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Future for Rail, Buses in Valley Uncertain

Transit: Because of fractured politics, officials may become powerless to meet needs. A summit on issue will be held Friday.

September 11, 1997|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time the Red Line subway is built to North Hollywood--sometime after the turn of the century--$6.1 billion will have been spent and the trains won't even run past Lankershim Boulevard.

And while the political clout in other parts of the county has virtually guaranteed subway service, the fractured politics of transportation in the Valley leave the future of rail--and even buses--in serious doubt.

Work on the Red Line extension to Sepulveda Boulevard will not even begin before 2007, if then, and politicians such as Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky have even declared the project dead or dying.

The potential demise of the extension of the line beyond North Hollywood has put the Valley in a precarious position. Still not united behind an alternative approach, and unable to effectively lobby even for a timely continuation of the Red Line, local officials may find themselves powerless to meet the worsening transportation needs.

"You have to make up your mind before you can get in line and try to get funding to build it," said David Mieger, MTA's project manager for the San Fernando Valley Transportation Corridor. "So as long as we can't make up our minds, it means other cities can get in line in front of us in Washington, competing for those federal dollars."

In an effort to create a consensus with which to lobby for bus lines and other alternative means of transportation, a group of powerful business leaders have convened a summit on Valley transportation issues, to be held Friday.

Organized under the banner of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley by Riordan confidant David Fleming and Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. Vice Chairman Nathan Brogin, the summit will include presentations from some of the region's top transportation experts, as well as Riordan, Yaroslavsky, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, local NAACP Chairman Zedar Broadus and the heads of several homeowner associations. Former U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler and former Assemblyman Richard Katz will also attend.

The idea, Fleming said, is to unite behind a single solution--in his opinion, to be based on buses instead of trains--and then present an unwavering front to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"We go to MTA and say, 'Here's what we want to do and here's the price tag,' " Fleming said. "And the people will finally make a decision by consensus as to what they want and, believe me, they'll get it."

But that kind of consensus may be difficult to build.

The alternatives are varied and plans to implement them are fuzzy.

The first alternative, one strongly opposed by Fleming and other summit organizers, is to continue to build the Red Line. Most local elected officials say it's no longer feasible to build it exactly as envisioned--as an underground subway. But light rail or even above-ground heavy rail along the same route would be significantly cheaper and easier to build.

If the light rail system cannot go as far as Warner Center, as originally proposed for the subway, supporters say at least finish it as far as Sepulveda Boulevard.

Building a light rail train above ground to Warner Center would cost just $600 million, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, as contrasted with as much as $1.6 billion if it remains a subway.

Among the supporters of such a plan are Yaroslavsky, Councilwoman Laura Chick and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), all of whose districts would include portions of the line.

Neither Chick nor Sherman were invited to make a presentation at the summit, but Chick said in an interview that light rail, because it is permanent, can move large numbers of people quickly and efficiently and is not subject to traffic jams, should therefore be the backbone of the Valley's transportation network.

"If we are the only geographic region that doesn't have rail transit, we will end up some time in the future being a ghost town," Chick said. "What businesses will want to locate there? Who will want to live there?"

To be sure, some of what's at work among opponents of rail lines is simply politics: Many in City Hall and in the business community oppose the rail line, with its high cost and disruption of neighborhoods during construction.

But it's also true that it will most likely be 20 years before the line is built--if it is built at all. The Federal Transit Administration has put all future payments to the MTA on hold while the beleaguered agency reworks its plan for the region and justifies its budget projections.

Even Sherman, a supporter of the Red Line, said there was a "significant chance" it would never be built.

So why not, say Fleming and others, use the money for a web of buses that would really crisscross the Valley. Trains, these bus supporters say, don't work in L.A. because the region is not dense enough. One could get off an east-west train, bus supporters say, and still have to walk 10 blocks to the north or south to get to work.

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