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Future of Wilshire May Ride on Subway Extension

Transit: Line opening Saturday is hailed as a boon to the area. But anger over construction's impact lingers.

July 12, 1996|RICHARD SIMON and JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles subway, panned by some as a 3.2-mile pastrami express because it ends at a deli, becomes more like a real urban transit system with the opening Saturday of a 2.1-mile extension from downtown to the Wilshire corridor.

After spending $578 million over five years, transit officials are cheering an important milestone in the West's largest public works project. MTA officials will dedicate the extension today and open it to the public Saturday for a weekend of free rides.

But some riders and Wilshire property owners aren't joining the celebration.

Passengers will no longer be able to ride for a quarter. Monday, the fare is jumping to $1.35.

And some major Wilshire Boulevard landlords complain that dozens of insurance companies, advertising agencies and law firms that once made the area a thriving regional center fled the noise, dust and detours of Metro Rail construction. High-rises, nearly 90% occupied when tunneling began in 1991, are now less than 70% full, according to commercial real estate industry estimates.

Still, when the first train rolls out of the artsy station 60 feet beneath Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue at 4:43 a.m. Saturday, transit officials will enjoy a happy break from the turmoil that has surrounded the crown jewel of the city's transportation system.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials predict that ridership will double to more than 40,000 passengers a day, even with the higher fare.

The subway, which currently runs between Union Station and MacArthur Park, will now stretch to Wilshire with stops at Vermont, Normandie and Western avenues.

The station at Wilshire and Vermont will be unlike any of the other stations. Passengers will ride the longest escalator west of the Mississippi into the deepest station, 120 feet below the street, and see whimsical artwork, such as a tiny unicyclist rolling on a tightrope.

The extension has come at a high price. Its tunnels and stations came in at 18%, or $45 million, over budget, according to federal transit authorities' math. The MTA says the project came in under its budget, which included funds to cover an expected 10% cost overrun.

And 17 Wilshire property and business owners have sued the MTA for an estimated $50 million to $75 million over damage they say subway construction caused to their buildings and future economic prospects.

At $289 million per mile, the Los Angeles Red Line is among the most expensive subways in the world.

Even some people who should have the most to gain are wringing their hands: Retailers and restaurateurs wonder whether riders will pay $1.35 to take a subway that goes not quite 5 1/2 miles.

"Nobody's going to spend $2.70 to come here and eat," lamented Al Langer, 83, the owner of Langer's Delicatessen, an Alvarado Street restaurant at the current end of the line. Langer said the opening of the downtown subway three years ago rescued his business.

Now, Wayne Ratkovich's Wiltern Theater will anchor the end of the line. But he's not any happier than Langer. He believes that subway construction delivered a "mortal blow" to an area already struggling to recover from the sharp downturn in the real estate market in 1991, the riots in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

MTA officials assert that in the years ahead, the inconvenience of tunneling will seem insignificant once new customers and businesses are attracted to the area because of easier and faster mass transit.

Ratkovich said he can't afford to wait. "It doesn't make any sense to go around ruining parts of the city so you can take credit for saving them 20 to 30 years down the line," he said.

Architect Gary Russell agrees that "there's no question we went through hell." But Russell welcomes the subway and improvements like the planting of 500 trees on Wilshire that will make the boulevard "a grand place again."

Even though the neighborhood has fallen on hard times--as have other areas struck by the recession but not by rail construction--Wilshire Boulevard remains one of the nation's busiest public transit corridors.

Nearly two-thirds of the new subway riders initially will be bus riders, forced underground by MTA plans to terminate some Wilshire bus lines at Western. Wilshire Boulevard bus riders will be allowed to transfer to the subway for free.

That prospect has upset some bus riders even if transit officials say the subway will be faster and more comfortable than the bus.

Others, like bus rider Kathy Brown, are excited about the extension. "For me, it will definitely be an advantage," said Brown, who spends two hours commuting via Metrolink, subway and two buses from Moreno Valley to the Crenshaw District.

The entire subway ride from Western to Union Station will take 13 minutes--a 15-minute saving over the same trip by bus, MTA officials said. Trains will travel about 10 mph faster--up to 55 mph--because of longer straightaways in the new tunnels. And the system will stay open later.

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