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NEWS ANALYSIS : Rail Decision Sets New Course for Future : Mayor: Riordan's key vote will leave lasting mark--for good or ill.


The proposed Valley rail line presented Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan with a rare opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the city and prove himself as good a friend of the San Fernando Valley as he promised during his election campaign.

To many, Riordan came through Wednesday by delivering a crucial bloc of four votes for the approval of a Metro Red Line subway extension from Universal City to Canoga Park.

The decision for the underground system rather than an elevated line down the Ventura Freeway ended more than a decade of political bickering and gridlock that held the Valley railway hostage as other transit projects slipped ahead in line. Local officials were nearly unanimous Thursday in applauding Riordan for breaking the impasse.

But amid the praise were cautions that the ultimate verdict on Riordan's decision will not be returned until completion of the rail line.

In light of the short but checkered history of subway construction in Los Angeles, the final outcome decades from now could be a huge plus next to Riordan's name--or an indelible black mark, carved right into the Valley's landscape.

"Predicting a politician's long-term legacy is like predicting the Raiders will win on Sunday," Northridge political consultant Paul Clarke said.

"In large part, the subway has been a disaster" so far, he said. "I would think that the mayor would not want it to be the hallmark of his Administration. . . . My grandchildren would want to remember Mayor Riordan for something that wouldn't be costing them money."

Despite the points Riordan scored Wednesday with Valley homeowner and civic groups, which mostly supported the subway, Clarke said the short-term political impact of the decision is also tough to gauge.

The political landscape can change drastically in a short period of time.

Riordan will stand for reelection three years from now, and "the issues that will appeal to voters in 1997 will not be the issues that people are dealing with in 1994," Clarke said. "We'll be an awfully dull community if no issue comes up between now and 1997" that will eclipse the rail controversy.

Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that there are fewer opportunities for local politicians to make decisions with such enduring effects on the city.

Taking a position on the future of mass transit in the Valley, and thus ending the deadlock, was important for Riordan to demonstrate his commitment to a region increasingly willing to flex its political muscle.

The Valley accounted for 44% of the city's vote in last year's mayoral election. Nearly three-quarters of Valley voters picked Riordan over then-City Councilman Mike Woo.

"The fact that the mayor is willing to take a stand for the Valley is a good sign," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who also supported a subway. "The Valley is used to being ignored by the people downtown. . . . This is every bit as significant as Tom Bradley's commitment to the beginning of the subway, as other people's visions for the port or the airport. You do not have large capital projects like this anymore."

Former Los Angeles school board President Roberta Weintraub said: "I can't imagine Riordan having another opportunity to be a part of such an expensive building operation. There isn't much left in the way of money to leave your mark. It's going to be a critically important part of his Administration."

By voting for the subway alignment along Burbank and Chandler boulevards, the mayor was forced to abandon the endorsement he made of the Ventura Freeway monorail during his election campaign.

Although more vocal public support for the underground system helped change his mind, Riordan laid himself open to criticism by reversing course. Indeed, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the monorail's most outspoken champion, excoriated the mayor for "lacking vision" and going "back on his word."

"The public is always ready to look critically when an elected official changes position," acknowledged Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick, one of 11 council members who voted last week to back the subway alternative.

But she predicted that Riordan's conversion would resonate strongly with those who urged him to switch sides, many of them influential in the Valley.

"This will be remembered for a long time," Chick said. "Maybe not by a broad base, . . . but for all the people who were intimately involved in this, they will remember, and many of them are community and business leaders in the Valley. . . .

"The Valley's going to continue watching closely and having high expectations."

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