City leaders seek to speed downtown L.A. streetcar's 36-year funding wait

After years of grappling with fluctuating cost estimates and a persistent funding shortfall, advocates for the downtown Los Angeles streetcar scored a toehold last fall: $200 million for the project, to be paid through revenue from a new sales tax.

But the commitment, through Measure M, came with a catch: The money would not be available until 2053.

Faced with a potential 36-year wait for funds, the City Council agreed Friday to ask the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to investigate whether the money could be released sooner — and whether jumping the line would harm the schedules and budgets of dozens of transit projects in line for Measure M funds.

Despite the uncertainty over funding, lawmakers said the streetcar could open as early July 2021, if the Measure M contributions are expedited or other sources of money are found. Councilman Jose Huizar called the schedule “realistic at this time,” adding that he “would have liked to be much further ahead.”

Officials also said the streetcar’s cost estimate has risen to $290.7 million, an increase of 3% over an earlier figure of $282 million. Earlier estimates have vacillated from $125 million to $327.8 million.

“Before, we were kind of moving around, trying to figure out what were the exact numbers,” Huizar said. But the additional engineering work on the project has made him confident that the new figure is accurate, he said.

Councilwoman Nury Martinez initially balked at exploring a way to accelerate funds for the streetcar, saying she couldn’t support a plan that could jeopardize a long-planned rail line through parts of her district in the San Fernando Valley.

“This project is third to last on the list,” Martinez said. “I’m just worried that if we start having this conversation about accelerating projects this far down on the list … something's gotta give.”

Measure M projects can be accelerated only if the money can be moved without hurting the schedule or budgets of other projects that are ahead in line, Metro spokeswoman Kim Upton said. Moving the funds would also require a two-thirds vote by the agency’s board of directors.

“You can’t take from Peter to pay Paul,” Upton said.

Measure M is expected to raise about $120 billion over four decades, $42 billion of which will go to transit construction. The Purple Line subway to Westwood and rail lines to Pacoima, Claremont, Artesia and Torrance are all slated to receive funding before the streetcar.

That long list of projects puts the streetcar in a tough spot, said David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University.

“The fact that the streetcar is getting funded in 2053 suggests that whoever was writing the measures didn’t think the streetcar was very much of a priority,” King said. “At this rate, all the adults who are pushing for it now are going to be dead or retired by then.”

Still, he said, if city officials want to move forward on the project, they can always seek funds elsewhere.

City officials are seeking a grant of up to $100 million from the Federal Transit Administration, but whether those funds will be available in coming years is unclear. President Trump’s proposed budget axed the grant program, known as Small Starts, as well as another grant that has funded more than a dozen U.S. streetcars.

The streetcar has $62.5 million to $80 million available from a property tax district created along its proposed route, which was approved by downtown voters in 2012, as well as about $11 million from other sources.

The streetcar would run south on Broadway from 1st Street to 11th Street, west to Staples Center and north through the financial district before returning to the Civic Center on Hill Street.

A train would arrive every seven minutes during rush hour and every 10-15 minutes during the rest of the day, transportation officials said. Daily ridership would reach about 4,100 trips when the route begins service and could rise to 5,400 by 2040, according to an analysis prepared by Metro.

Two legs of the proposed route — Broadway and 7th Street — have been narrowed to one lane to make way for bike lanes and pedestrian improvements. Running streetcars in the same lane as cars and trucks is impractical, experts say, because it leaves the trains vulnerable to the whims of traffic.

Since the streetcar was first proposed eight years ago, downtown has become one of L.A.'s hottest neighborhoods, with the traffic to match.

The estimated speed is 6 mph during afternoon rush hour, and faster during other periods, city officials said.

“That’s probably optimistic,” King said. “It just takes one truck or one car to slow the whole thing down.” Still, he said, there is a way to make streetcars run more efficiently: give them their own lanes.

Planners said in the project’s environmental review that restriping some streets to add turn lanes, and adding a streetcar-only option to stop lights, would help the trains run more efficiently.

By contrast, they wrote, a lane reserved for the streetcar would yield “marginal further improvements” but would require concessions from businesses and residents along Broadway. That could include limiting access to parking lots and driveways or eliminating the rows of tables and chairs in what was formerly a southbound travel lane.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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