‘Subway to the Sea’ shouldn’t end 3 miles from the sand

It’s possible, given the pace at which it’s proceeding, that I won’t be around to see the subway extension to the Westside completed. But that’s all the more reason to complain about it while I have the chance.

After hearing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talk for years about the “Subway to the Sea,” I want to be on record as having a problem with the fact that, as planned, the train won’t get anyone to within three miles of the beach.

All this time I’ve been picturing myself boarding a train in Los Feliz with a beach chair, snorkel and mask and popping up on the sand a short time later without having to curse a single motorist.


But that was before the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board’s Oct. 28 vote to make the western terminus the veterans hospital on Wilshire Boulevard.

“We’ve been discussing the subway for 50 years, one way or the other,” Villaraigosa said after the vote. “People said it wouldn’t happen. Now, the only question is when.”

Excuse me, mayor, but I have a second question: What went wrong?

It’s actually kind of fitting, given the history of transit planning in Los Angeles. We’ve got a train to the airport that doesn’t go all the way to the airport, so why not a train to the ocean that barely makes it to the marine layer?

The explanation for the scaled-down plan is the same as it’s always been in Southern California — money and politics. We like the idea of a first-rate public transit system, but we don’t love paying first-rate prices, and we can never seem to balance regional, commercial and other agendas to everyone’s liking.

It’s still a near-miracle that Los Angeles County voters, with Villaraigosa doing the cheerleading, in 2008 approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase that will deliver roughly $40 billion for transportation projects over the next 30 years.

But how can you have the luxury of a $40-billion pot and still not get the subway all the way to the sea? Going to the VA will cost an estimated $4.4 billion in today’s dollars, and adding on the last few miles would cost an additional $1.7 billion. That’s not peanuts, but whether you’d be commuting east or west, you’d be more likely to leave your car home if you don’t have to transfer from train to bus.

I went to see Villaraigosa’s transportation guy, Jaime de la Vega, because we’ve been on pretty good terms since he decided to leave his ghastly Hummer at home to save himself and Villaraigosa further embarrassment.

De la Vega said that London, Paris and New York didn’t build their spectacular transit systems in one piece. “They did it incrementally,” and Los Angeles has been following that path over the last few decades. His point was that a later extension from the VA to the beach is certainly a possibility.

“But I’ll be dead by then,” I told him.

As currently planned, the extension from Western and Wilshire to the VA — which, by the way, will come only within half a mile of the UCLA campus, one of the busiest destinations in all of Southern California — won’t be done until 2036.

I’ll be 83, and probably not in good enough shape to walk three miles with my mask and snorkel, although I could transfer to the Big Blue bus. Or maybe Villaraigosa and I can double-date and hitchhike the rest of the way.

If the mayor has his way and gets federal support to build all Measure R projects in 10 years instead of 30, the completion date for the VA station would be closer to 2019.

I argued that the stretch from the VA to the beach is both a huge employment corridor and a high-density residential area because of the number of apartments and condos. A full subway extension also would be a service to tourists staying in Santa Monica and trying to see what L.A. looks like beyond the Third Street Promenade.

Not only did De la Vega agree, but he said the ridership forecast for that stretch would be significantly higher than for other projects Measure R will pay for, even after the Expo Line makes it all the way to Santa Monica along a more southerly route.

But don’t forget, he said, that Measure R specified that only 35% of the money would go toward new rail and rapid bus lines, with the rest sunk into street and highway improvements and buses.

Just as you could make a strong argument for going all the way to the beach, De la Vega said, you could make a strong argument for instead building a connector from Hollywood through West Hollywood and down to the Expo Line. Or for more service in the southern part of the county, as well as the southeast, as well as the ….

OK, OK. So what if instead we built a busway, like the Orange Line, that would go all the way to the beach?

Yes, De la Vega said. But it would move fewer people, take longer to go from downtown to the Westside and cost more than trains over the long haul despite initial savings.

I’m still not ready to give up. I say we implement congestion pricing on all the ridiculously traffic-snarled east-west corridors west of the 10 Freeway, which would redistribute traffic to nonpeak hours and raise money to pay for the subway extension.

Or we could ask Eli Broad and David Geffen, and maybe a few of their friends, to sponsor the Broad-Geffen Express, taking the Subway to the Sea all the way to the sea.

Any votes for either?