» The Mayor’s prioritization of a subway beneath Wilshire Boulevard meets opposition from congressmen representing areas east and south of downtown.
With the passage of Measure R last November, Los Angeles bought itself a massive expansion of its rapid transit network. The system, which currently consists of three light rail lines and two heavy rail corridors, is already being expanded in two directions. Over the next thirty years, new services are planned for virtually everywhere in the 10 million-person county. But Metro, the region’s transit provider, will have to determine which projects to prioritize as it competes for federal funding — and the fight is already underway.
Though the county will be able to rely on billions of dollars in sales tax revenue over the next few decades, benefits will have to spread out — Metro’s list of projects won’t be done until 2040 at the earliest. In August, City of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who heads the Metro board, suggested that he wanted to push forward the completion of the “subway to the sea” in ten years. The extension of the heavy rail Purple Line envisioned for the city’s west side would serve the region’s most densely populated neighborhood and dramatically reduce commute times for people heading to the traffic-congested area. But the mammoth cost of the west side subway project will overwhelm Metro’s finances, forcing it to devote far fewer funds to the region’s other transit proposals.
Metro’s board will vote this week on its long-term, $300 billion plan, which would accelerate planning and construction on the project. It would also prioritize the completion of the Regional Connector, which will connect the Blue and Expo lines to the Gold Line with a new downtown link. Both would be submitted to the New Starts evaluation process to attempt to win a federal contribution; Metro has judged them most likely to fit the FTA’s strenuous cost-effectiveness ratings. Said Mayor Villaraigosa: “The MTA board unanimously adopted its federal transit priorities last month, and on the merits the subway and regional connector have the greatest potential to earn federal support.”
Unsurprisingly, politicians representing areas of the region far from downtown and the prosperous west side are crying fowl. Fourteen congressmen, including both Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter asking Metro to move forward on three other projects, including the Foothills Line Extension to Montclair, an East L.A. corridor into El Monte, and the Crenshaw transit corridor in southwest Los Angeles. The letter argues that while the Foothills corridor is almost ready for construction work, the Regional Connector and west side subway are five years from ground breaking. As the letter puts it, “We are very concerned that Los Angeles County is not positioning itself well to receive its fair share of New Starts funding in the near- and long-term.” To them, the domination of the west side subway would create an unfair situation for the rest of the region and deprive the county of its deserved federal revenue.
But Los Angeles will have difficulty applying for five New Starts projects simultaneously, and it’s unclear whether Metro will be capable of handling construction work on so many programs at the same time. In addition, while the corridors mentioned by politicians from east and south Los Angeles may fill out the network, as demonstrated in the map above, they are not likely to get high marks from federal officials because they serve sprawled-out, auto-oriented areas, unlike the two projects Mr. Villaraigosa is promoting.
Nonetheless, Metro may have no choice but to demonstrate its interest in all parts of the region; in order to receive federal funds, it needs support from legislators in Washington. The City of Los Angeles, which would stand to benefit most from the subway and Connector projects, only represents about a third of the County’s residents — there are plenty of people who will feel excluded if they are the only projects built. Nonetheless, the region’s sales tax revenue isn’t strong enough to cover the local share of project costs. At some point, one area of the region is going to have to get more funds than another. Yet while the west side subway may be the best investment from the perspective of improved transit, it may not be the wisest choice from the political angle.
The broader implication of this political and financial choice is that Los Angeles cannot immediately become the transit city implied in the drawing above — it will take decades for the region to assemble the funding for the construction of such a huge network. To some extent, that’s why Mayor Villaraigosa’s excitement about the subway to the sea makes sense: his plan would reinforce public transportation connections in an area that’s already dense enough to take full advantage of the system. Other routes prized by legislators from areas to the east and south would be far less effective in doing the same. Estimates for the Crenshaw corridor of only 13,000 to 17,000 daily riders, for instance, are indicative of its current limitations; most of the areas affected would hardly be considered walkable or “livable.”
That said, Los Angeles’ massive ambitions are necessary to prime the region for a more sustainable future. It’s high time that the area stop being referred to as the capital of sprawl, and big plans are the first step towards recovery.
Update, 23 October: The Board of Los Angeles Metro has approved a $300 billion, 30-year plan that prioritizes the Westside Subway and the Regional Connector. An amendment will force Metro to operate the Foothills Gold Line extension by 2013, four years before originally planned… as long as area officials are able to find the funds to fast-track the project’s construction.