'Subway to the Sea' plan still adrift

Times Staff Writers

Despite moves in Congress this week to lift a longtime ban on subway tunneling, the epic struggle to build a subway under Wilshire Boulevard remains very much in the slow lane.

The "Subway to the Sea" has long been seen by transportation leaders as a key to easing L.A.'s notorious traffic congestion -- but its $5-billion price tag has long been a stumbling block.

Over the last year, the subway has been the subject of much discussion. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the "Subway to the Sea" crucial to the city's future and made it a top priority. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who two decades earlier had pushed through legislation effectively banning tunneling under Wilshire, had a change of heart, and bills moved forward in Congress this week to reverse course.

But although political opposition has eased, money remains a seemingly unmovable obstacle.

Villaraigosa's office over the last year has been quietly gauging whether the public would agree to foot the bill. In one of the many private polls it has commissioned on a variety of subjects, the mayor's office asked residents if they would support some type of tax increase to pay for the subway and other transit improvement.

The results have not been released. But City Hall sources have said gaining the needed two-thirds majority for either a bond measure or a sales tax hike for the subway looks daunting.

Midway through 2007 -- with high turnouts expected for next year's presidential primary and general election -- Villaraigosa has yet to produce a proposal to take to voters to help pay for the project.

His aides say they are studying all possible scenarios. These include "benefit assessment districts" that would levy extra taxes on residents within half a mile of the subway line. Another idea is to find a private firm that could build and possibly operate the subway.

"The project is possible, but it is not a done deal," said Deputy Mayor Jaime De la Vega. "What needs to change is that we need to grow the funding pie."

One vocal supporter of the subway is Jane Usher, president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission. Yet, Usher believes that the Westside line was closer to getting built when she worked as general counsel for Mayor Tom Bradley in the early '90s than now, when there is no consensus or funding plan in place.

"I thought it was going to happen back then and then I watched the dismantling of consensus in the 1990s and replaced with so much less than was promised," Usher said. "Building a rail line takes a consensus and that consensus is bigger than the mayor, though I believe he can lead us in that direction -- and I believe he is."

Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates L.A.'s other rail projects, have in recent months stressed that the project is far from a top priority.

"We're just really starting and any project of this magnitude is a long-haul program because we have to do the planning studies, preliminary engineering, [receive] environmental clearance, get our funding partners in place. This is not something that we can do quickly," said MTA Chief Executive Officer Roger Snoble.

A telling moment will come later this year when the agency's board approves a long-range plan that prioritizes future projects. Villaraigosa and his appointees to the board are pushing for the subway to be at or near the top of the list.

The MTA is now working to complete two new rail lines -- to Culver City and to East L.A. Moreover, the Wilshire subway faces tough competition for funds from other regional rail proposals, including a less expensive line that would connect Pasadena with the Inland Empire.

The MTA board approved a $5-million "alternatives" study of the Wilshire subway last month, a necessary step that requires the agency to justify why the line should be built. But several board members who approved the study pointedly raised questions about the project's viability.

"When we speak in terms of competing for federal funds, there's also other projects we're looking at for federal funds," said board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. "I want to be clear that this action, although a first step, is not in any way, shape or form approving a 'Subway to the Sea.' "

In the end, local taxpayers will probably have to contribute heavily to the subway effort, as they do in most large mass transit projects being constructed around the country.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Assn., said the federal government rarely, if ever, pays 100% of big capital improvements, such as a new light-rail or subway line. Instead, the federal government usually chips in about half -- and only after local agencies show they can provide the rest.

Some subway backers are not giving up on a sales tax increase.

Former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane is organizing a nonprofit group tentatively called Subway to the Sea, and said that raising the sales tax could possibly provide enough money for construction.

One key question is who should be taxed. Transportation experts believe a countywide sales tax measure faces an uphill battle because the subway would run through only one part of the county -- on the Westside. Moreover, other regions like the San Gabriel Valley are competing for rail lines in their areas.

"Everybody is banging their head against the wall and saying 'how can we pay for this?' " said Bart Reed, executive director of the nonprofit Transit Coalition. "How can we take an electorate that doesn't completely understand the project and get them to go for this?"

The idea of a subway down L.A.'s premier boulevard has been talked about for decades. Wilshire runs through several of the area's biggest hubs, including the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica -- and passes near Century City. Officials in the early 1980s planned for the subway to run from downtown to the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue. But in 1985, an underground methane gas explosion a mile north at a Ross Dress for Less store raised concerns about the safety of a tunnel. The gas threat was emphasized by longtime subway critics and homeowner groups who feared their residences would explode. Still other residents worried about crime if the line opened Westside neighborhoods to so-called outsiders.

Rep. Waxman responded to the 1985 blast by pushing through legislation prohibiting federal funding for any tunneling projects in the area. Improvements in underground digging technology and a favorable 2005 safety study from several tunneling experts across the country changed Waxman's mind. The appropriations bills in the House and Senate that would allow federal funding are expected to be voted on this fall.

And then the hard work begins.

It remains to be seen if Villaraigosa has the political muscle or even the willingness to push a tax increase, although he raised garbage pickup fees in his first year in office. The mayor is widely expected to run for governor in 2010, and few believe that he will be judged by voters solely on one mass transit project, particularly if he can claim that he got the subway moving forward in the planning process.

"Even back in the olden days when Mayor Tom Bradley was promoting some kind of coordinated mass transit system, it still took years before there was even a hole in the ground for a subway," said Councilman Herb Wesson, whose district includes the Koreatown terminus for the subway. "But no one can take away from him that he initiated it."

Some advocates for bus riders are among those fighting the subway, saying money would be more efficiently spent on more buses.

"We think it is a grotesquely expensive project," said Francisca Porchas, lead organizer of the Bus Riders Union, based in Los Angeles.

These realities don't stop some from dreaming.

Pedro Nava, 33, lives on the Westside and commutes about 45 minutes each way to his job as an education reformer near Vermont Avenue and Washington Boulevard.

One Friday morning last month, Nava walked out of a bagel shop with a coffee in hand, ready to tackle that day's tough commute. If a subway was available, Nava said he would hop right on. "If you have a bad day on the road, you're likely to have a bad day at work," Nava said. "The commute is stressful ... stress really affects your health."

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

steve.hymon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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