Does downtown L.A. need a streetcar?

Downtown Los Angeles has been transformed with restaurants and shops, lofts and parks, and the idea of adding a streetcar to the mix is appealing. Though modern in design, the proposed streetcar would be an homage of sorts to the trolley system that once spanned Los Angeles. As conceived by a nonprofit group and the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency and championed by City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the area, the streetcar would glide along a four-mile path through the heart of downtown, a chunk of that route down Broadway. The project was promoted as a $125-million venture, half of which would be financed by a tax on owners of nearby property. The other half would come from federal transportation grants. The proposed tax was put on the ballot last November. A special district of downtown voters passed it overwhelmingly.

Now it turns out that the streetcar will probably cost much more than that. Cost overruns are a fact of life in construction, but what’s troubling here is that months before the vote, L.A. Department of Transportation officials already suspected that figure wasn’t realistic. Although DOT officials and Huizar’s spokesman insist they were using the best available information, the fact is that no detailed analysis had been done; among other things, no study of utility lines under the street had been conducted.

The city should have waited for harder information and better analysis before selling voters prematurely on a $125-million streetcar. Not that voters will have to cover the shortfall. The ballot measure allowed the city to raise only enough to cover $62.5 million of the construction costs. But now it’s unclear where the rest would come from or whether the project will get done at all. Voters should have known the facts.


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A more detailed analysis now puts construction costs between $153 million and $162 million. Relocating utility lines under the street could add an extra $79.3 million to $165.8 million, according to DOT officials. Worst-case scenario, the project could cost north of $300 million.

Huizar’s office says voters should wait for the real numbers before panicking. OK. But here is something to keep in mind: It’s a streetcar. It’s not a subway line or a freeway. It will cover a part of the city already served by buses, the Dash and the Red Line. It’s a novelty — a charming one, perhaps, and yes, it could generate revenue for the city over time. If city officials can make it work, great. But if it gets so expensive that it means a drawn-out battle for precious federal transportation funds that might be put to better use elsewhere in the region, then maybe it’s just too much trouble. The last thing the city needs is a streetcar named Disaster.