Wednesday, October 2 2002

MTA Subway Plan Faces Many Hurdles
By Kurt Streeter- Times Staff Writer

Transit: Effort to extend spur down Wilshire would face funding and approval problems.

Los Angeles does have the nation's worst traffic, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that whenever the city considers a showpiece transit project, up pops a serious roadblock.

Want to build a rail network down the middle of freeways? Too expensive. Want to create dedicated bus lanes? Too political. Want a monorail? Too many NIMBYs--not in my backyards.

How about, as county transit officials began discussing again last Thursday, trying to extend the subway down Wilshire Boulevard to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

Will it happen any time soon? Probably not.

That's because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would have to leapfrog several difficult roadblocks to extend the line beyond its end point at Western Avenue--from a shrinking capital budget to legal and political wrangling to the immense power of a longtime congressman whose moves have derailed subway plans for 16 years.

"The fact that the MTA is bringing this back up is amazing," said professor Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. "The conditions on Wilshire, the mix of dense housing, businesses and foot traffic, are perfect for a subway. The ridership, just with this small extension, would be very high.... [But] the agency faces a real dilemma. It's going to be very difficult" to get built.

Realizing that, the MTA hopes to take on the project in incremental steps. First the agency would seek a small amount of money from Washington, probably about $150 million for engineering, when Congress adopts a six-year financial package next summer.

Second, sometime around 2009, when Congress considers another federal transit funding package, the MTA would ask for construction money. If the MTA's history is any guide, a three-mile stretch could cost close to $1 billion, at least half of which would come from federal coffers.

None of this will be possible without clearing the first roadblock: "Henry Waxman," said Taylor, referring to the Democratic congressman from Los Angeles. "He's the key. Without him, this goes nowhere."

On Thursday, the MTA board directed the agency to seek repeal of a 16-year-old congressional ban on subway tunneling in the Fairfax district. The ban, created at Waxman's behest in 1986, was the product of concerns about tunneling in an area soaked with underground oil and gas pockets.

Since then the MTA has repeatedly said technology exists to vent gas, prevent fires and make the subways safe. But in an interview after last week's MTA vote, Waxman said the agency faces an uphill climb.

"I haven't seen anything to prove the safety issue can be relieved," Waxman said. "My paramount concern is safety. If it can be shown that there are technologies that exist now to make things safer, I would be open to listen. But right now, I'm not backing off."

Waxman added that he remains very skeptical of the MTA, which botched numerous aspects of its 17-mile subway network during construction in the 1990s.

Businesses suffered and closed along the construction path, buildings were damaged, a sinkhole nearly devoured a Hollywood intersection, and cost overruns meant some sections of the railway cost $300 million per mile.

So far, there has been no groundswell of public support that might lead Waxman to change his mind. "It's been silent. I've heard nothing from my constituency," he said.

Even if Waxman had a change of heart, the MTA would need to persuade Congress to loosen its purse strings for three miles of underground railway.

"It's just not likely to happen," said Kenneth Orski, a transit expert based in Washington. Orski said the climate has changed since the 1980s and early '90s, days of the "big money subways like they had in Los Angeles."

Today, Congress and the Federal Transit Administration operate under a "build more for less money" philosophy, he said. Instead of subways, light rail and expansive dedicated bus lanes, projects that are usually at least half the cost of subways, are the rage in Washington.

Still another political hurdle comes in the form of a 1998 referendum, sponsored by MTA board member and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, that prevents local sales tax money from being used to match federal dollars on subways.

Yaroslavsky wrote the referendum because of the MTA's poor track record in subway building; it stopped both a planned rail tunnel to East Los Angeles and a subway spur that would have swooped from Wilshire into the Mid-City area.

In an unexpected twist, Yaroslavsky backed the MTA's Wilshire extension plans last week. Still, he made it clear after voting that he would not stand for a repeal of his legislation.

Without a steady source of local funding, the MTA would probably have to turn to Sacramento, as it did to help pay for a small stretch of tunnel that's part of an East Los Angeles light-rail line slated for construction next year. Getting money from Sacramento could prove more difficult than ever, considering that the state just wrestled with a difficult budget crunch and projects another one next year.

Another way around the local ban would be for the MTA to use bond funds, drawn against money from the bus system.

That method is unlikely to sit well with Donald T. Bliss, a Washington mediator overseeing a federal court order that mandates more bus service to reduce crowding.

For at least the next four years, Bliss has the power to make the MTA purchase buses, hundreds of them if he thinks they're needed to reduce overcrowding. Subway planning could be seriously compromised if Bliss were to order enough buses--say 300 more, each costing more than $200,000 a year to operate--to drain the MTA's coffers.

If the Wilshire plan passes its Washington roadblocks and makes its way around the local funding issue, there's the matter of public support, a key factor in any transit construction project in Los Angeles.

Residents and businesses all along Wilshire have for decades been divided on whether a subway makes sense. Little has changed. Proponents think the subway could boost a bustling neighborhood that has some of the city's best architecture and greatest housing density. The sprawling Park La Brea apartment complex, with 4,200 units, is an easy walk to Fairfax and Wilshire, for instance.

"I can't wait for something like this to happen," said Yeong Cheong, who runs an acupuncture business across the street from the county art museum. "A subway would bring more people, make my business better and make places like the museum more popular."

The proprietor of a business just a few feet from Cheong's reflected the other side of the equation. "It would be a disaster," said Calvin Williams, a furniture store owner.

Noting that construction on the Wilshire link to Western killed many businesses, Williams said he worried that he would suffer the same fate. "Construction is going to close down streets and make it so I can't survive. Even if the subway went in, my customers don't take the subway, they come in cars."

Also worried is a group of transit advocates who have fought hard for the MTA's planned light-rail line connecting downtown to Santa Monica via Exposition Boulevard. Right now, the MTA is seeking federal money for the first half of the Expo Line, meaning the railway would stretch only from downtown to near Culver City. With at least $200 million more needed to finish the second phase of the line, the advocates are concerned that a Wilshire extension could compete for those dollars.

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