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Valley Subway Prevails Over Elevated Rail : Transportation: Mayor Riordan introduces winning MTA motion, which passes on an 8-5 vote. Those who backed a line above the Ventura Freeway are bitter.


Years of heated political battling over the future of mass transit in the San Fernando Valley ended Wednesday in victory for a mostly subway line from Universal City to Canoga Park and defeat for the rival proposal to erect an elevated rail line above the Ventura Freeway.

Culminating a debate that at times took on the air of theater, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to approve the mid-Valley subway option along Burbank and Chandler boulevards.

The vote was a surprisingly decisive 8 to 5, though up until the last moment neither side dared predict victory. The losers were bitter in defeat as the winners exulted.

"It's a great day for the Valley," Los Angeles County Supervisor and MTA Chairman Ed Edelman, the most outspoken defender of the subway alternative, said afterward.

"The board had the wisdom to follow the facts and make a decision. I hope this'll end the struggle over this."

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, an MTA member, introduced the winning motion to adopt the subway route and move forward with the environmental studies that must now be conducted to qualify the project for federal funding.

"It's clearly the right decision," said Riordan, who supported an elevated line over the freeway during his election campaign last year, but announced Tuesday that he had changed his mind.

Riordan said he reversed his endorsement because the subway will cost far less than previously believed, serve more heavily populated areas, provide an alternate transit corridor in the event of damage to the freeway, and enjoys the support of most homeowner and civic groups in the Valley--a key political base for the mayor.

But county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who has lobbied fiercely for years for the rail line above the freeway median, lambasted Riordan for "lacking vision." He accused the mayor of going "back on his word," and cited a non-binding referendum in 1990, when the freeway rail option drew the most ballots from Valley voters.

"Going back on the people is a bad policy," Antonovich told Riordan in a stony exchange after the vote, as the mayor tried to make peace with a handshake and explain his change of heart.

Antonovich characterized the decision as a triumph for interest groups with stakes in subway construction. Citing problems already plaguing work on the Metro Red Line in Hollywood and elsewhere, Antonovich said extending the subway into the Valley would be an expensive boondoggle that would drain scarce funds from other important transportation projects.

"The taxpayers were hit between the eyes by the big liberals who never bat an eye spending other people's money," he said.

"I hope everybody in the San Fernando Valley will watch those change orders and the building costs escalate."

Antonovich pressed the case for an elevated freeway line as a cheaper alternative and contended that an at-grade railway would cost even less, possibly by as much as $500 million less than a predominantly underground system.

But recent studies erased the huge financial advantage planners once ascribed to an aerial system. And fellow MTA directors rebuffed Antonovich's last-ditch attempt to delay a vote for 90 days to further study the at-grade freeway option, a relatively recent idea Antonovich has pushed to make the Ventura Freeway route more palatable.

"You can (keep coming) in with new proposals. Where do you end up?" Riordan said. "Somewhere along the line you've got to make a decision."

In addition to selecting the subway alignment, Riordan's motion called for exploring the postponement of some station openings to save money. It also asked planners to consider the use of less costly construction techniques, such as putting the rail line in a covered trench rather than traditional deep-bore tunnels.

The mayor's backing of the below-ground route was key to its success before the MTA board, which has wrestled with the issue for a decade. His endorsement just the day before the decision ensured subway supporters at least four votes, including Edelman, Riordan and two of Riordan's three appointees to the board.

The third appointee, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, has in the past voted for the Ventura Freeway alignment, but had reached what Riordan aides called "an understanding" with the mayor Tuesday. On Wednesday, Alatorre underwent oral surgery in the morning and was absent from the afternoon MTA meeting. That cleared the way for his alternate, fellow Councilman Nate Holden--a staunch subway supporter--to cast the vote.

Despite the bloc of five subway votes going into the meeting, victory was not assured, as both sides of the debate frantically counted votes and repeatedly came up short of the majority of seven needed to win.

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