When the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission voted last month to seek a Westside extension of Metro Rail along Pico Boulevard, it dropped two subway stations, like a pair of political plums, into the district of U.S. Rep. Julian Dixon.
Dixon (D-Los Angeles), a longtime supporter of Metro Rail, said in an interview last week that he would have preferred to see the rail line routed along Wilshire Boulevard, the heavily traveled backbone that transportation planners consider ideal.
That route would have crossed the district of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). But despite a barrage of telephone calls in recent weeks from elected officials, including county Supervisor Ed Edelman, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Beverly Hills Councilman Allan L. Alexander, Waxman was adamant in his refusal to allow the Metro Rail tunnels in the Fairfax District, which he represents.
Reiterating his concern about potentially explosive methane deposits, Waxman said: "I just think there's a danger that is not reasonable for us to take."
There was nothing new in Waxman's position. Five years ago, he blocked funding for the subway system after a methane blast injured 24 people at the Ross Dress for Less store on 3rd Street, less than a mile north of Wilshire.
It was only after Metro Rail supporters, Dixon among them, agreed to steer the subway away from the area that the project went ahead.
But local officials, spurred by the hope that the fledgling subway system might reach La Brea Avenue within the decade and one day reach to Westwood, were hoping that Waxman might have softened his resolve.
"I talked to Henry two times to see if he would open it up, or at least to meet with a group of people who didn't want to forgo the Wilshire route now," Edelman said. "He just felt that he didn't want to reopen the issue."
As envisioned, Metro Rail will start at Union Station, run under the downtown business district and out along Wilshire Boulevard to Western Avenue. A branch will go north along Vermont Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard, turning west on Hollywood and north through the Cahuenga Pass.
With much of this work under way, what is at stake is a proposal for federal funding to help extend the line two miles to the west and two to the east, along with the link to North Hollywood.
Metro Rail planners, backed by local officials who want to serve the museums and high-rise office buildings along the Miracle Mile, hoped to keep digging along Wilshire Boulevard.
"That's where all the action is," said Beverly Hills City Councilman Max Salter, who also called Waxman.
This would enter the methane zone identified by city geologists after the 1985 Fairfax explosion, but Metro Rail engineers said they saw little danger.
Edelman said he pressed this point in his conversations with Waxman. So did Beverly Hills Councilman Alexander, who said that it would be "ludicrous" to build such an ambitious transit system without a station at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"That's like the Paris Metro not having a stop at the Louvre," Alexander said.
A spokesman for Bradley said the mayor's call to Waxman was not meant to advocate a specific route. "Basically it was informational, to find out if there was any change in the congressman's position," Bill Chandler said.
But given the powerful congressman's opposition, the county Transportation Commission, which is managing construction of the Metro Rail, decided at its meeting April 11 to seek federal funding to veer south instead. One of the two new stations would be at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Crenshaw Avenue, the other at Pico Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. Both stations are at the northern edge of Dixon's district, but within walking distance of neighborhoods represented by Waxman.
The choice of route is certain to mean big changes for the neighborhoods it touches. "If I owned property, I sure would want the train to go through there," said Salter of Beverly Hills. "There may be disruption for five years, but ultimately those trains and train stations will make a great contribution to the land around it."
Dixon, who attended the commission meeting, said it was hard for some local officials to let go of the Wilshire Boulevard route.
"You've got people who wanted to keep hope alive by not making any decision on tunneling down Wilshire," he said.
"There's been a five-year period and I said, 'We have to make some decisions,' " he said. "It's unfair to keep holding up making decisions based on attitudes that have not changed."
Dixon, who represents an area that stretches from Pico south to Lennox Boulevard, said he was heartened that minority communities would benefit from Metro Rail along with the rest of the Westside.
He noted that the route could still serve Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood by jogging northwest, perhaps along San Vicente Boulevard.