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California : In L.A., which is the best way west? : As the $5-billion subway draws closer to reality, the debate over the most beneficial route intensifies.

Building a subway through the Westside has been the Holy Grail of transportation planners for decades, and many feel they are closer to tunneling than ever before.

Backers envision subway cars packed with shoppers balancing Prada and Barneys bags after Beverly Hills shopping excursions and surfers with their boards tucked under their arms heading for the morning waves, as well as workers.

But now, as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pushed to fast-track the long-delayed Westside subway extension, there is debate about whether the route for the roughly $5-billion project gets the most bang for the buck.

It’s a familiar problem in Los Angeles, a city developed for the automobile whose sprawl makes it difficult for rail lines to cover enough ground to make commuting simple.

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The first leg of the Westside extension would spur west from the existing Purple Line along Wilshire Boulevard from Western Avenue to Fairfax Avenue. Wilshire is L.A.'s legendary roadway, lined with office towers, shops and restaurants. The route would go through the Miracle Mile shopping district and stop at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has lobbied heavily for the line.

From there, future phases would take the Purple Line through Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood.

That route, however, bypasses some key Westside shopping and business areas in Hollywood and West Hollywood, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Beverly Center and the Pacific Design Center.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considering an extension route that would cover those areas, but it probably would not be built until after the Wilshire link is done.

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The mayor wants the entire Purple Line extension to Westwood completed in the next 10 years, a tall order for a project that has been discussed for nearly four decades and still needs funding.

Current plans have the subway reaching Westwood by 2036, using a mix of revenue from an L.A. County transportation sales tax and federal funding that the MTA is seeking but has not yet received.

“We really determined that Wilshire would have to come first. You’re trying to hook up the Purple Line with Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood, where the big ridership would be,” said David Mieger, MTA’s project manager for the subway.

“The heaviest-used bus lines, the heaviest-congestion corridors, are north and south of Wilshire Boulevard.”

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The MTA unveiled the West Hollywood extension to great enthusiasm from community groups. The leg would run as an extension from the Red Line in Hollywood through parts of Hollywood and West Hollywood and would connect with the proposed extension of the Purple Line near the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega boulevards. The Purple Line would then go west along Wilshire to Westwood.

The Purple Line extension to Westwood would generate an estimated 49,000 daily boardings at the new stations and a total of 76,000 new daily boardings throughout the system, according to early studies from the MTA that are being updated. Ridership would increase by 17,900 at new stations if the West Hollywood link is built, according to MTA numbers.

That compares to an average of 78,955 weekday riders on the Long Beach-to-downtown L.A. Blue Line, 149,597 on the downtown-to-North Hollywood Red Line, 38,619 on the Norwalk-to-Redondo Beach Green Line and 22,476 on the downtown-to-Pasadena Gold Line, according to the most current ridership counts from the MTA.

The dilemma is a familiar one for transportation planners, who have struggled to build light-rail routes to capture the most riders possible.

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This is difficult because Los Angeles is so spread out and designed for the car, not rail lines.

L.A. has far fewer rail lines than New York, Chicago and other large cities, so passengers often must transfer to buses to complete their trips.

Con Howe, the former director of planning for the city of Los Angeles and now managing director of the CityView Los Angeles Fund, pointed to one example: the MTA’s decision not to build the Green Line into Los Angeles International Airport, meaning that people who want to take public transportation to the airport have to take a shuttle to the passenger terminal.

“Unlike New York City, you’re never going to have 100 years of subway construction in the city,” he said.

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Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, said the West Hollywood alignment is important because the idea of transit is to go to “where you have major concentrations of jobs and people.”

“There is a trade-off: It would cost considerably more money. It’s all about how much money is available,” she said.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that Angelenos are not tapped into a pedestrian culture and that most people are reluctant to walk more than a quarter-mile to a destination.

If that holds true, many who would take the Wilshire subway would need transit to places such as Cedars-Sinai, the Beverly Center and the Westside Pavilion.

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Some commuters said they were excited about the Wilshire extension but added that a route through West Hollywood made more sense to them.

Last week, Sharon Richards stepped off the subway at the end of the line and made her way to the Metro Rapid bus that runs along Wilshire Boulevard -- the fourth part of her roughly two-hour commute to work in West Hollywood.

“Oooooh, it’s gonna be packed,” she said as the 720 Rapid approached. “Feel like a sardine.”

Richards, 61, has been commuting from Upland to her job as a manager at Cedars-Sinai for more than two decades.

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She wakes before dawn, drives to a park-and-ride and catches a bus in Montclair just after 5 a.m., arrives at Union Station where she takes the Purple Line to its last stop, takes the Wilshire bus to La Cienega Boulevard and then hoofs for it the last stretch, a little more than half a mile, to her desk.

“I’m late,” Richards muttered as she rushed off the 720.

She said a direct stop near the Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai would help her and other employees commute.

Jeanne Flores, senior vice president in charge of human resources at Cedars-Sinai, said that fewer than 10% of the 11,000 employees at the medical center use public transportation to get to work.

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“The public transportation systems just are not adequate to support our location and the hours that people work,” Flores said. “People resign because they just can’t do the commute anymore.”

Supporters of the Wilshire corridor say it is the simplest and most logical route to take and would be heavily used. They don’t deny that a route through West Hollywood would be beneficial, but they note the huge population, cultural and employment centers along the Wilshire route and say that places like Cedars-Sinai and the Beverly Center will be close to future stops along that alignment.

“There’s absolutely no question that it should go straight out Wilshire,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district is included in the first phase of the subway.

“At the same time, the concept of coming off the Hollywood line is absolutely necessary as well, because that is the de facto Beverly Hills freeway.”

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LaBonge is referring to the ill-fated freeway that the California Department of Transportation wanted to build along Santa Monica Boulevard from north of downtown to West Los Angeles.

Residents strongly opposed the freeway, and the plan was eventually killed. But that decision is considered one factor in the Westside’s notoriously congested traffic.

The Beverly Hills freeway could have run through West Hollywood, where the Mayor Pro Tem, John Heilman, now strongly supports a subway.

Heilman said the West Hollywood route make sense because it would provide a rail alternative for north-south commuters who live in the Valley but work on the Westside.

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“No one disputes that Wilshire needs to be served, but a lot of the traffic that is going westbound is coming over from the Valley” and through West Hollywood, he said.

The MTA’s directors will make a final decision on the Westside subway alignment next year.

Officials said it’s possible that the West Hollywood route could be built after the Purple Line gets to Westwood -- if it ever gets that far. But then, it would probably compete for money with a plan to build the Purple Line extension through Santa Monica.

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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