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MTA Board Backs Delay in Rail Line Across Valley

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Forced by an urgent need to win back Washington’s cash and confidence, the MTA board Wednesday grudgingly approved a plan that delays construction of a San Fernando Valley rail line for years while promising to improve bus service and finish the Los Angeles subway.

The action came after Mayor Richard Riordan warned fellow members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board that if they failed to approve the “recovery plan” demanded by federal officials, “We’re liable to get zero” money from Congress this year.

“If a person waits for a perfect plan, nothing will happen,” Riordan said after the vote. “This is not a perfect plan, but we have to have a plan if we’re going to be in the running.”

The federal government, which is picking up a big share of the $6.1-billion subway tab, has demanded that the county transit agency get control of its finances and scale back its habit of promising more than it can deliver. At stake in the next two weeks is MTA’s request for $100 million from Congress for subway extensions to North Hollywood and the Eastside.

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While nine board members approved the plan as an imperfect but necessary compromise, three dissenters objected that the proposal is based on shaky financial and political assumptions that could once again leave commuters with even less mass transit than promised.

“We’re misleading ourselves. We’re certainly misleading the public,” said county supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky. “What you have is a recovery plan that is flawed, that is shaky at best, where there is a high probability of sending the MTA into a further tailspin.”

MTA Board Chairman Larry Zarian surprised his colleagues by voting against the plan. “I’m not supporting a shell game,” said the Glendale mayor.

The plan, which now goes to Federal Transit Administrator Gordon Linton for approval, calls for pushing back the start of construction of the long-promised east-west Valley line from the original 2004 date until 2007 or even 2011.

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Linton said in a telephone interview after the vote that the MTA is “moving in the right direction” but that he’s still assessing portions of the plan, including how the agency plans to deliver on millions of dollars in promised savings from “efficiencies.”

Riordan, elected with strong support from the Valley, won approval of an attempt to put some kind of mass transit project in the Valley back on track, proposing that the MTA solicit proposals for transit projects on the Burbank-Chandler right-of-way from private industry.

A united front of seven Valley City Council members and several other lawmakers demanded that the MTA board move up the cross-valley line. And Councilman Hal Bernson said they may now press their case in the City Council, where the fate of $200 million essential to the plan’s success will be decided. The MTA is counting on $200 million in city funds to help pay for subway construction.

“The MTA has taken the Valley for granted and keeps postponing us and putting other things in front,” Bernson said. “If we don’t get ours,” Bernson said, there is a sense that “nobody should get theirs. Maybe that’s what it takes.”

The plan is the second one adopted by the MTA board this year in an effort to mitigate federal concerns about the agency’s operations.

The MTA board in January revised the construction schedule for the subway, which calls for completing an extension to North Hollywood by 2000 but delaying opening of extensions to the Eastside until 2004 and to the Mid-City until 2009. The plan adopted Wednesday seeks to open the Mid-City line in 2008, but only if Congress provides another $100 million.

But Linton rejected the earlier plan. He demanded that the MTA set up a reserve fund to ensure the agency implements court-ordered bus improvements--now estimated to cost $922 million between now and the year 2013--spend $1.6 billion to replace its aging fleet of buses and to pay for cost overruns and funding shortages on the subway.

Federal officials regarded the MTA’s estimates of local sales tax revenues as too optimistic and told the agency to reduce its projections by $2.1 billion between 1999 and 2013. MTA officials stress that the construction on the east-west Valley line could still get underway in 2007 if tax revenues come in closer to their projections.

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The MTA needs to satisfy Linton because his agency can be a key ally in the fight for federal transportation funds.

The plan adopted Wednesday also put construction of the downtown Los Angeles-to-Pasadena line back on track, opening in 2001, but requires approval of a $54 million loan from the state Legislature. A bill providing for the state loan was introduced Monday in Sacramento.

MTA board member and Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who pressed for adoption of the plan, complained that Linton was making unreasonable demands of Los Angeles. “In essence, he’s telling us how to run our own shop,” he said.


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