» A broad consensus in America’s definitive car city makes a $6 billion subway extending far down Wilshire Boulevard a realistic possibility.
Admittedly, there have been plans for a high-capacity subway extending from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica along Wilshire Boulevard for decades. In both 1980 and 1990, L.A. County voters approved referenda that increased taxes to pay for transit expansion programs; one of the primary elements of both of those programs was the Westside subway, intended to provide an alternative to the rapidly expanding congestion in the region’s densest district. In the 1990s, subways were under construction — and the Purple Line made it as far as Wilshire and Western Avenue — before voters, worried about cost increases and the dangers of digging through areas with methane gas underground, mandated that no more transit funds could be used for the construction of subways. A similar resolution in the U.S. Congress prevented federal funds from being used for the purpose. It seemed that the days of heavy rail digging were done in America’s second-largest city, and most recent financing has gone to light rail.
But change is afoot, and the release last week of a staff report advising an optimal design for the new line under the Westside represents a notable step forward. The L.A. Metro board will make an official selection of a locally preferred alternative on October 28th, paving the way for federal funds as early as next year and the beginning of construction as early as 2012. The recent announcement that the Crenshaw light rail line would receive a $526 million loan from Washington to advance the project two years ahead of schedule is additional evidence that L.A.’s plans have the wind at their back.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been one of the country’s most vocal proponents of increased spending on public transportation, and it was under his pressure not only that momentum for a “Subway to the Sea” was reawakened, but also that voters passed an additional local tax for the purposes of funding transit expansion in 2008 and that Congress reversed its prior ban on funding for subways in the city. What was almost a personal crusade evolved into a citywide effort to get the project done. Today is the deadline for public comment on the expansion plan: L.A. Metro is hoping to get progress going on this project as quickly as it can.
Unfortunately for L.A., this desperately necessary project — one of the most important urban transit schemes in the nation — is also extremely expensive, likely to cost between $4 and $6 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars. Limitations on the amount of funding available, since much of the new tax revenues will be spent on projects elsewhere in the region for geographical equity and political expediency, mean that the full 9-mile line cannot be completed until 2036, a disappointment for the Mayor, who wants his pet project done as quickly as possible. Thus Mr. Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan, which would speed completion on all twelve of the city’s planned transit corridors to 2020 instead of 2040 as currently funded.
If the Crenshaw corridor can be financed through low-interest federal loans to be paid back by tax revenues over the next 30 years, the same rules could apply to the Westside subway. It’s just that this time, not only will L.A. be asking for several times as much money in loans, but it also hopes to win more than a billion dollars in federal New Start transit capital program grants for the line. It’s an ambitious undertaking.
Nonetheless, it is not what everyone hoped it might have been, primarily because there simply isn’t enough money to pay for all of the subway projects that have been discussed. The staff report reflects reality about how much money L.A. can afford to spend on the project: Instead of digging the subway all the way to Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean, as Mr. Villaraigosa had implied was his top priority, the line will stop at the V.A. Hospital just west of UCLA and Westwood, some 3.75 miles short of the sea. A further extension will have to wait for another few decades.
In addition, the relatively recent idea for a “Pink Line” that would extend west from the existing Red Line Hollywood/Highland stop through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills and then connect to the Wilshire line a bit west of La Cienega Boulevard, was shut out by staff, who argue that this project would not meet federal cost-ridership requirements. Though the Metro board could ultimately make a different decision, a connection structure that would allow this routing to be completed in the future is likely not to be built as it would add significantly to overall costs. This increases the (cheaper) possibility of extending the Crenshaw light rail line north partially in a subway into these same areas, an option that would add to the benefits of the Crenshaw line in general, now a bit on the margins in terms of expected ridership per cost.
One major issue remains: Whether to run the new subway through Century City (a commercial center just east of Westwood) on Santa Monica Boulevard or Constellation Boulevard. The former option would reduce the usefulness of the new station dramatically since one side of Santa Monica is a golf course; 1,000 feet southeast, a stop on Constellation would provide much better access to the heart of this vibrant commercial district. Unfortunately, the City of Beverly Hills has fought the proposal to build the subway there because it would require tunneling under the local high school. As most people who have lived in cities with modern underground rail systems know, a well-designed subway produces little vibration: This shouldn’t be a problem. Metro should push strongly for the Constellation option to ensure that this station is well-used.
Overall, the recommendation of staff to concentrate on the extension from downtown to Westwood is understandable, since this alternative would produce the highest number of station boardings and trips per mile, making it the most cost-effective proposal. And here, paring down the project still produces a major expansion program.
Image above: Wilshire/Normandie Subway Station, by Flickr user Ray_from_LA (cc)