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NEWS ANALYSIS : Numerous Hurdles Remain for Metro Rail Extension

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don’t buy tickets on the San Fernando Valley rail line just yet.

A lot of things have to occur almost exactly as planned if the Metro Rail extension across the East Valley is to be built starting in 1996, as decreed Wednesday by Los Angeles County transit officials.

Scanning the many obstacles, Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, who represents an East Valley district, dismissed the plan approved by the county Transportation Commission as “all smoke and mirrors.”

Other elected officials are more optimistic about prospects for the $2.2-billion plan to build the Valley extension of the downtown-to-North Hollywood Metro Rail subway and two other rail lines elsewhere over the next 11 years. But no one is saying the plan is a done deal.

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Among the major hurdles:

California voter approval in June of $18.5 billion in added statewide transportation spending, financed largely by a doubling of the state gas tax.

Continuation of federal rail building subsidies by the Bush Administration, which recently signaled that it wants to scale back such grants.

Getting a grip on cost overruns on three rail projects already under way and on the two new projects scheduled ahead of the Valley line.

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Agreement by Los Angeles and other cities to make up a more than 20% shortfall in financing for the 11-year construction plan.

Then there is the uncertainty about the outcome of a non-binding referendum on Valley ballots in June. Voters will be asked to chose one of three rival Valley rail plans or no rail at all. Also, there is the possible resurgence of homeowner opposition should anything befall a bill pending in Sacramento that would guarantee that the Valley line be built underground in residential neighborhoods of North Hollywood and Van Nuys.

The $1.3-billion Valley line would be built westward from the northern terminus in North Hollywood of the downtown Metro Rail, ending at the San Diego Freeway between Victory Boulevard and Oxnard Street.

The 5.6-mile line would be in the Southern Pacific railroad right of way that parallels Chandler and Victory boulevards. At the insistence of homeowner groups, the westward extension would remain underground east of Hazeltine Avenue, then be elevated between Van Nuys and Sepulveda boulevards, ending at ground level roughly on the site now occupied by the Sepulveda Drive-In.

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The other lines approved Wednesday are a 13.5-mile, $688-million light-rail line from downtown to Pasadena and a 2.5-mile, $215-million northern spur to Los Angeles International Airport from the western terminus of the Century Freeway light-rail line, now under construction.

Under the commission-adopted schedule, the LAX spur would be opened in 1994, the Pasadena system in 1998 and the cross-Valley line in 2001, the same year that Metro Rail is scheduled to reach North Hollywood.

The plan’s foremost test will occur June 5 when California voters will decide on three ballot measures to increase the state gasoline tax by nine cents per gallon and to allow the sale of billions of dollars in rail construction bonds.

Proponents of Propositions 108, 111 and 116 are optimistic because little organized opposition has materialized and early polls show all three winning, although the gas-tax measure appears to be only slightly ahead, while the bond measures have comfortable margins.

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If the gas-tax measure fails, commissioners say they will have only enough money to build one more line in this century. Planners have not yet calculated what the commission could do if the gas tax fails and one or both of the bond measures passes.

The commission’s 11-year construction plan also assumes that the federal government will continue contributing about $150 million annually--about one-third of the nationwide total of federal rail construction subsidies--to the downtown-to-North Hollywood portion of Metro Rail.

Citing a recent Bush Administration suggestion that local governments should be shouldering a greater share of the cost of transportation projects, future federal subsidies are “anything but safe,” says Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represents a West Valley district.

Since the cross-Valley project is last in line of the three approved Wednesday, it is the most likely to be delayed or canceled if federal subsidies are slashed, Picus said.

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The commission plan also rests on the hope that affected cities--chiefly Los Angeles, but also Pasadena and South Pasadena--will make up a hefty shortfall in money needed to build the three lines.

The gap between revenue and expected cost is projected to be $496 million in 1997, when the extra money is needed to keep to the construction schedule approved Wednesday.

Again, the Valley Metro Rail extension, by virtue of its position at the end of the line, is the most likely to be held up by a shortage of money, Valley elected officials say.

But this is an area where the Los Angeles City Council, which has a solid majority of Valley rail advocates, might be able to exert some control on matters.

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Wachs argues that rather than building the Pasadena or LAX lines, the commission should keep its longstanding pledge to build Metro Rail to North Hollywood as soon as possible, then build the cross-Valley extension.

When the commission comes looking for money to make up the half a billion-dollar shortfall, “I suspect there are enough votes on the City Council to make that . . . a reality,” Wachs said.

Other elected officials, however, have adopted a less-unyielding posture, and several have said they are convinced that the pace at which Metro Rail is built from downtown to North Hollywood is controlled by federal subsidies and cannot be speeded up.

Several also say they have been convinced by commission staff members that it would make no sense to complete the cross-Valley extension before the Metro Rail main line reaches North Hollywood from downtown.

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Since the Valley extension is not slated to have a maintenance yard, it would be all but impossible to operate, staff members say. Patronage would also be dismally low because the line would not connect to downtown or even cross the entire Valley, planners say.

“I’d like to see the Valley first, but the commission plan makes sense,” said Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents Encino and who, with state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana), has taken a leading role in building the coalition of homeowner and business leaders supporting the Valley Metro Rail extension.

Even if the three cities refuse to chip in enough to cover the shortfall, commissioners say they may be able to build all three lines by building some rail segments single-track for now, by eliminating stations or by entering into joint development agreements with developers who would build stations or parking garages in return for permits to construct commercial buildings.

There have been cost overruns on both rail projects already under way.

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The commission-built Long Beach-Los Angeles light-rail line, scheduled to open on time in July, is about 5% over budget.

But the first phase of Metro Rail--a 4.4-mile section from downtown to Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street--is less than half-built and is nearly 10% over budget and nearly two years behind its scheduled 1992 completion.

The commission, saying it can do the job better, is in the process of wresting control of that project from the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

The 11-year construction plan sets aside 5% for cost overruns, but some commissioners think that that won’t be enough.

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On June 5, voters in the Valley will also have a chance to vote on the three rail plans that the commission studied before settling on the 5.6-mile Metro Rail extension. In addition to the adopted line, options on the ballot are a monorail or magnetic-levitation system along the Ventura Freeway from Universal City to Warner Center, and a ground-level, light-rail line along the Southern Pacific right of way from North Hollywood to Warner Center.

Valley voters will also be able to vote for no rail project at all.

Supervisors put the non-binding referendum on the ballot at the behest of Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who has been searching for ways to keep alive his plan for a monorail or mag-lev system along the freeway.

The commission study concluded that such a line could be built across the Valley for about $1.8 billion, but Rosa Kortizya, Antonovich’s transportation deputy, said studies by county engineers suggest that the system could be built for about $1.4 billion.

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Antonovich, a longtime foe of the Metro Rail subway and an advocate of futuristic public transportation technology, has suggested that all or part of the cost of a monorail could be paid by a private firm in exchange for the right to operate the system for a fixed number of years.

Should the monorail option finish at the top and the state’s $18.5-billion spending package loses, Antonovich is waiting to renew his push for an advanced-technology line along the freeway, Kortizya said.

Also waiting in the wings is a proposal by RTD Director Nikolas Patsaouras to build the Valley line as a subway under Ventura Boulevard from Universal City to Warner Center.

Patsaouras’ plan, which was studied briefly in 1983, would cost well over $2 billion and displace many businesses, but would draw a higher ridership than any other potential Valley route, commission planners say.

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Biding their time are the Valley’s anti-rail crusaders, who in the past have turned out crowds of up to 700 angry residents at public hearings in the Valley to protest any elevated system along the Ventura Freeway or ground-level system along the Southern Pacific right of way.

In November, 1988, about 300 protesters trekked to a commission meeting downtown to lambaste plans to lay tracks above-ground in residential areas. Commissioners, stunned by the display of anger, halted all consideration of Valley rail options until the City Council petitioned for a restart about six months later.

In recent months, with most Valley elected officials committed to a Metro Rail extension that would be underground in residential areas, the influence of the once-powerful coalitions has plummeted. Most established homeowner groups, previously worried about noise and ground vibrations from an above-ground system in residential areas, have endorsed the Metro Rail extension.

The commission meeting Wednesday at which the 11-year construction plan was adopted was attended by only about a dozen Valley protesters, mostly the leaders of the three coalitions that had led massive protests in the past.

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The protesters endorsed a statement by Gerald A. Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, denouncing all rail systems as “money down a rat hole,” and saying that most rail projects built in the past two decades exceeded their expected costs and failed to reach ridership projections.

Also, Donald Schultz, a Van Nuys Homeowners Assn. leader who has been canvassing a single-family neighborhood next to the Sepulveda Drive-In seeking to drum up opposition to terminating the Metro Rail extension near the houses, turned in 40 signatures opposing the commission plan.

Protest leaders could gain new recruits if a bill by Robbins that would mandate the costly undergrounding between the Hollywood Freeway and Hazeltine should fail to pass.

Robbins has warned that failure of the bill would lead many to conclude that the line will eventually be placed above-ground for financial reasons, “no matter what verbal promises the commission makes now.”

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The public hearing that preceded the commission vote on its 11-year plan disclosed another factor--hostility to the Valley from other regions of the county, which could be a factor if the rail cards are again shuffled by loss of the gas-tax measure June 5.

Duarte Mayor John Fasana drew widespread applause from a room full of other elected officials when he attacked the commission for including nearly four miles of subway in the Valley project, saying the high cost of tunneling would lessen prospects for future lines to his community.

“If a subway is not necessary in Lincoln Heights,” Fasana said, “then it certainly is not necessary in Van Nuys.”


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