sustainable. They took more people at less cost. We did it better, and then the automobile screwed it all up.”

Cover of Sen. Mills’s novel of politics and religion - Renaissance Man.

This was the passion behind Mills’s greatest creation, the San Diego Trolley.

And with automobiles now primary culprits in greenhouse gas emissions — another of Mills’s passions — the ultimate justification for reviving light rail is nothing less than our very survival on earth.

James Mills was born in 1927. Half of his professional life was spent in the California State Senate, the other half, developing San Diego’s trolley and bus systems. Mills’s mixed memories of building a career in the State Senate come out in another of his books, A Disorderly House: The Brown-Unruh years in Sacramento.

“‘Disorderly House’ is also a euphemism for a whorehouse,” says son Bill. “The mid-’80s is when things changed over to a lot more money-politics. Dad talked about it at the time, the polarization, the fringes starting to grab the party away from the center.”

Bill quotes how James and [prominent Sacramento politician] Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh met a group of freshmen coming into the assembly in 1961, six or eight of them, newly elected. “Jess Unruh told the freshmen (and they were all men), ‘Look, there are lobbyists here and they have money, and they’re going to spend it on you. And we don’t make a lot. And if you cannot eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, and then [still] vote against them, you’ve got no business being up here.’ So they were still expecting that people were voting their conscience, and doing the right thing. And a lot of the things that got done during those years were because they were still working across the aisle. And people were playing that long game of ‘How do I want things to look, 20, 30 years from now?’”

Bill says one of the reasons we’re seeing transit happen again today in different areas, (with places like LA taking a page from San Diego’s book) is the state financing from the ’70s, when there was a piece of legislation that carried a gas tax, for transit but specifically not highways. It wasn’t enough for anybody to [spend] now, but different counties in California could borrow against it. More than anything else, this slow-drip income, part of a state motor vehicle fuel tax, has made the long trip back to Mills’s streetcar dream possible.

But James Mills didn’t always win. Take the Fashion Valley trolley stop: At the time of construction, the shopping center folks didn’t want to lose parking space. And they apparently believed they wouldn’t get the kind of desirable customers they wanted via trolley. “They said ‘Absolutely not,’” says Bill. “‘We’re not going to give you any of our parking lot space.’ And if you look today, Fashion Valley’s trolley stop is still hemmed in by those parking lots. And that’s one of the few places where you’ve got a trolley line that didn’t cause development around it.”

Bill, who works at Microsoft, says he is sometimes tempted by politics himself. Once, he approached his dad. “I said: ‘Dad, should I think about getting into politics?’ And he said ‘I think you should only get into politics if you have problems that you want to solve. If you don’t have a reason and a goal, it’s not pleasant. It’s not a good life, unless you have something to make it worthwhile.’”

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