The idea of expanding the Red Line subway westward along the Wilshire Corridor -- a prospect once thought to be all but dead -- is gaining new political traction.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council gave unanimous support to working to overcome the formidable legal and financial obstacles that block additional subway construction in the city.
The subway motion, which passed without discussion, was sponsored by Councilman Tom LaBonge, who said that “congestion has reached a breaking point” and something must be done. “Imagine if we stopped building freeways after the Pasadena Freeway,” he said.
Though the council does not have authority over the Red Line, its backing is an important first step in a long, complicated process toward possible subway extension, transportation officials say.
“It creates some momentum ... to get the ball rolling,” said Roger Snoble, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which builds and runs the subway. “Thirty years from now, it’ll be a huge mistake if we didn’t have more subways.”
The MTA two years ago said it wanted to extend the subway to the Fairfax district, part of its original plan from the 1980s, because of the population density there.
The 17.4-mile Red Line now has a spur along Wilshire Boulevard ending in Koreatown at Western Avenue.
But others say spending local funds on subway construction would be a mistake.
“To invest in $300 million per mile -- money we don’t have -- just makes no sense. We can’t afford to pay for it,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA director. In the wake of construction problems, such as the sinkholes in Hollywood, he proposed the measure, passed by voters in 1998, that prohibits using local sales taxes on subway construction.
Another obstacle is in Washington. After a 1985 methane gas explosion near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who represents the Westside, sponsored legislation barring the use of federal funds for tunneling in the area. Waxman could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The City Council’s motion urged the reversal of those bans and directed city staff to work with the MTA for the subway extension. The measure did not mention specific stations.
Transit advocates expressed mixed emotions.
“The big issue, as always, is funding,” said Bart Reed, spokesman for Friends of the Red Line. “The subway costs a humongous amount of money.”
The Red Line cost $4.5 billion to build. To extend it to Fairfax Avenue would cost $1 billion more, according to MTA estimates.
Cynthia Rojas, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union, would rather officials focus on improving the city’s bus system.
“The subway, we don’t think is a viable transit mode for Los Angeles,” she said.
In a separate action, the council voted to continue the mile-long bus lanes on Wilshire in West Los Angeles for another six months -- pleasing Rojas and other transit riders but angering business owners in the area who say customers cannot find parking.
Car traffic and parking are prohibited in the curbside lanes during morning and afternoon rush hours.
“We’ve had three businesses -- the latest being Starbucks -- closing because of this,” said Jay Handal, president of the West L.A. Chamber of Commerce, which conducted a survey showing that 57 shops have had a 20% or more drop in revenue because of the six-month experiment.
According to a study by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the transit corridor improved bus speeds by 9%, or 30 seconds, but worsened delays for motorists by 67%, or 2.6 minutes.