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Panning for Gold Line funding

Times Staff Writer

On the far eastern side of Pasadena, the Gold Line tracks run in the middle of the 210 Freeway and then, at Madre Street, they just stop.

The old rail right of way continues up the middle of the freeway and extends across the width of the Valley, roughly paralleling the 210. Hardly any freight trains use the corridor, and it’s been decades since passengers rode those rails.

Public officials from across the San Gabriel Valley are hoping to change that soon. With an injection of $80 million from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, officials say, the Foothill Extension Construction Authority can seek state and federal funding and extend the Gold Line 11.4 miles to Azusa, a project estimated to cost more than $400 million.

Later, officials hope to add a second leg to Montclair and then a possible third leg to Ontario International Airport.

The quest for the money has reached a fever pitch. On June 26, the MTA board is set to vote on the agency’s long-range plan. The Gold Line extension is in the “unfunded” section of the plan but needs to be moved to the funded portion to get the $80 million.

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Habib Balian, the chief executive of the Foothill Extension Construction Authority, offers a long list of pluses about the Gold Line: It has widespread public support; there’s almost no controversy surrounding it; and the line is fairly easy to build because the old freight right of way is still there.

Officials in several cities along the route have been preparing development plans around the new stations, the idea being to create new transit villages along the route and channel the valley’s growth there. Thousands of new residences are being proposed.

“Don’t look at it as what you see today,” Balian said on a recent tour of the largely industrial right-of-way corridor. “Look at what it will be in 30 years.”

But the Gold Line has proved to be a tough sell elsewhere in Los Angeles County, where it is considered a train that will have low ridership and could take money from more worthy projects.

The Westside Cities Council of Governments met last month with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to try to convince him that funding for Westside projects must come first.

Officials also aren’t happy that some San Gabriel Valley officials have hinted they might fight the MTA and California Department of Transportation’s congestion pricing plan for the 10 and 210 freeways and, in doing so, could cost the region $213 million in federal funds for new buses and improvements to Metrolink commuter rail service.

At the same time, San Gabriel Valley officials have hinted that if the Gold Line doesn’t get money now, they may not support a prospective ballot measure in November that would raise the sales tax in Los Angeles County by half a cent on the dollar to pay for transit projects.

“The San Gabriel Valley is not without its political clout,” said Monrovia Mayor Rob Hammond.

MTA board member David Fleming said that if the sales tax ended up on the ballot, it would be key to get political support from the entire Valley.

“We’ve talked to them about this sales tax and told them ‘Look, you want our help, we have to have your help,’ ” Fleming said. “Part of the consideration for supporting them, they have to support the sales tax, which they agreed to do.”

The man in the middle is Villaraigosa. He sits on the MTA board and has three appointees, giving him the largest voting bloc. His press office declined to say how he would vote on the Gold Line, although he’s expressed support for the project in the past.

But he is also under pressure to provide mass transit for the Westside and probably needs the sales tax increase if the subway-to-the-sea is to become a reality. There are other concerns about money. Gold Line proponents have long argued that if they get $80 million now from the MTA, they can get the other $320-million-plus needed for the project’s first phase from the state and federal government. Although the Federal Transit Administration can fund up to 80% of a project, it rarely does so, said Paul Griffo, an agency spokesman.

By some measures, the existing Gold Line from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena has been a disappointment. Of the MTA’s four rail lines, it has the lowest ridership, although it has increased lately to about 23,000 a month.

The extension would initially travel east down the middle of the 210 Freeway and then cross to the south side of the freeway on a new bridge. It would stop near downtown Arcadia -- missing both Santa Anita racetrack and the busy Westfield mall -- and then stop a mile south of the gentrified downtown Monrovia.

Officials, however, point to the abundant amount of developable land near the tracks, saying that most of the growth in the San Gabriel Valley in coming decades could be put near mass transit -- not the usual way of doing things in Southern California, at least in the past.

“You have this opportunity today with these efforts being put toward the stations,” said John Fasana, an MTA board member and a Duarte council member. “It sounds great, but if the transit never comes, then you have overdevelopment and you’ve induced gridlock.”

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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Steve Hymon writes The Times’ blog about Southern California traffic and transportation in real time. Check it out at latimes.com/bottleneck


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