A Subway to the Sea irony

A big meeting of transportation officials in L.A. later this week may include a spot of fun, or at least irony: The biggest champion of the “Subway to the Sea” probably won’t be allowed to vote on a significant issue affecting the project.

That champion is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who campaigned hard in 2005 on building the subway and then led the campaign last fall for Measure R, the half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters that includes $4.1 billion to build an extension to Westwood.

On Thursday, the Villaraigosa-led board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is scheduled to vote on moving ahead with a draft environmental impact report on the subway project. Although that may sound like a snoozer of a bureaucratic move to normal folk, it’s a necessary step before shovels are allowed to hit dirt.

The problem for the mayor is that he accepted $2,000 in donations from engineering firm Parsons-Brinckerhoff in 2005 while running for mayor, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. Parsons-Brinckerhoff is the firm the MTA wants to hire to do the subway study, and the MTA’s very tight ethics rules will probably forbid the mayor from voting on a contract being awarded to a past campaign contributor.

But it doesn’t appear that Villaraigosa will be the swing vote, so the firm’s participation is expected to be approved. Although the subway is controversial because of its expected cost ($6 billion at a minimum), the MTA board in the past has generally been inclined to go ahead with project studies. Furthermore, board members know that if they vote against studies of projects, that vote will be remembered and someone is likely to vote against a study of their own pet projects.


That said, this is the MTA board we’re talking about, and meetings are often one thin mint away from breaking out into a pie fight over slights -- perceived and intended -- between the members.

Pair of projects

In the meantime, the MTA board is also likely to consider going forward with environmental studies of another pair of big light rail projects.

The first is for a rail that would travel through the heart of downtown and connect the Gold Line, Blue Line and future Expo Line. Such a line would mean fewer transfers for passengers (a Blue Line passenger, for example, wouldn’t have to transfer to the subway to reach the Civic Center). The big policy question that remains to be answered is whether the line would be built above or below ground.

The second study concerns extending the Gold Line from East Los Angeles (which it is scheduled to reach this summer) to Whittier or that general vicinity along either the 60 Freeway, Beverly Boulevard, Washington Boulevard or a combo of Beverly and Whittier boulevards. This is a line that wouldn’t be built for 30 more years, according to the MTA spending plan, and it’s worth noting that the MTA’s own studies predict that in 2030, it would have extremely low ridership -- about 13,000 to nearly 16,000 rides each day. That’s far below the about 22,000 rides taken each day on the existing Los Angeles-to-Pasadena Gold Line, generally the MTA’s poorest performer.

A coalition of four cities -- El Monte, South El Monte, Rosemead and Monterey Park -- are championing an alternative that would take the line down the 60 Freeway, which MTA studies indicate would attract the fewest riders and be of the least benefit to transit users. In 2008 dollars, the project is expected to cost from $665 million to more than $1.1 billion, depending on the route chosen.

Even with high costs and possibly low ridership, the project enjoys considerable political support in this corner of Los Angeles County, the reason that pols who need votes for their own projects will allow it to move forward.