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Gold Line Extension Switches to Fast Track

Times Staff Writer

For years, a proposal to extend the Pasadena Gold Line light rail 24 miles east into San Bernardino County languished near the rock bottom of regional transit planners’ priority list.

While mayors of communities along the proposed Foothill Extension have lobbied for it as an alternative to the 210 Freeway, directors of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided that other transit and freeway projects deserved the money more. Critics said the line would draw relatively few riders and that some of the towns already had Metrolink, the commuter rail service.

But the Foothill Extension’s fortunes may be changing.

As part of a massive transportation funding bill, Congress deemed the Foothill Extension a high-priority project and earmarked $21 million to kick off some initial construction. Tucked into the same legislation, signed this month by President Bush, is special language that would make the project eligible for additional funding.

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Exultant officials in the San Gabriel Valley, who have felt frustrated with the MTA’s past coolness toward the extension, credit Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) with giving the project new life.

“It’s very important for us to do everything we can to move [the Foothill Extension project] forward,” said Dreier, through whose district the proposed light rail line would run. “Why? Because we have gridlock in Southern California.... When you look at the growth in Southern California, it’s clearly in the Inland Empire.”

A recent changing of the guard at the MTA may also boost the plan to build the line between east Pasadena and Montclair in an existing rail corridor at a total estimated cost of $1.3 billion.

During a visit to Dreier’s office in Washington last month, Los Angeles Mayor and new MTA Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa pledged support for the Foothill Extension. Also last month, four other new MTA directors took seats on the 13-member body -- replacing others who had declined to help the Foothill Extension secure more funding.

“There are people in the San Gabriel Valley with political clout, and that’s a good thing,” said former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, one of three new MTA directors appointed by Villaraigosa. “You try to build a system based on ridership and need. But there’s a political overlay to that, as to getting the dollars.... Clearly, the fact that you have federal funds available -- it’s one of the considerations when going forward.”

Because of Dreier’s seniority and powerful position as chairman of the House Rules Committee, transportation experts say, he is regarded as a key gatekeeper of funding for various projects in Southern California -- someone whom local officials want as an ally and probably wouldn’t want to cross by continuing to oppose the rail line.

A deputy to another MTA director, who asked not to be identified, said: “It would be stupid for anyone in Los Angeles County to think you can call on Congressman Dreier for [funding] projects like the Eastside and Exposition” -- MTA light rail lines that would serve East Los Angeles, downtown, Mid-City areas and West Los Angeles -- “and snub him on a project so important to him.”

Some transit advocates still criticize the Foothill Extension, which is undergoing environmental reviews, and fear its new clout could allow it to elbow past other plans in the pipeline.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees. Look at this region. Is that the best use for the money?” asked Dana Gabbard, spokesman for Southern California Transit Advocates, a watchdog group. “This project has everything going for it except a justification. It’s got all kinds of political mojo behind it, but ... is it cost-effective? These things shouldn’t happen just because you get into a circle and beat your chest.”

But the proposed line is popular with San Gabriel Valley cities. It would add 12 stations to the Gold Line, which currently ends at the Sierra Madre Villa station in Pasadena. The easternmost stops, at Claremont and Montclair, would share Metrolink stations.

“Every city council, every mayor [for the 11 cities] has gone to Washington to lobby for the project,” said Habib Balian, executive director of the Gold Line’s construction authority, an independent agency set up by state legislation in 1999 after MTA officials stopped working on the first leg from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena, citing a lack of money. The authority built that portion, and the MTA now runs it, in an arrangement that would be repeated for the extension.

The federal money would help pay for parking structures and bus-transfer centers, among other things. Without it, the project could run out of money in another year and a half, officials say. A mix of federal, state and local funds would be required to build the project.

Proponents hope that if all goes well with project financing, the first 11.4 miles of the line -- through Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale and on to the Citrus station at the border of Azusa and Glendora -- will be built by 2010. When all 24 miles are complete -- proponents hope by 2014 -- the line is projected to draw at least 17,000 riders a day.

But critics point to the disappointing ridership on the existing Gold Line.

The 13.7-mile line from Union Station to Pasadena cost $859 million and was originally projected to have 38,000 boardings each weekday. Two years after its opening, the Gold Line is struggling with 17,000 boardings a day and has been criticized for being too slow. Trains sometimes crawl through neighborhoods because of street-level crossings.

A different Gold Line leg into East Los Angeles -- a six-mile, $900-million extension currently under construction -- would attract 23,000 riders a day, according to the MTA. The $640-million, 9.6-mile Exposition light rail line from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City, slated for groundbreaking next year, is expected to have 43,000 daily boardings.

Dreier said he wasn’t familiar with such forecasts but said the Foothill Extension is important for the region’s entire rail network, likening it to “building the branches of the tree that now will come out to the San Gabriel Valley.”

For a large freeway or transit project to be built in Los Angeles County, funding requests typically go through the MTA. The agency receives county transportation sales tax revenue as well as state and federal funds. Even independent construction authorities, such as the one in charge of the Foothill Extension project, look to it for funding, although other sources might be tapped too. In some cases, the MTA has borrowed money for projects.

As recently as a few months ago, San Gabriel Valley officials pleaded unsuccessfully with the MTA to help them complete the extension by 2014.

“I can’t support it,” said Beatrice Proo, an MTA director and mayor of Pico Rivera, during the Feb. 24 board meeting. She said she didn’t want “local moneys, money we would use for other projects,” to go toward the Foothill Extension.

Proo, who is no longer an MTA director, declined to comment for this report. Several other directors who voted in the majority with Proo at the time either did not return calls or could not be reached.

“There has been frustrations in terms of getting MTA support and countywide recognition of the project,” said MTA director and Duarte City Councilman John Fasana, who was among the minority at that meeting urging greater agency support. “We were trying to accelerate the project, [but other directors] basically set it aside.”

Now with the federal support, the line’s advocates say, they hope the MTA in the next year will include the Foothill Extension in its formal long-term plan.

In addition to the $20 million, Dreier inserted special text into the federal transportation bill to re-categorize the project a few months ahead of schedule as being in the “final design” stage.

The upgraded status will allow the extension to be eligible for a lot more federal funding in the next few years, said Alisa Do, legislative director for Dreier. Without that status, the project might have to wait until the next federal transportation bill, six years from now.

Some said the relabeling of a project’s status was unusual.

“It’s outside the typical project development process. For a project to be in ‘final design’ phase, you have to have gone through the environmental process,” said Naresh Amatya, lead regional planner for Southern California Assn. of Governments.

“The MTA was not ready to commit,” Amatya said. But with the federal backing, Amatya added, the project is likely to “move forward.”


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