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CPR for the Red Line Extension

Looking at the Los Angeles Basin from the air, you can’t miss rows of high-rises from the Westside to downtown. This is the city’s spine -- Wilshire Boulevard, the densest business and residential corridor in Los Angeles and one of the nation’s densest. An out-of-towner might think L.A.'s commercial nerve center would also be its transit hub. Surely a subway runs down Wilshire?

Well, no. History and hysteria have conspired to prevent a subway where it is so logical. It’s been a dead issue for years, but a City Council vote in favor of a Red Line extension has applied some CPR.

The Red Line does have a Wilshire spur, but only to Western Avenue in Koreatown, missing miles of high-rises. Last week, the council unanimously urged the reversal of bans on subway funding and directed city staff to work with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a proposed extension down Wilshire to Fairfax Avenue. It should go farther, but that would be a big leap. The extension, estimated to cost $1 billion, would end near the vast Park La Brea apartment complex, Farmers Market and the L.A. County Museum of Art.

The biggest obstacle has been Rep. Henry A. Waxman, whose district includes a big stretch of Wilshire. In 1986, he won passage of a resolution banning use of federal funds for tunneling in the Fairfax area. Waxman said he was reacting to a 1985 explosion of underground methane gas that wrecked a Fairfax-area store. Westside businesses and residents also hated the idea of a tunnel. L.A. County voters, fed up with cost overruns and disruption, passed a measure in 1998 preventing existing local sales taxes from being used on subway projects.

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“I would be willing to change the federal law, if my fears could be allayed about the safety issue,” Waxman now says. L.A. Councilman Tom LaBonge, backer of the subway resolution and a member of the MTA board, says he’ll ask the board at its Oct. 28 meeting to order a safety study. The city has already built storm drains near Fairfax without methane problems, and existing subways tunneled through some methane-rich areas.

And there are ways around the sales tax restriction. The MTA is considering a ballot initiative to raise new sales tax money, but such a measure would require an unlikely two-thirds vote. LaBonge suggests an initiative that would simply overturn the 1998 ban; it would need only a majority vote. That’s an idea worth pursuing.

Tunneling technology has improved, and business and traffic disruptions and the risk of sinkholes are less. Voters may be hard to persuade, but they should at least get the chance to decide.


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