For years, a proposal to extend the Pasadena Gold Line light rail 24 miles east into San Bernardino County languished near the rock bottom of regional transit planners' priority list.
While mayors of communities along the proposed Foothill Extension have lobbied for it as an alternative to the 210 Freeway, directors of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided that other transit and freeway projects deserved the money more. Critics said the line would draw relatively few riders and that some of the towns already had Metrolink, the commuter rail service.
But the Foothill Extension's fortunes may be changing.
As part of a massive transportation funding bill, Congress deemed the Foothill Extension a high-priority project and earmarked $21 million to kick off some initial construction. Tucked into the same legislation, signed this month by President Bush, is special language that would make the project eligible for additional funding.
Exultant officials in the San Gabriel Valley, who have felt frustrated with the MTA's past coolness toward the extension, credit Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) with giving the project new life.
"It's very important for us to do everything we can to move [the Foothill Extension project] forward," said Dreier, through whose district the proposed light rail line would run. "Why? Because we have gridlock in Southern California.... When you look at the growth in Southern California, it's clearly in the Inland Empire."
A recent changing of the guard at the MTA may also boost the plan to build the line between east Pasadena and Montclair in an existing rail corridor at a total estimated cost of $1.3 billion.
During a visit to Dreier's office in Washington last month, Los Angeles Mayor and new MTA Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa pledged support for the Foothill Extension. Also last month, four other new MTA directors took seats on the 13-member body -- replacing others who had declined to help the Foothill Extension secure more funding.
"There are people in the San Gabriel Valley with political clout, and that's a good thing," said former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, one of three new MTA directors appointed by Villaraigosa. "You try to build a system based on ridership and need. But there's a political overlay to that, as to getting the dollars.... Clearly, the fact that you have federal funds available -- it's one of the considerations when going forward."
Because of Dreier's seniority and powerful position as chairman of the House Rules Committee, transportation experts say, he is regarded as a key gatekeeper of funding for various projects in Southern California -- someone whom local officials want as an ally and probably wouldn't want to cross by continuing to oppose the rail line.
A deputy to another MTA director, who asked not to be identified, said: "It would be stupid for anyone in Los Angeles County to think you can call on Congressman Dreier for [funding] projects like the Eastside and Exposition" -- MTA light rail lines that would serve East Los Angeles, downtown, Mid-City areas and West Los Angeles -- "and snub him on a project so important to him."
Some transit advocates still criticize the Foothill Extension, which is undergoing environmental reviews, and fear its new clout could allow it to elbow past other plans in the pipeline.
"Money doesn't grow on trees. Look at this region. Is that the best use for the money?" asked Dana Gabbard, spokesman for Southern California Transit Advocates, a watchdog group. "This project has everything going for it except a justification. It's got all kinds of political mojo behind it, but ... is it cost-effective? These things shouldn't happen just because you get into a circle and beat your chest."
But the proposed line is popular with San Gabriel Valley cities. It would add 12 stations to the Gold Line, which currently ends at the Sierra Madre Villa station in Pasadena. The easternmost stops, at Claremont and Montclair, would share Metrolink stations.
"Every city council, every mayor [for the 11 cities] has gone to Washington to lobby for the project," said Habib Balian, executive director of the Gold Line's construction authority, an independent agency set up by state legislation in 1999 after MTA officials stopped working on the first leg from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena, citing a lack of money. The authority built that portion, and the MTA now runs it, in an arrangement that would be repeated for the extension.
The federal money would help pay for parking structures and bus-transfer centers, among other things. Without it, the project could run out of money in another year and a half, officials say. A mix of federal, state and local funds would be required to build the project.