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County Panel Gets Turn to Study 4 Options : Rail Route Selection Inches Forward

Times Staff Writer

After months of fierce debate by an advisory panel and by the Los Angeles City Council, the question of where to build a San Fernando Valley rail line goes today to the agency that has the final say--the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

But there is little likelihood that the commission will exercise that final say anytime soon.

Despite years of deliberation, the commission’s staff is urging more study before commissioners begin sorting through proposed routes or decide whether the Valley line should be ground-level light rail or an extension of the Metro Rail subway.

The recommended study will take at least a year, staff members say, guaranteeing continued ferment among opponents and proponents of various Valley rail proposals.

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“I just don’t know how this Valley rail business will come out,” said Commissioner Christine Reed, a Santa Monica councilwoman. “It’s very complicated and has all sorts of political overtones and needs study.”

3 Possible Routes

Reed heads the commission’s Transit Committee, which this afternoon will take up a City Council-approved resolution urging the study of three possible Valley light-rail routes plus a rival plan to extend the Metro Rail subway across the Valley.

Recommended light-rail routes are along the Ventura Freeway between Universal City and Warner Center, along a little-used freight line that parallels Chandler and Victory boulevards and Topham Street between North Hollywood and Warner Center, and along the Southern Pacific railroad right of way that parallels San Fernando Road from Union Station to Sylmar.

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No precise route has been suggested for extending the downtown-to-North Hollywood subway west from its planned northern terminus at Lankershim and Chandler boulevards.

Each proposal has well-organized support or opposition or both.

Residents’ Opposition

Most vocal have been homeowner organizations fighting the two east-west light-rail plans, which would bring trains into residential neighborhoods.

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In November, after nearly four years of study, commissioners appeared to be on the verge of picking a route.

But in the face of mushrooming opposition to all five routes under consideration, commissioners abruptly canceled a $1.6-million study and tossed the issue into the council’s lap.

The council, equally loath to make such a politically sensitive decision, in turn created a 31-member advisory panel to pick a route.

However, after four months of deliberation, the panel found itself in a three-way deadlock.

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While 21 members favored an east-west route, they could not agree on whether it should be the freeway route or the Chandler-Victory route. Finally, the 21 sent the council a majority report urging further study of both routes.

But eight members wanted only the San Fernando Road route, which they said would serve disadvantaged communities in the northeast Valley.

After several hours of debate, the council three weeks ago voted to send all three routes to the commission and attached a motion that encourages, but does not demand, that the line be underground in residential neighborhoods.

Most transit experts agree that if a substantial portion of a Valley line is underground, it makes more sense economically to extend Metro Rail westward rather than force passengers to switch from a high-speed Metro Rail train to a light-rail system in North Hollywood.

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As expected, the commission staff urged in its report that the San Fernando Road line be dropped.

“The commission long ago determined that an east-west route was the most needed route,” said Richard Stanger, commission program development director. “The Sylmar line does not meet that need.”

But to the surprise of many involved in the debate on Valley rail, the staff report does not frown on the possibility of extending Metro Rail west across the Valley in lieu of a light-rail line.

Councilman Hal Bernson, arguing against pushing for a cross-Valley subway, has warned that to demand Metro Rail or nothing is “saying that we are not going to have mass transit in the San Fernando Valley.”

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Stanger said: “It may not be possible to build it all at once and it may take quite some time, probably until after the year 2000 before a Valley Metro Rail extension could be in operation. But there is some merit to the idea, if the Valley wants to wait.”

The first phase of Metro Rail, from downtown to MacArthur Park, is scheduled to be in operation in 1992, while the segment from the park to North Hollywood is to be completed by 1997. The two segments together carry a $3.5-billion price tag.

The staff report estimates it would cost from $2.7 billion to $3.2 billion to extend the line 15 miles across the Valley, but that amount could be reduced substantially if the line were elevated or at ground level in commercial and industrial areas.

By contrast, the staff estimates it would cost $700 million to $900 million to construct a light-rail line along the Chandler-Victory route, with the tracks placed in a shallow trench to reduce noise in residential areas.

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And the freeway route, almost all of which would be elevated, would cost $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion, the report states.

The commission, which is building rail lines with the extra half-cent sales tax that county voters approved in 1980, estimates it will have about $800 million to build rail projects over the next 12 years.

However, a Valley Metro Rail extension would be eligible for federal aid, which is covering more than half the cost of the first two subway segments.

On the other hand, Stanger said, the federal government is not expected to authorize more funds for Los Angeles County until 1996, when Metro Rail’s second phase is nearing completion, and both the Westside and Eastside are poised to push for their own Metro Rail extensions.

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“The competition is expected to be fierce for federal funds,” he said, “and because the political climate in Washington changes so rapidly, there is no way to predict how much we might get eight years from now.”


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