The fate of the Wilshire Corridor as the path for a western extension of the Red Line rail service could be settled Wednesday when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board is scheduled to decide whether to conduct an environmental impact study of the route.
If the board approves the study, the Wilshire Corridor will be considered as an alternative to the more southerly Pico/San Vicente extension, currently the agency's preferred alignment.
The Wilshire Corridor had been the chosen Red Line route until a 1985 methane gas explosion in the Fairfax area, caused by work under the roadway. The MTA decided to reroute the Red Line at Western Avenue, bringing it southwest to the intersection of Pico and San Vicente boulevards to avoid hitting other pockets of methane.
But the subsequent discovery of hydrogen sulfide gas near Pico and San Vicente has raised questions about that alignment, prompting discussion of two alternatives--the Wilshire route and a parallel corridor to the north along 6th Street. For the moment, the prime focus of attention--and debate--is the Wilshire route.
On one side are those who argue that new tunneling techniques have virtually eliminated the possibility of another methane gas explosion under Wilshire Boulevard. Councilman Marvin Braude and several community groups want to conduct studies to determine, among other things, whether the corridor is free from hydrogen sulfide gas.
On the other side are Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles), County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and others, who want to bring the Red Line to Pico/San Vicente and connect it to the proposed Crenshaw-Prairie line, which would run to the airport. The MTA put the Crenshaw line plan on the back burner when it issued its proposed long-range plan revisions.
As it prepares to take up the Red Line extension issue, the MTA is being lobbied hard by, among others, Dixon and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). Both congressmen sent letters this month to Franklin White, the MTA's chief executive officer.
Waxman, who got a federal law passed after the 1985 explosion to keep the Red Line away from Wilshire, suggested that if the route is considered, the study should be done independently of the MTA.
"I want to reiterate my belief that an outside, independent study is necessary for a truly objective analysis of the safety risks involved in moving from Pico/San Vicente back to Wilshire," he said in his letter.
But advocates of the Wilshire Corridor question Waxman's apparent support for a study. He has agreed to environmental studies of the Wilshire Corridor in the past, they argue, but only when he has had a hand in selecting the consultants who conduct them.
Dixon, on the other hand, has flatly opposed the Wilshire environmental impact study, which the MTA says could cost up to $2 million. A member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Dixon said that the MTA would jeopardize its federal funding for the Red Line if it changes course by embarking on a study of the Wilshire Corridor.
"There is already concern that the current climate in Congress may not allow for the high levels of federal funding Metro Rail has received in past years," he wrote. "I am very concerned about the range of funding issues that redesignation of the alignment might raise."
Dixon further pointed out that the Pico/San Vicente route "will provide service to a broad and ethnically diverse community who have been traditionally underserved and neglected."
Serving these neighborhoods also is the focus of Burke, who has aligned herself with Dixon on the Red Line issue. The proposed Crenshaw/Prairie line, which she strongly supports, would connect with the Red Line at the Pico/San Vicente detour and bring train service through the Crenshaw District to the airport.
Although she once supported studying Wilshire as a site, Burke said, the strong warnings from Dixon and Waxman won her over. Unless both congressmen agree to study Wilshire, Burke said, she will continue to oppose the route.
"We're in a very tenuous situation in Washington," Burke said. "We may not get the funds we need."
Such arguments do not sway such Wilshire route supporters as Braude. In a March 8 letter to Burke, he argued that having the Red Line run along the densely populated Wilshire corridor would help improve air quality on the Westside.
"It appeared so obvious that the impressive line of high-rise towers along Wilshire west of Western (Avenue), if served by Metro Rail, would add so much to the air quality improvements stemming from a 'critical mass' of destinations served by Metro Rail," he said. "The adage 'think globally, act locally' couldn't be more true than at this moment."
The proposed Wilshire Corridor study comes to the MTA board without a recommendation from the agency's Planning and Programming Committee. The planning panel decided recently not to take a position, rejecting a suggestion of the MTA staff to favor the Pico/San Vicente alignment.