With new support of traffic-snarled Westside cities, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted Thursday to revive the issue of subway expansion and put it back into long-range transportation plans for Los Angeles County.
The 11-2 vote was a very preliminary move toward overcoming the many legal and financial obstacles to extending the Red Line west along Wilshire Boulevard, one of the densest corridors in the nation. It also opens up consideration of subways in other parts of the county.
The measure, sponsored by Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, calls on the transportation agency to study ways to remove federal and local spending bans against subway tunneling.
“It’s just important that we have this extra tool,” said LaBonge, an MTA director. “It’s a first step for the MTA to take a serious look again at heavy rail throughout Los Angeles.”
The 17.4-mile Red Line subway runs from downtown Los Angeles to North Hollywood and includes a spur along Wilshire Boulevard that ends at Western Avenue. The MTA’s original plan in the 1980s would have pushed the subway into the Fairfax district and possibly farther west. But that idea was shelved after cost overruns and construction problems, including a sinkhole in the Hollywood area.
A 1985 congressional measure banned the use of federal funds for tunneling in zones at risk of methane gas after underground explosions in the Fairfax district. A 1998 voter-approved measure barred the use of local sales tax dollars on subway tunneling.
In a significant turnaround, officials of Westside cities no longer oppose a subway or other rail projects in their territory. And they have pledged to work to reverse the congressional and sales tax bans.
Beverly Hills Mayor Mark Egerman said the MTA should revive subway building as a way to ease the region’s transportation problems. “Westside cities ... are one of the great economic engines of our [region],” he said. “We are being strangled because we have no integrated transit system with the rest of Los Angeles.”
Councilman John Heilman of West Hollywood agreed, saying that the Westside is not adequately served by the MTA. “We have jobs on the Westside. People need to get here,” he said.
Pasadena resident Tom Stanley, a transit advocate, told directors that rail projects “are a critical component of a balanced transportation system.” Extending the Red Line, he said, would benefit all residents of Los Angeles County, including suburbanites.
However, representatives of the Bus Riders Union urged the MTA to vote against the LaBonge measure. They said that all new transit spending should be devoted to improving bus service.
“We think this is a backward, outdated and financially irresponsible approach,” Manuel Criollo of the Bus Riders Union said of the subway plan. “The subway has been a complete and utter failure,” he said, citing what he described as lower than expected ridership and the Red Line’s $4.5-billion price tag so far.
LaBonge received some heavyweight political support Thursday.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who proposed the ban on using local sales taxes on subways, voted yes Thursday. While he said he doubted that voters would overturn the spending ban, Yaroslavsky said he had no problem with studying subway issues again. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, also previously opposed to tunneling, joined him in voting for the subway motion. Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn was in favor of it too.
MTA Chairman Frank Roberts and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich voted against it.
In a separate action, the MTA board voted to consider later this year, in an update to its long-range plan, an Antonovich measure that would push forward a planned San Gabriel Valley extension of the above-ground Gold Line beyond Pasadena into Montclair by 2014.
Backers of the Gold Line extension said they feared the delay could kill that project. Westside officials said they support extending the Gold Line, but not before the MTA builds the light-rail Exposition Line, which would run above-ground south of the Santa Monica Freeway from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City and then possibly to Santa Monica.