Westside subway proposal resurfaces

Times Staff Writer

In a surprising and ambitious move, local transportation officials said Tuesday that they would pursue planning for two subway lines to the Westside, with one train along Wilshire Boulevard and a shorter leg partially following Santa Monica Boulevard before diving south to meet the Wilshire line.

Of course, the effort is still hypothetical, and Los Angeles still needs the money to build the multibillion-dollar rail line. But officials are showing unusual bravura for a project that looked to be dead a decade ago.

It was in 1998, amid several spending and construction boondoggles on the existing subway, that voters in L.A. County banned the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from using sales tax money for new subway tunneling.


That ban remains in effect, but complaints over Westside traffic have continued to pile up, fueling efforts to extend the subway.

Various routes have been discussed over the years, with recent momentum falling on the Wilshire corridor. But MTA officials never formally settled on a route until launching a study a year ago that sought public reaction, and then they began crunching numbers.

“We thought people would say they want a Wilshire line or we want a Santa Monica [Boulevard] line,” said Jody Litvak, a spokeswoman for the Metro Westside Extension study. “We were surprised they wanted both.”

MTA board members will begin discussing the two lines at a series of public meetings that start tonight in Santa Monica. For more information on the meetings, go to press/Metro_140.htm.

The combined cost of the two lines would be about $9 billion if built today. But because such projects take years, inflation would probably drive up the final price. The Wilshire line would get priority for funding because it has higher ridership estimates, said David Mieger, project manager for the Westside study.

The reason the other line is being considered is that it would make the entire subway system more versatile by stopping near major job centers such as the Warner Hollywood studios, the Pacific Design Center, the Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It would miss the Grove shopping development, however, by more than half a mile.


The second line would also chop significant time off a trip to the Westside from the San Fernando Valley. For example, Mieger said a ride from North Hollywood to Westwood could potentially drop from 61 minutes to 28 minutes.

The choices announced Tuesday are significant because the Wilshire and Santa Monica corridors would be the focus of future environmental and engineering studies -- if the 13-member MTA board decides to go forward. The board could take up the matter as early as late fall.

Mieger and Litvak said that under the best-case scenario, construction could begin in 2013. There are, however, no funds dedicated to the subway project.

MTA officials and others, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have been pushing to place a half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase proposal on the November ballot to help pay for mass transit and road improvements in Los Angeles County. The proposal, called Measure R, would set aside $4.1 billion for the subway.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger still needs to sign a state bill by Sept. 30 authorizing the election, and he has threatened not to sign any bills until the state budget stalemate is settled.

The sales tax lacks universal support among politicians. Three Los Angeles County supervisors have come out against it.


One reason: They think the subway will consume too great a share of the proceeds. The proposed tax is projected to raise from $30 billion to $40 billion over its 30-year life span.

Even if the subway studies are approved, much remains to be settled. Among the decisions that still need to be made are the location of stations, whether a station at Crenshaw Boulevard would be built, and the route between Century City and Westwood.

The lines could follow the street grid or tunnel under residential neighborhoods -- a proposition that will not be taken lightly by those living on the surface.


Insurance by the mile

In recent months, environmentalists and economists have worked themselves into a frenzy over pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, also known as PAYD. If you believe the advance notices, this is the greatest thing to come down the pike since the double-double.

As the name implies, PAYD insurance more closely links the cost of annual insurance policies to how much motorists drive. The concept has been touted by the authors of “Freakonomics” and has also received major ink in a number of publications, including The Times.

Now, PAYD is coming to California. California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner released draft regulations Wednesday and has been a big proponent of PAYD. When exactly PAYD will be available and which carriers will offer it are not yet known.


Proponents of PAYD say it will result in people driving less to save money. And that’s the part that always stops me. How do we know that knocking $200 to $300 off the cost of annual premiums would yield that kind of behavior change? In my view, getting Californians to stop driving is kind of like getting them to stop breathing. Besides, we’re not exactly living in a mass transit utopia.

So I phoned Pascal Noel, who with Jason Bordoff co-wrote a study on PAYD in July for the Brookings Institution. They also did a follow-up report on how PAYD could affect Californians.

Among their findings: 64% of California households would have lower premiums under PAYD, with an average savings of $276 annually per vehicle. Low-income residents, in particular, would benefit, and most of the population would be driving less, they concluded.

“How do you know?” I asked. Even the Brookings study says there is a paucity of data out there showing that the few PAYD programs in existence have massively reduced driving.

“There is a ton of data that shows that when marginal driving costs rise, driving declines,” Noel told me. “The most obvious source is gasoline prices.” And, furthermore, he said, there is widespread agreement in the economist community that such pricing triggers altered behavior.

Noel said there were other reasons to believe that PAYD will catch on. Among those:

* Once some carriers decide to offer PAYD and drivers see savings, other carriers will also want to offer it. Noel said his numbers show that 20% of Californians do 46% of the driving, meaning that there’s a majority of people who drive less -- and could benefit from PAYD.


* If people drive less, there should be fewer accident claims -- the reason carriers will be able to afford PAYD.

* “This is going to be permanent, and people will have a long-term incentive to alter their behavior,” Noel said.

Predicting the results of widespread PAYD programs can be tricky, Noel said.

“It’s not certain that it will be so clear to consumers how much they are paying [for auto insurance] on a daily, weekly and monthly basis,” he said.

“With cars you have to fill up every week or so, and you can see the price is going up. With auto insurance, even if it’s charged by the mile, it’s not clear that customers are going to understand and react immediately unless they are being charged” on a frequent basis, Noel added. “For example, if people got a statement from the insurance company and the bill showed how many miles you drove recently, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t react the same way as when faced with prices for gasoline.”