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Future for Rail, Buses in Valley Uncertain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time the Red Line subway is built to North Hollywood--sometime after the turn of the century--$6.1 billion will have been spent and the trains won’t even run past Lankershim Boulevard.

And while the political clout in other parts of the county has virtually guaranteed subway service, the fractured politics of transportation in the Valley leave the future of rail--and even buses--in serious doubt.

Work on the Red Line extension to Sepulveda Boulevard will not even begin before 2007, if then, and politicians such as Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky have even declared the project dead or dying.

The potential demise of the extension of the line beyond North Hollywood has put the Valley in a precarious position. Still not united behind an alternative approach, and unable to effectively lobby even for a timely continuation of the Red Line, local officials may find themselves powerless to meet the worsening transportation needs.

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“You have to make up your mind before you can get in line and try to get funding to build it,” said David Mieger, MTA’s project manager for the San Fernando Valley Transportation Corridor. “So as long as we can’t make up our minds, it means other cities can get in line in front of us in Washington, competing for those federal dollars.”

In an effort to create a consensus with which to lobby for bus lines and other alternative means of transportation, a group of powerful business leaders have convened a summit on Valley transportation issues, to be held Friday.

Organized under the banner of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley by Riordan confidant David Fleming and Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. Vice Chairman Nathan Brogin, the summit will include presentations from some of the region’s top transportation experts, as well as Riordan, Yaroslavsky, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, local NAACP Chairman Zedar Broadus and the heads of several homeowner associations. Former U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler and former Assemblyman Richard Katz will also attend.

The idea, Fleming said, is to unite behind a single solution--in his opinion, to be based on buses instead of trains--and then present an unwavering front to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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“We go to MTA and say, ‘Here’s what we want to do and here’s the price tag,’ ” Fleming said. “And the people will finally make a decision by consensus as to what they want and, believe me, they’ll get it.”

But that kind of consensus may be difficult to build.

The alternatives are varied and plans to implement them are fuzzy.

The first alternative, one strongly opposed by Fleming and other summit organizers, is to continue to build the Red Line. Most local elected officials say it’s no longer feasible to build it exactly as envisioned--as an underground subway. But light rail or even above-ground heavy rail along the same route would be significantly cheaper and easier to build.

If the light rail system cannot go as far as Warner Center, as originally proposed for the subway, supporters say at least finish it as far as Sepulveda Boulevard.

Building a light rail train above ground to Warner Center would cost just $600 million, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, as contrasted with as much as $1.6 billion if it remains a subway.

Among the supporters of such a plan are Yaroslavsky, Councilwoman Laura Chick and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), all of whose districts would include portions of the line.

Neither Chick nor Sherman were invited to make a presentation at the summit, but Chick said in an interview that light rail, because it is permanent, can move large numbers of people quickly and efficiently and is not subject to traffic jams, should therefore be the backbone of the Valley’s transportation network.

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“If we are the only geographic region that doesn’t have rail transit, we will end up some time in the future being a ghost town,” Chick said. “What businesses will want to locate there? Who will want to live there?”

To be sure, some of what’s at work among opponents of rail lines is simply politics: Many in City Hall and in the business community oppose the rail line, with its high cost and disruption of neighborhoods during construction.

But it’s also true that it will most likely be 20 years before the line is built--if it is built at all. The Federal Transit Administration has put all future payments to the MTA on hold while the beleaguered agency reworks its plan for the region and justifies its budget projections.

Even Sherman, a supporter of the Red Line, said there was a “significant chance” it would never be built.

So why not, say Fleming and others, use the money for a web of buses that would really crisscross the Valley. Trains, these bus supporters say, don’t work in L.A. because the region is not dense enough. One could get off an east-west train, bus supporters say, and still have to walk 10 blocks to the north or south to get to work.

With a bus plan, summit Co-Chairman Brogin said, routes could be augmented by vans and jitneys, which would take passengers on short hops that are off the larger routes.

Riordan and his supporters say they are most interested in a high-tech diesel bus system used in Curatiba, Brazil; Ottawa, Canada, and a few other cities. There, the buses are constructed somewhat like train cars, and carry up to 100 passengers.

That plan, however, has been met with scorn by Yaroslavsky and Antonovich, who dismiss it as the unfeasible product of a junket to Brazil for Riordan staff members.

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“The San Fernando Valley has become the laboratory for every knee-jerk, shoot-from-the-hip idea that any staffer has been able to come up with,” fumed Yaroslavsky, who said Riordan only supports buses here because he wants money for trains to go to the Eastside and Pasadena.

The Burbank-Chandler corridor, where the subway was initially intended to run, is not an appropriate place for an above-ground diesel bus system, he said.

“If we bought the Chandler corridor for $300 million in order to put buses on it, someone ought to be punished for it,” Yaroslavsky said. “This is not Curatiba, Brazil.”

A third plan, to be presented by Antonovich, involves a proposal for a public-private partnership to build a rail line along the 101, 134 and 210 freeways.

While earlier versions of the plan involved public expenditures, Antonovich said that has changed, and costs of the $3-billion project would be borne by a group of investors. The state would be asked to provide land along the freeway for the train.

Under Antonovich’s proposal, the train service would be augmented by improved bus service in a new MTA subregion meant to serve the San Fernando Valley.

Policymakers at the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG), the body that must approve any transportation plan for Southern California, say they have discussed these new alternatives but have not yet drawn any conclusions.

“We’re looking forward to this Valley summit as one forum to hear what the public has to say about transportation issues and solutions,” said Jim Gosnell, the agency’s director of planning and policy.

The only way to tell whether trains or buses are preferable, he said, is to compare the effectiveness of each, both in Southern California and other places.

“In some cities, rail is the backbone, in other cities, bus is the backbone,” Gosnell said. “It depends on the land-use patterns and the travel patterns.”

If Valley residents and leaders do reach a consensus on the type of transit system needed for the area, it will still take some lobbying and some hardball politics to push it through.

Both SCAG and the MTA must approve any plans for the region. That means a proposal, once it’s put together, must be supported by the 70-member SCAG board, made up of elected officials from six Southern California counties, and the 13-member MTA board.

Funding for Valley specific projects has been hard to come by because of the lack of a united front.

Riordan and his allies on the board, including Eastside Councilman Richard Alatorre, have shown more support for the Eastside and Pasadena extensions of the Red and Blue lines than they have for the Red Line extension in the Valley.

By comparison, according to Yaroslavsky, when Valley projects must compete with other parts of the region for MTA support, it’s difficult to muster more than three or four votes.

“It’s been a lonely battle,” Yaroslavsky said.


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