Last November, Los Angeles County voters agreed to increase sales taxes by a 1/2¢ with the passage of Measure R, which will fund new transit projects throughout the region. One of the primary benefits of the new revenue is the ability to fund the construction of a “subway to the sea,” which will extend the existing Red and Purple heavy rail lines to Santa Monica. But the large number of projects on the drawing board have slowed down this west side corridor significantly; partial completion, along Wilshire from Western Ave to UCLA, won’t be done until 2036. But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is now on a campaign to attract federal funds to push its completion date forward — perhaps to 2020.
For the first time in more than a decade, the west side extension, which has often been included in the city’s transit plans, looks like it might happen. After years of controversy, a loss of federal funds, and gas explosions, the stars have aligned, with local and federal money available and an ambitious transit agency board again willing to risk its political clout for a project that will serve Los Angeles’ densest and most traffic-choked community.
Yet, even with Measure R, Los Angeles will need decades to build this very expensive line. Estimates put total cost in a $4-9 billion range, depending on whether the route extends all the way to Santa Monica, rather than simply to Westwood, and whether a spur north through West Hollywood is included. The full project, with 14 stations, will greatly improve connectivity across the west side of Los Angeles as well as among the cities of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica; this is currently the preferred choice of most residents of the area and Metro itself. The project, though, is too expensive to build without a massive federal appropriation.
Metro, the local transit agency, initiated the completion of a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the line in January, beginning the first step towards what will be a major construction project. Metro will select a locally preferred alternative next fall and then begin engineering and eventually construction work. In the meantime, the city has been drilling holes across the west side — 70 of them in total, up to 80 feet into the ground — to begin assessing the quality of soil for subway construction. The results were positive, with no danger in sight.
Mr. Villaraigosa, in the meantime, has become a strong advocate of regional cooperation for the benefit of the project. The mayor encouraged politicians from across the County to push for federal funds to complete the line on an accelerated timetable. The U.S. government needs to expedite up to $5 billion to ensure that the full project can be completed. This kind of commitment, however, has been rare in recent American transit policy, which has rarely appropriated more than $1 billion to just one line.
The mayor’s vision is necessary, because a wait until 2036 for just the line to UCLA would be a disappointment and a disaster for the city as a whole. The traffic mess on the west side, even with the completion of the Expo Line, will not improve dramatically; the area continues to be the region’s biggest draw but it is harder and harder to reach. With direct benefits only being accrued in four of the region’s dozens of municipalities, it remains to be seen whether mayors and congressmen from the sprawling region will come together in support of the project.
Image above: Westside subway alignment alternatives, from Metro