Reagan Administration and local transportation officials announced Friday a breakthrough agreement on the funding of Los Angeles' Metro Rail system that could permit construction to begin by fall.
Assuming the tentative agreement is finalized and approved as expected by various city, county and state agencies in the next few weeks, officials said ground could be broken on the first $1.25-billion leg of the long-awaited downtown-to-San Fernando Valley commuter line in three to four months. Service is now expected to begin in early 1992.
Jubilant city and county political and business leaders, hailing the agreement as the dawn of a new era for Los Angeles transportation, celebrated with a rush-hour, champagne-popping press conference at the site of the proposed Civic Center station.
"We're proud to say today that Metro Rail lives," said a beaming Mayor Tom Bradley, who has been trying to bring a mass transit system to the city for 13 years.
"Rail is really going to happen here," said Supervisor Deane Dana, chairman of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.
The key to the accord was an agreement by local officials to make up a $203-million shortfall in federal funds for the first segment if Congress does not provide those monies in the future.
In Washington, a top transit official in the Reagan Administration, which strongly opposes the project and has stalled the release of funds already approved for the project, agreed that after a series of false starts, the way appears clear to start construction.
"They got their project started, and we got everything we wanted" in guarantees that local funds will make up any shortfalls or cost overruns, said Ralph Stanley, head of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration.
But Stanley stressed that there is no federal commitment in the agreement to build anything beyond the 4.4-mile segment from Union Station to Wilshire Boulevard at Alvarado Street. And he insisted that there are no guarantees of what level of federal funding will be available for the project in the future. "I think it is very high risk due to the potential for enormous (local) financial obligations," he said.
Specifically, the agreement provides for UMTA to immediately release $225.3 million in construction funds appropriated by Congress over the last three years. With previously appropriated engineering and land acquisition funds, that would bring the federal share of the costs to about $500 million--$203 million short of the 55% federal share proposed by the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which will build and operate the system.
That shortfall will be pledged out of the half-cent sales tax for transit that was approved by Los Angeles County voters in 1980. Local transit officials say their obligation to make up the shortage will be "liquidated" as Congress makes additional appropriations. They note that the 1987 transportation appropriations bill moving through Congress has $110 million earmarked for the project.
'Demonstration of Tenacity'
The remainder of the funds will come from the city, county and state and from a property assessment on businesses located near proposed Metro Rail stations.
Bradley and other officials praised the cooperation of the public and private sector, congressional supporters and the small army of hired lobbyists who helped keep the project alive through nearly a decade of ups and downs. "This is a demonstration of tenacity, of determination," Bradley said.
Jan Hall, a Long Beach councilwoman and the new president of the RTD board, predicted that Metro Rail will be a "magnificent project" that will "change the face of Los Angeles" County transportation.
The portion of the system covered by the agreement would be entirely underground. However, some Westside segments of the line could rise above ground to avoid tunneling through potentially hazardous methane gas areas. A decision is expected in the fall, but the route being recommended by RTD staff is a mixed elevated-and-subway alternative that has been criticized by homeowner groups.
That alternative would split the system at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. One elevated branch would run along Wilshire to Fairfax Avenue, while another elevated line would run north on Vermont and west on Sunset Boulevard before returning underground to pass through the Santa Monica Mountains and under the Hollywood Freeway to North Hollywood.
Officials Friday noted that the commuter line, which is projected to carry 50,000 riders a day on the initial leg and more than 300,000 a day when the entire line is completed, will be the "backbone" of a 150-mile rail system that they hope will eventually be built. Two segments of the overall system have been approved--light rail trolley lines between Los Angeles and Long Beach, and along the Century Freeway between Norwalk and Los Angeles International Airport.
Though proponents appear to have the necessary votes, issues of how much local assistance may have to be provided, uncertainty over how the first leg will be connected to the San Fernando Valley and the lack of a commitment to pay for construction of later segments may spark additional debate before construction actually begins.
For example, the Los Angeles City Council has demanded a so-called "letter of intent"--a promise to build future segments--before they will release their $34 million toward the project.
And Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a critic of the project, said he may fight additional appropriations. "It never made any sense to me to start until we knew where the whole system was going," he said.
Before construction begins, final approval also is required from the City Council, the state Transportation Commission and the RTD board.