Los Angeles, a city defined by its love affair with the automobile, will pass a major mass transit milestone next weekend when the last leg of the $4.7-billion Metro Rail subway project opens to the San Fernando Valley.
It has been a longer and more arduous journey than the rail line’s length would suggest.
Almost a decade and a half after the groundbreaking for the first segment of the subway in downtown Los Angeles, the sleek silver and red trains will speed passengers at 70 mph through twin tunnels deep beneath the Santa Monica Mountains.
But now, after spending billions building the most expensive 17 miles of subway in American history, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces a critical test.
Will the rapid transit system, which was sold to voters as an alternative to freeway gridlock, work as promised?
Will the agony of crossing the Cahuenga Pass during the morning and evening commute be relieved?
The answers to these questions--and others--are uncertain.
Amid much fanfare, the last 6.3 miles of the Red Line subway will be dedicated at a VIP reception Friday. The last three architecturally unique stations, at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, Universal City, and North Hollywood, will open to passengers before dawn Saturday.
Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles), the subway’s leading advocate on Capitol Hill, is thrilled that opening day is near. “It can no longer be said this is a subway to nowhere. It’s a subway to the Valley of our city,” he said. “Now we have a real system!”
All next weekend, rides on the subway from Union Station to the Valley will be free. But after the opening weekend crowds disperse and the free fares end, the real test begins.
In the nation’s most populous county--home to nearly 10 million residents and 6 million motor vehicles--the subway’s “overall effect on the regional transportation system is very, very modest,” said Brian Taylor, associate director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
William Fulton, author of “The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles,” says the city “is almost totally dominated by cars and this is not going to change that. What we really have is a very limited rail transit system connecting a series of business and entertainment centers.”
The subway system’s value clearly depends on the prism through which one examines it.
The political significance of a rail link between the city and a Valley toying with secession cannot be underestimated, nor can the jobs and economic stimulus it provided during the last recession.
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, an ardent subway supporter, sees the Red Line’s arrival in the Valley as “a very important day in the history of Los Angeles.” He predicts the route to North Hollywood is “ultimately going to be a successful line connecting people to different parts of the city of Los Angeles.”
Yet, enthusiasm about the subway opening is tempered by the hard reality of what the project cost, how long it took to build, and how short a distance the line covers in a sprawling region badly in need of alternative ways to move large numbers of people.
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the MTA’s most powerful board member, reflects this duality. He calls the subway “a great system,” but when asked if he believes the enormous public investment was justified, the mayor unhesitatingly replies: “No. It’s not worth it. We could have spent the money much more efficiently” on other means of transportation, including a network of busways, shuttles and rapid buses.
Riordan believes this is the last subway line that will be built in Los Angeles during his lifetime. “It’s just too expensive and not flexible.” And he notes that “the people have voted on subway.”
Indeed, Los Angeles County voters in fall 1998 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that bans use of the local penny-on-the-dollar transit sales tax to build any underground extensions beyond the line to North Hollywood.
The author of that initiative was Los Angeles County Supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime subway booster turned subway foe. He acknowledges that “this is a moment of contradictions.”
On the one hand, Yaroslavsky sees the subway’s arrival in the Valley half of his district as “wonderful.” On the other, he is quick to point out that the rail project has “taken a long time and an awful lot of money” to finish.
A Steep Price Was Paid
The ability to travel at high speed underground from Union Station to North Hollywood came at a steep price, indeed. The entire rail project, including spending on canceled extensions to the Eastside and Mid-City, is projected to cost $4.7 billion.
Federal taxpayers paid 52.1% of the overall project’s cost. Local taxpayers paid 37.2% and bore the brunt of the cost overruns that plagued the first and second segments of the rail project.
The MTA sold bonds to cover most of its share, a debt that will have to be repaid through county transit sales tax receipts for decades. State taxpayers contributed about 10.7%.
MTA officials love to tout the Red Line as a 17.4-mile rail system, but passengers will be able to ride on only 16.2 miles. The remaining 1.2 miles represent crossover tracks at the end of the line and the surface route to the subway’s maintenance yard east of downtown Los Angeles.
In a first for the MTA, the third and final segment of the subway from Hollywood to North Hollywood so far has remained within its $1.3-billion budget. Crossover tracks and a ventilation shaft in the Santa Monica Mountains were dropped from the project to save money.
Charles Stark, the MTA’s construction chief, is proud that the agency avoided the kind of construction difficulties that plagued earlier stages of the subway.
“We did not let challenges become problems,” he said. “Obviously, lessons learned have definitely helped. We were very careful to make sure these things did not recur.”
One key goal was avoiding another sinkhole like the one that devoured a section of Hollywood Boulevard during tunneling in 1995. More than any other event, that sinkhole became an enduring symbol of the project’s construction woes.
Stark explained that the MTA used chemical grout to stiffen the sandy soils while machines carved their way beneath the Valley’s Lankershim Boulevard.
The MTA was determined to reduce the amount of ground settlement that had damaged buildings in Hollywood and prompted a flood of damage suits. Although some settlement and damage occurred in the Valley, it was not on the same scale as that of the earlier tunneling.
Digging through the soft shale and hard rock of the Santa Monica Mountains posed its own challenge; at one point a boring machine became stuck for weeks.
The tunnelers encountered an enormous amount of water--estimated at 800 million gallons--that had to be pumped out of the tunnels being dug between Hollywood and North Hollywood.
MTA officials estimate that the whole project required the excavation of 4.2 million cubic yards of earth and consumed 200,000 tons of steel and 1.4 million cubic yards of concrete. The thickness of the concrete walls in a portion of the subway downtown became an issue, as did other construction defects, change orders, billing practices and campaign contributions.
Although the last phase of the project was relatively trouble-free in comparison to earlier stages, Segment 3 alone has a tragic legacy. Three workers--Jaime Pasillas, Eleazar Montes and Brian Bailey--were killed in a series of accidents in 1997. They were the only fatalities on a project that had an overall injury rate higher than the national average.
Engineers faced a major challenge in crossing the Hollywood earthquake fault, which runs along the south side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Passengers may notice that shortly after the train leaves the Hollywood/Highland station bound for the Valley, there is a 300-foot section of tunnel that is significantly wider than the rest of the subway system.
USC civil engineering professor Geoffrey R. Martin explained that the diameter of the tunnel was increased to 26 feet from the standard 17 feet, 10 inches to accommodate any movement that may occur during an earthquake on the Hollywood fault.
Martin, a member of the tunnel advisory panel the MTA established after the Hollywood sinkhole, said Los Angeles has “an exceptionally safe system.” He expressed confidence that the subway tunnels will perform well during a major quake. In fact, the early segments of the subway did not sustain damage from the Northridge quake.
At their deepest point, the Santa Monica Mountains tunnels are 900 feet below Mulholland Drive. The trains actually run uphill from Hollywood because the Valley floor is higher than the basin.
Seeping Gas Changed Route
It was a quirk of fate that led to the route of the Red Line, a contorted path that looks for all the world like a gerrymandered congressional district.
The preferred alignment--the one transportation planners still believe would have been far more beneficial than the current Valley route--would extend from downtown Los Angeles to the Westside under densely developed Wilshire Boulevard.
But a spark that ignited methane gas in the basement of a Ross Dress for Less store in the Fairfax District changed all that. Twenty-one people were injured by that explosion in March 1985.
The blast and the images of flames flickering from cracks in the sidewalk near the damaged West 3rd Street store changed the course of the subway and city history.
Rep. Henry Waxman, a liberal Los Angeles Democrat, closed ranks with conservative Republican Rep. Bobbi Fiedler of Northridge in an effort to stop the subway before it got started.
After the explosion, Waxman said he tried to “put a stop to this Metro Rail system and take a second look at the whole scheme.” His unusual political alliance with Fiedler and the Reagan administration succeeded in blocking the project’s funding in the House. But subway advocates mounted a furious lobbying campaign, led by then-Mayor Tom Bradley and Rep. Dixon, and within a week they were able to restore money for construction.
After the city designated part of the Fairfax district as a methane hazard zone, Waxman struck back. Arguing that high levels of methane would pose a risk to workers building the subway, Waxman wrote into law a ban on using federal funds for subway construction any farther west on Wilshire than Crenshaw Boulevard.
That prohibition killed longtime plans to take the subway west on Wilshire to Fairfax, then north on Fairfax before heading out to the Valley.
The ban had another immediate impact. It forced the old Southern California Rapid Transit District, the first of four agencies involved in building the subway, to find a new route from Wilshire up Vermont Avenue, across Hollywood Boulevard and then to the Valley. “They felt, politically, they had to get to the Valley,” Waxman said.
And it sparked a scramble to find an alternate route through the Mid-City area. But a plan to go south from Wilshire to Pico Boulevard as far as San Vicente Boulevard was scuttled in 1998 by funding problems and the presence of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas.
So, today, an odd mile-long spur of subway runs west from Wilshire and Vermont as far as Western Avenue.
Waxman is one official who will not be on hand for the subway dedication. “It’s there and I hope we can make the best of it,” he said. “This is not where I wanted us to be at this point in figuring out our transit needs. I’m also disappointed in the amount of money that has been wasted,” he said.
Station Design Praised
Part of the money that some regard as wasted went to three Red Line stations that have been widely praised by leading proponents of both public art and transit.
The Hollywood/Highland station, designed by Dworsky & Associates, is an adaptation of a studio set design. The circular bands and curved panels are intended to give passengers a chance to peer behind the scenes. “It really is just a set within a box,” said Maya Emsden, director of the MTA’s Metro Art program.
The concrete columns supporting the station are adorned with branch-like light fixtures that sweep upward and give the station a bright look. The water-stained concrete walls common in the earlier downtown stations are masked.
The Hollywood/Highland station, like the movie palace theme of the station at Hollywood and Vine, reminds riders that they are in the entertainment capital. But the entrance to the Hollywood/Highland station is all but obscured by the massive, $430-million Trizec Hahn retail, restaurant and hotel development rising above it. That project also features a new theater that will become the future home of the Academy Awards.
Artist Sheila Klein, whose egg-like image adorns the new control tower at Los Angeles International Airport, has fun with passengers descending into the subway. Using light beams, she projects images of eyes on the wall above an entryway.
The Universal City station stands next to the Campo de Cahuenga historic site, where Mexico signed a treaty in January 1847 giving control of California to the United States.
Siegel Diamond Architects has created a tree-like canopy above the track platform. The trunks of the “trees” are columns on which artist Margaret Garcia has used ceramic tiles to illustrate key people and events in early California history.
Throughout the station is a Mayan symbol meaning beginnings and endings.
The North Hollywood station, designed by Tanzmann Associates, has the “California Dream” as its theme. The entrance is a canopy of orange, lemon and lime, representing the era when the San Fernando Valley was a citrus-growing region.
The citrus color scheme is carried into the ticket plaza and down to the station itself, where artist Anne Marie Karlsen has employed kaleidoscopic images of Valley history. Among the many images depicted in her circular murals are the Red Car trolleys that once crisscrossed much of the region at a fraction of the subway’s cost.
The completion of the subway extension to the Valley is the end of a chapter in Los Angeles history. For the first time in almost 15 years, there will be no subway project under construction. “It’s likely to be an end to the subway era for a long time,” said MTA Chief Executive Officer Julian Burke.
Instead, the mass transit focus is shifting to light rail lines and busways. The day the subway opens, the MTA will launch new rapid bus service across the Valley on Ventura Boulevard, from the Westside to downtown Los Angeles on Wilshire, and to the Eastside via Whittier Boulevard. The rapid bus concept involves fewer stops and new technology-equipped buses that can keep traffic signals green.
Light Rail, Busways
From Union Station to Pasadena, a new construction authority has taken over responsibility for finishing a 13.7-mile light rail line that the MTA started and then stopped after spending a quarter of a billion dollars.
An MTA light rail project, including a tunnel section, seems destined to replace a long-planned extension of the subway from Union Station to the Eastside. The MTA’s financial problems two years ago and voter approval of the ballot measure blocking use of local transit sales tax dollars for more subway lines stopped the Eastside subway in its tracks.
In the Valley, momentum is building for an exclusive busway from the North Hollywood subway station to Warner Center via the Burbank-Chandler right of way.
Yaroslavsky said the future lies in light rail, busways and rapid buses that are more flexible and affordable and can cover more distance at less cost than subway lines.
“We don’t have the money to spend or the time to wait to serve the entire region,” he said. “We have a mobility crisis that needs to be addressed.”
But as travel patterns change and the public experiences the new subway, MTA chief Burke is confident that the subway’s image will change too. “Memories will dim about how difficult it was getting that system in place,” he said.