Gold Line

A Metro Gold Line operator guides a train heading west toward downtown Los Angeles. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / November 11, 2009)

A major downtown project aimed at closing one of the most frustrating gaps in Los Angeles' rapidly expanding rail network moved a step closer to reality Thursday when federal officials signed an agreement to provide $670 million in funding.

At a Little Tokyo ceremony, county transportation officials accepted the pledge of money for a 1.9-mile, $1.4-billion underground link between unconnected light-rail lines that skirt opposite ends of downtown, one near Union Station and the other near Staples Center. When the Downtown Regional Connector opens in 2020, officials say, passengers will be able to travel across the county on single trains, eliminating two transfers and $3 a trip in extra fares.

"Los Angeles is replete with half-finished transit projects," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Metro board member, told the gathering. The downtown connector will correct one of three glaring shortcomings in Los Angeles' rail transit system, Garcetti said. The others are the Green Line, which stops nearly three miles from Los Angeles International Airport; and the Red Line subway, which fails to stop at the Hollywood Bowl, the mayor said.

Linking the Blue, Expo and Gold light-rail lines in downtown is considered crucial to attracting new riders to the multibillion-dollar rail network, officials say. They say that closing the downtown gap may shave as much as 20 minutes off trips and attract 17,000 new riders.

The connector will add three new light-rail stations downtown: at 1st Street and Central Avenue; 2nd Street and Broadway; and 2nd and Hope streets. As part of the project, the rail system is expected to add user-friendly upgrades to the light-rail lines, including Wi-Fi and a feature telling passengers when the next train will arrive.

The connector is also receiving a $160-million low-interest federal loan, secured with the help of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee. A federal spending bill that President Obama signed last month included $65 million for the connector, the first installment in the $670-million sum requested by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The combined federal grants and loans will cover more than 60% of the estimated project cost. The remaining outlays will come from state and local sources, including $217 million from Measure R, the half-cent sales tax hike Los Angeles County voters approved in 2008.

"The city can only work if it builds its infrastructure to move people off the 110 and the 405... and into public transit," Feinstein said at the ceremony "This makes that much more possible."

Current schedules call for the connector contract to be awarded in April or May, and tunneling to begin next year, Metro spokesman Marc Littman said.

Another key rail project — the first phase of the westward extension of the Wilshire Boulevard subway — is expected to receive a $1.25-billion federal grant this spring. That line is supposed to reach La Cienega Boulevard by 2023.

laura.nelson@latimes.com