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Wilshire route picked for L.A. subway extension

Development of a long-awaited subway link from downtown Los Angeles to the traffic-tangled Westside took a giant step Thursday when county transportation officials approved a general route along job- and population-heavy Wilshire Boulevard.


FOR THE RECORD:
Wilshire Boulevard subway: An article in the Oct. 29 Section A about the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s approval of a Wilshire Boulevard subway route gave 850,000 as the current annual attendance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The most recent annual attendance at the museum, which is along the proposed route, was 905,000. —


The 10-0 decision by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board was quickly hailed as “historic” by First Vice Chairman and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, perhaps the foremost advocate for building a so-called subway to the sea.

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

The action sets the stage for the even trickier business of going block by block to establish the precise path from the existing Purple Line Wilshire-Western station to the veterans hospital in Westwood. Residents of Beverly Hills, in particular, showed up Thursday to underscore their concerns about having trains pass beneath their homes and businesses.

If all goes as planned, construction will begin in 2013 after an environmental impact review.

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“This is a big moment,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of USC’s METRANS Transportation Center. “A subway is the single biggest item on the transit construction list, and this is the single busiest corridor in the entire region. If there should be a subway anywhere, it should be there.”

On another 10-0 vote, the MTA board approved a $1.37-billion regional connector that would run beneath downtown L.A. to unite existing light-rail lines. It would allow rail users to travel across the county without time-consuming transfers.

County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the board’s second vice chairman, abstained from voting on the subway extension; and Supervisor Gloria Molina was absent, as was Lakewood City Councilwoman Diane DuBois. On the connector vote, the mayor, Molina and DuBois were absent.

The 1.9-mile connector would proceed underground via 2nd Street and beneath 1st and Alameda streets. It would include three stations, at 2nd and Hope streets, 2nd and Broadway, and 2nd and Central Avenue.

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MTA officials have said both projects would provide an incentive for motorists to break their dependency on cars by offering more access to key destinations and faster travel times, especially during rush hour. The regional connector alone, officials said, could boost the number of subway and light-rail users from 5% to 18% depending on the line.

The project, estimated to cost $5.15 billion, will be paid for by a combination of federal funds and Measure R, a half-cent sales tax for transportation approved by voters in 2008 just before the global recession struck.

Leaders of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art think that attendance, currently about 850,000 a year, could get a significant boost once the subway line opens, thanks to the stop at LACMA’s doorstep — the northeast corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue.

“We know the subway will be a game-changer for LACMA visitorship,” said the museum’s president, Melody Kanschat. Getting a nearby subway stop was enough of a priority that the museum contributed about $900,000 to the campaign for Measure R.

MTA staff members had recommended the 9.5-mile Westside route along Wilshire — past Hancock Park, Beverly Hills, Century City and UCLA to the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Medical Center — because of higher ridership projections. Stations were approved at Wilshire and Fairfax, La Cienega, Century City, Westwood/UCLA and the veterans hospital campus.

The immediate losers Thursday were advocates of the four other subway options that had been under consideration. Those were: a nine-mile extension from the Wilshire-Western station to Westwood-UCLA; a 12-mile alignment to the beach in Santa Monica; a route to the veterans hospital campus plus a spur to West Hollywood; and a 12-mile link to Santa Monica plus the West Hollywood spur. The estimated costs of those projects ranged from $4.2 billion to $9 billion.

Experts said approval of the subway and connector projects has the potential to shape where people live and work as well as the duration of their commutes. The connector would make all parts of the system faster, and the Westside extension would fill a major gap.

Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank, said the subway approval is significant in that it has been sought for years but held back by political concerns.

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The rail has been a priority for a succession of mayors dating to Tom Bradley. And planners have envisioned a subway in the Wilshire corridor since 1980, according to experts.

But early plans for the Wilshire subway literally went up in flames with a 1985 methane explosion in the Fairfax district that led to concerns about tunneling through an oil-field zone with pockets of the explosive petroleum-related gas. Until several years ago, an underground subway was contrary to federal law because of a ban engineered by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Another hurdle was a voter-approved initiative that cut off such projects from a key funding source. That effort was led by Westside Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. But safety studies, entreaties from Villaraigosa and others, and worsening traffic prompted Waxman to agree to a repeal of his ban; and Yaroslavsky, also an MTA board member, voted for the extension Thursday.

“It’s an important turning point for public transportation in Los Angeles,” Wachs said.

He added that even with the approval, the subway must go through a lengthy process of planning and obtaining permits, followed by congestion and detours during construction.

Transit systems exerted a huge influence on local transportation and development in the evolution from horse-and-buggy to trolley, but less so when modern transit systems have faced competition from cars, said Eric Morris, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA and a transportation blogger for the New York Times.

“In our current world, the auto provides point-to-point, high-speed travel,” Morris said. “It’s flexible and it’s convenient.

“But I can see a subway project in that corridor being competitive. The Wilshire corridor is so dense. There are a lot of jobs within walking distance. If any project has the ability to reshape travel patterns, it’s this one.”

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In the months ahead, contention is likely to occur over exactly how the subway goes through communities such as Beverly Hills and Century City. Citing a huge sinkhole and methane gas problems associated with construction of the Red Line subway two decades ago, the city of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills Unified School District expressed opposition Thursday to any subway route under homes and the city’s high school.

Possible routes run along Santa Monica Boulevard or Constellation Avenue with a station at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars, a major commercial area and job center. Beverly Hills residents and officials support a route and station along Santa Monica, although it might have seismic problems because of an earthquake fault.

Ken Goldman, president of the South West Beverly Hills Homeowners Assn., told the MTA board: “We all say to you with one voice: ‘Don’t risk the high school to save riders one block.’”

On a motion from Yaroslavsky, the MTA board approved further study of the alignments, including the risk of tunneling through areas with gas and oil deposits.

“Lots of legitimate issues have been raised about the routing,” Yaroslavsky said. “We need to know the pros and cons of both routes.”

The MTA board also heard concerns from residents and businesspeople in Little Tokyo, who feared that construction effects of the connector would disrupt commerce and tourism in a culturally significant area of Los Angeles.

“Little Tokyo is not a big place. It’s a gem of a place, a big part of the downtown scene,” said Kenji Suzuki, a local businessman. “Many stores have been there a long time. The construction will devastate those stores, which are what Little Tokyo is all about.”

dan.weikel@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rick Rojas and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.


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