Proposed Westside subway will do little to relieve traffic congestion, report shows

Though the proposed Westside subway extension is expected to provide substantial benefits for transit users, the multibillion-dollar project — contrary to one of its selling points — will do little to relieve traffic congestion in West Los Angeles or the county, a new environmental review shows.

Released Friday, the subway’s draft environmental impact report states that the project will give transit riders more options and allow them to travel across town much faster than the buses that serve the densely populated corridor along Wilshire Boulevard.

Transit officials estimate that a one-way subway trip from downtown Los Angeles to Westwood would take about 25 minutes, something that is now difficult to do in a car at rush hour. Buses make the trip in at least 50 minutes, a time that will only lengthen as Wilshire and parallel thoroughfares become increasingly choked with traffic in the future.

The report shows, however, that in 2035, the subway extension will result in only a tiny reduction in automobile use. It notes that the San Diego Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway and major streets along the line will remain heavily congested because of population growth and a lack of road improvements.

“Remarks that transit relieves traffic congestion are common, but they are without a factual basis,” said Tom Rubin, an independent transportation consultant and former transit agency executive in Southern California who was not involved in the report. “The roads in Los Angeles are so far over capacity, it is difficult to get improvement from new transit projects.”

Traffic relief has been one of the goals of the light-rail and subway projects planned and built by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Elected officials and MTA board members, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have repeatedly said that the Westside subway extension, as well as other proposed rail projects, are needed to alleviate congestion and gridlock.

Though traffic congestion will remain a vexing problem, MTA officials say the subway extension will nevertheless provide a large incentive for motorists to break their automobile dependency because of shorter travel times and a longer route with stops at job centers, tourist attractions, cultural institutions and UCLA.

“We have shown that when we give the public new options, people get out of their cars,” said David Mieger, the extension’s project manager. “The subway will be a good alternative to the automobile. Why would you continue to drive?”

MTA officials also said that traffic congestion can be significantly addressed only through a broad approach that relies on subways, light-rail lines, more bus service, toll ways, better highway management and road improvements.

“The subway shouldn’t be viewed as a silver bullet,” said Marc Littman, an MTA spokesman.

The release of the subway’s draft environmental impact report marks the start of the document’s 45-day public comment period, which includes five hearings between Sept. 20 and Sept. 29. Written comments can be submitted to the MTA until Oct. 18. The report is posted on the MTA’s website at

The report analyzed a range of options, from not building a subway at all to five proposed routes, including a nine-mile extension to Westwood, a 12-mile path to Santa Monica and a 16-mile option that includes spurs to Santa Monica and West Hollywood. The estimated costs of the alternatives range from $4.2 billion to $9 billion.

A final environmental report will be prepared after MTA officials select a route on Oct. 28. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012 and take until 2035 unless Villaraigosa wins federal support for a plan to speed completion of MTA projects.

According to the draft report, the annual miles traveled by motorists countrywide would decline a fraction of 1% if the extension to Westwood is built. The drop in miles traveled would be around 1% if the 16-mile option with spurs to Santa Monica and West Hollywood goes forward. The reductions are roughly the same for the Wilshire Boulevard area.

The report states that by 2035, the overall reduction in vehicle trips in the county will range from 10,000 to 18,000 a day, depending on the option that is built. However, that would be an insignificant amount considering that automobile trips are projected to increase to more than 26 million a day in the county by 2035, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

The subway would do little to offset the increases in automobile travel predicted over the next 25 years in the county and the Wilshire Boulevard area. Fueled by population growth, the miles driven by motorists will rise almost 66% in the county and 26% in the area served by the subway extension. Already, highways, intersections and streets in West Los Angeles are among the most congested in the county.

In addition, Paul Sorensen, associate director of the transportation, space and technology program at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank, cautioned that traffic reductions achieved by transit projects such as the Westside subway could fade over time.