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Which Direction for Light-Rail Growth?

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Times Staff Writer

As they prepare to set spending priorities for the next quarter-century, Los Angeles County transit officials are bracing for a head-on collision over where to build the next light-rail line.

Should the Westside’s proposed Expo Line be extended all the way from downtown to Santa Monica? Or should Pasadena’s Gold Line grow 13 miles east to Montclair?

Though construction is still years away, long-range planning decisions reached over the next several months will determine the pecking order for major county transit projects through 2030.

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Even if both light-rail proposals are considered worthy, some transit officials doubt that the federal government would spring for two $1-billion transportation projects in the same county at the same time, escalating the competition for federal dollars.

“There is no question that traffic is getting worse everywhere,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who wants the Westside’s Expo Line extension built next. “Now the question is, if you have a limited amount of money, where do you spend it?”

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) says funds should be allocated to the San Gabriel Valley, where thousands of new, affordable homes are luring workers and increasing freeway congestion.

Dreier envisions someday extending the line even farther east, to Ontario Airport -- a move that he argues also would benefit the Westside by shifting some travelers away from Los Angeles International Airport.

“We need to build Expo, but the Gold Line is my priority,” Dreier said in an interview Thursday. “I think we have the potential to do both.”

The dueling proposals are attracting more attention now as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority moves closer to deciding which of dozens of proposed transit improvements should be funded in coming years.

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Projects must be part of the agency’s long-range plan to qualify for federal funds. The plan is scheduled for adoption early next year.

This year’s competition is particularly fierce as officials anticipate how they might spend up to $12 billion on one-time capital projects if voters approve the state transportation bond issue in November. Without voter approval, the agency would allocate an estimated $7 billion in existing funds to new projects.

Even with the state bond money, transit officials said, they still would have to seek matching federal funds to begin building light-rail extensions within the next few years. The MTA’s capital funds cover streets and highways, as well as buses and rail.

“Money is going to be very tight,” said Carol Inge, chief planning officer. “We have a longer list of projects than we have money overall.”

Officials have yet to decide which projects they will request funding for in the long-range plan, Inge said.

Construction priorities are based on ridership projections and cost effectiveness, measured in costs per mile and costs per passenger, according to MTA board policy.

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In 2001, the last time projects were ranked, the MTA board of directors gave the Expo Line a high priority.

Construction is scheduled to begin soon on the first part of the line -- from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City.

The next proposed segment, from Culver City to Santa Monica, is in the long-range plan but has not yet been funded. It is expected to cost $750 million to build.

The Gold Line extension did not make it into the MTA’s 2001 long-range plan. A preliminary draft of the agency’s 2006 priorities shows other, more costly, projects -- such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposed subway to the sea -- ranking higher.

Because ridership on the Gold Line’s 14-mile route between Union Station near downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena turned out to be lower than expected, a further extension of the line was placed somewhere in the middle of this year’s preliminary long-range plan.

Ridership on the Pasadena line hit a high of 20,000 weekday boardings in July, according to the MTA. Weekend ridership, however, has dropped significantly over the last year.

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Duarte City Councilman John Fasana, who sits on the MTA board, said ridership would increase if the Pasadena-based line were extended farther into the fast-growing San Gabriel Valley.

The region’s three east-west freeways are packed with big trucks serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as thousands of commuters, many traveling from their homes in the Inland Empire.

Last year, the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino issued 51,000 residential building permits, and their region ranked seventh in the nation for new-home growth, according to California Department of Transportation statistics. More than 153,000 permits were issued in those two counties in the four previous years.

Still, Yaroslavsky said the Gold Line ridership numbers, estimated at 6.3 million boardings a year, do not support the proposed extension at this time. Statistics, he said, favor additional mass transit on the burgeoning Westside as a top countywide priority.

“If you look at this objectively and leave the politics out, it bears no comparison to anything else,” he said of the Westside’s need.

The Westside has no commuter rail line. Its two freeways, the Santa Monica and San Diego, are “parking lots,” he said. And the area’s major hubs -- Santa Monica, Century City, Westwood and Culver City -- are experiencing major residential and commercial growth.

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Duarte’s Fasana said he expects that the Gold Line extension would be included in the upcoming long-range plan -- and that, if the state bond measure passes, “I think there is an ability to build both projects.”

Gold Line proponents aren’t taking any chances. They are trying to leap-frog ahead of the proposed Westside line by appealing directly to Congress for funds.

Habib Balian, chief executive officer of the Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, is leading the charge. He acknowledges that the strategy is “totally unconventional.”

The construction authority was created by the Legislature to oversee construction but not operation of the Gold Line to Pasadena. The MTA runs the line.

Balian doesn’t view his renegade tactics as distracting support for the Expo Line in any way.

“I believe all meritorious projects will be funded,” he said.

Balian pointed out that he is not asking the MTA to pay for construction of the extension. The agency simply would have to commit to run the extended Gold Line -- at a cost of about $10 million a year -- after it is built.

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The MTA needs to promise to pay for operation of the rail line for federal construction funds to be secured, he said.

While waiting for decisions, both sides are proceeding as if their projects have made the cut.

Even before ground has been broken on the Expo Line to Culver City, its construction authority is seeking proposals for an environmental study of construction from Culver City to Santa Monica.

The Gold Line construction authority, meanwhile, is studying the effect of its proposed two-phase extension: 10.5 miles from Pasadena to Azusa, followed by 13.1 miles to Montclair.

People on both sides acknowledge that the county’s need for public transportation is great everywhere.

Despite his support for the Gold Line project, Dreier said freeway congestion on the Westside and elsewhere affects all Los Angeles County residents, no matter where they live.

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“My constituents want to have the ability to go to the beach, the mountains, the desert or wherever,” he said.

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jean.guccione@latimes.com

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