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MTA Subway Plan Faces Many Hurdles

Transit: Effort to extend spur down Wilshire would face funding and approval problems.


Los Angeles does have the nation's worst traffic, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that whenever the city considers a showpiece transit project, up pops a serious roadblock.

Want to build a rail network down the middle of freeways? Too expensive. Want to create dedicated bus lanes? Too political. Want a monorail? Too many NIMBYs--not in my backyards.

How about, as county transit officials began discussing again last Thursday, trying to extend the subway down Wilshire Boulevard to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

Will it happen any time soon? Probably not.

That's because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would have to leapfrog several difficult roadblocks to extend the line beyond its end point at Western Avenue--from a shrinking capital budget to legal and political wrangling to the immense power of a longtime congressman whose moves have derailed subway plans for 16 years.

"The fact that the MTA is bringing this back up is amazing," said professor Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. "The conditions on Wilshire, the mix of dense housing, businesses and foot traffic, are perfect for a subway. The ridership, just with this small extension, would be very high.... [But] the agency faces a real dilemma. It's going to be very difficult" to get built.

Realizing that, the MTA hopes to take on the project in incremental steps. First the agency would seek a small amount of money from Washington, probably about $150 million for engineering, when Congress adopts a six-year financial package next summer.

Second, sometime around 2009, when Congress considers another federal transit funding package, the MTA would ask for construction money. If the MTA's history is any guide, a three-mile stretch could cost close to $1 billion, at least half of which would come from federal coffers.

None of this will be possible without clearing the first roadblock: "Henry Waxman," said Taylor, referring to the Democratic congressman from Los Angeles. "He's the key. Without him, this goes nowhere."

On Thursday, the MTA board directed the agency to seek repeal of a 16-year-old congressional ban on subway tunneling in the Fairfax district. The ban, created at Waxman's behest in 1986, was the product of concerns about tunneling in an area soaked with underground oil and gas pockets.

Since then the MTA has repeatedly said technology exists to vent gas, prevent fires and make the subways safe. But in an interview after last week's MTA vote, Waxman said the agency faces an uphill climb.

"I haven't seen anything to prove the safety issue can be relieved," Waxman said. "My paramount concern is safety. If it can be shown that there are technologies that exist now to make things safer, I would be open to listen. But right now, I'm not backing off."

Waxman added that he remains very skeptical of the MTA, which botched numerous aspects of its 17-mile subway network during construction in the 1990s.

Businesses suffered and closed along the construction path, buildings were damaged, a sinkhole nearly devoured a Hollywood intersection, and cost overruns meant some sections of the railway cost $300 million per mile.

So far, there has been no groundswell of public support that might lead Waxman to change his mind. "It's been silent. I've heard nothing from my constituency," he said.

Even if Waxman had a change of heart, the MTA would need to persuade Congress to loosen its purse strings for three miles of underground railway.

"It's just not likely to happen," said Kenneth Orski, a transit expert based in Washington. Orski said the climate has changed since the 1980s and early '90s, days of the "big money subways like they had in Los Angeles."

Today, Congress and the Federal Transit Administration operate under a "build more for less money" philosophy, he said. Instead of subways, light rail and expansive dedicated bus lanes, projects that are usually at least half the cost of subways, are the rage in Washington.

Still another political hurdle comes in the form of a 1998 referendum, sponsored by MTA board member and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, that prevents local sales tax money from being used to match federal dollars on subways.

Yaroslavsky wrote the referendum because of the MTA's poor track record in subway building; it stopped both a planned rail tunnel to East Los Angeles and a subway spur that would have swooped from Wilshire into the Mid-City area.

In an unexpected twist, Yaroslavsky backed the MTA's Wilshire extension plans last week. Still, he made it clear after voting that he would not stand for a repeal of his legislation.

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