Building a Metro transit line through the Sepulveda Pass could cost $13 billion

Traffic on the 405 Freeway near the Getty Center in the Sepulveda Pass.
Transportation officials are studying a rail line or monorail that would roughly follow the path of the 405 Freeway and link the Westside with the San Fernando Valley.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

For decades, the rugged Santa Monica Mountains have been the biggest choke point in Los Angeles County’s transportation network, forcing commuters to inch through a handful of congested canyons and passes.

New figures released Tuesday show just how difficult it could be to build a speedy, reliable alternative to the 405 Freeway between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

The price tag for a rail line or monorail through the Sepulveda Pass could be between $9.4 billion and $13.8 billion, significantly higher than previous estimates, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The estimated shortfall of billions of dollars is a significant hurdle for one of the most ambitious and long-awaited transit projects in L.A.’s modern history.


“Where are you going to get at least an extra $7 billion?” said Bob Anderson, the transportation chair of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., a group that wants the rail line to be built entirely underground. “Where is it going to come from?”

The Sepulveda line is scheduled to open in 2033, but it is one of eight projects that Metro’s directors hope to finish before the 2028 Olympic Games.

The four routes that Metro is studying — three subway, one monorail — could whisk riders between the Valley and the Westside in less than half an hour, far faster than driving during rush hour. A 12.8-mile subway tunnel would be the fastest trip, at 16 minutes; the monorail would be slowest, at 26 minutes.

The project has about $5.7 billion earmarked from Measure M, the sales tax increase that county voters approved in 2016. Metro officials say they will seek federal and state grants to make up the funding gap and are considering a partnership with one or more private-sector firms to whittle down the project’s costs.

Since Metro officials planned the Measure M budget in 2015, the cost of the Sepulveda project has risen because of the sheer length of the route — most, if not all of it, underground — and a 2-mile extension to a Metrolink station in Van Nuys, officials said.


“That was an estimate that was put together very early on ... [when] very little was known,” said Peter Carter, Metro’s deputy manager for the line. “We now have more information.”

Tunneling is difficult and expensive everywhere, but particularly in densely occupied Southern California, where labor and material costs are high. The project’s tunnels could be more than 13 miles long.

The Sepulveda line’s travel times and very high ridership estimates would make a strong case for state and federal grant funding, said Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA’s Institute for Transportation Studies. The project will improve travel times for commuters and will connect the jobs-rich Westside to neighborhoods in the Valley where housing is more affordable, he said.

Grants can cover about half the cost of major rail lines in Los Angeles. The most expensive recent project — the $9-billion Purple Line beneath Wilshire Boulevard — has secured about $2.75 billion in federal grants and low-interest loans, and is seeking $1.3 billion more.

Congestion pricing would also raise a vast amount of money quickly, Matute said — although charging drivers more to drive could be politically risky for Metro’s elected board members. The agency has estimated that taxing drivers by the mile could raise $102 billion over a decade, while a fee to enter downtown could raise $12 billion.

Without a guarantee of future revenue, Matute said, the Sepulveda project could “just keep slipping in terms of time. ... We might just end up with a project that’s on the books, but the can is kicked down the road.”

Metro’s directors are scheduled Thursday to consider approving a process that allows the private sector to suggest ways to lower the project’s cost while it is still in the environmental review process. Those companies could eventually bid on designing, building and operating the line.

Public-private partnerships can “work miracles” for major construction projects, Anderson said, but they don’t “create billions of dollars from nothing.”

The three subway options Metro is studying range in length from 12.8 miles to 14.3 miles and would cost $9.9 billion to $13.8 billion.

The route with the highest overall projected ridership is a subway line on elevated tracks through the Valley, then in a tunnel from Ventura Boulevard to the Expo Line. The line is expected to accommodate 137,000 daily trips and run from Van Nuys to West L.A. in 19 minutes. It would cost an estimated $9.9 billion to $12.2 billion to build, Metro said.

The two subterranean subway options under study would cost $10.6 billion to $13.8 billion to build and would carry more than 125,000 daily trips, Metro said, and a station at UCLA could be the busiest non-transfer station in the system.

Building tracks and stations above ground is significantly cheaper than excavating. But proposed aerial routes for a subway or a monorail along Sepulveda Boulevard have their own risks.

“We will not accept those options in Sherman Oaks, period, point blank, even if it takes a lawsuit,” Anderson said, adding the train could eliminate parking, worsen traffic and encroach on apartment dwellers along the corridor.

The monorail option under study would span 15.4 miles and cost $9.4 billion to $11.6 billion, officials said. A monorail can handle a steeper incline than heavy rail and would be able to run at ground level for nearly two-thirds of the route, from the Getty Center to Van Nuys.

Metro is also planning to convert the 405’s carpool lane into a toll lane between the 10 and the 101 freeways by 2026. Similar programs on the 110 Freeway and the 10 east of downtown charge solo drivers a per-mile price, which changes based on how many drivers are already in the tolled lanes.

A second phase of the Sepulveda project would extend south from the Westside to Los Angeles International Airport, with a slated opening date of 2057. That line could provide a one-seat transit ride from Van Nuys to the airport in less than 40 minutes, Carter said.

Metro will host public meetings on the plans starting Wednesday.