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Waxman Rethinks Tunneling Ban

Twenty years after a gas explosion stopped plans for a Westside subway, he plans to review new findings that the project could be built safely.

November 29, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

For two decades, one legislator in Washington, D.C., has stood as an immovable barrier to the long-discussed plans to build a subway from downtown Los Angeles to the Westside.

But now, with traffic gridlocked in his district and the Westside in the midst of a continuing development boom that promises to bring even more congestion, Rep. Henry A. Waxman is having second thoughts.

The Los Angeles Democrat is the most prominent of a growing list of people and groups giving the Westside subway another look.

In the mid-1980s, after a methane gas explosion ripped through a Fairfax-area clothing store, Waxman helped lead the effort to halt plans to extend the Metro Red Line subway west under Wilshire Boulevard. Waxman wrote, and Congress passed, legislation to prohibit using federal money to drill the needed tunnels.

Now, 20 years later, the Westside subway is a top priority of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and an expert panel convened at the request of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority concluded recently that the Wilshire subway could be built safely.

That puts the veteran congressman once again in a pivotal position. By repealing the law, Waxman could help resurrect the dream of an underground transit line to the beach, through a part of town that arguably needs public transit the most.

Waxman has asked the panel to produce a written report on its findings.

"If the report confirms what we've been hearing, I will introduce a proposal to rescind the restriction," Waxman said from Washington.

If Waxman does agree to rescind the law, it would mark a milestone for the subway project -- but it would be only a first step toward getting it built.

No funding, federal or otherwise, is earmarked for such a project, and many other regional transit needs would compete with a Red Line extension. Moreover, the per-mile price for subway construction has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, to between $300 million and $350 million.

Still, backers see Waxman's move as key.

"I would hope the congressman would move in that direction," said Ray Remy, a longtime Los Angeles County transit official and former president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce who served for eight years in Mayor Tom Bradley's administrations. "Mayor Bradley always felt that the most productive line was the Wilshire corridor line. It was one of the principal underpinnings to the large subway system he had contemplated."

Even homeowners who rose up in opposition to the Wilshire subway have mellowed as development has continued apace and traffic has increased.

"Things have gotten progressively worse over the past 20 years, and today we need rapid transit more than we ever did," said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn., which includes much of the Fairfax area. "We do need a solution to this horrible traffic problem."

Assuming that Waxman rescinds his ban, she said, her group would not oppose a subway to the beach, as long as it ran straight out Wilshire Boulevard and the city kept development along Wilshire under control.

On that score, she is skeptical, given the unabated development of retail stores, residences and restaurants in the area in recent years.

Other cities, too, have overcome previous resistance to mass transit on the Westside. Early this year, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood officials said the MTA should revive subway building as a way to ease the region's transportation problems.

"Westside cities ... are one of the great economic engines" of the region, Mark Egerman told the MTA board in February, when he was the mayor of Beverly Hills. "We are being strangled because we have no integrated transit system with the rest of Los Angeles."

*

A subway to the beach has been on transit proponents' wish lists for decades. In the early 1980s, transit officials mapped out a plan to take a subway as far west as Fairfax Avenue. It was then intended to head north under Fairfax, doglegging back under the Cahuenga Pass and into North Hollywood.

But disaster struck when a worker punched a time clock in March 1985, igniting a previously undetected accumulation of odorless methane gas in the basement of a Ross Dress for Less store on 3rd Street near Fairfax. The explosion blew off most of the roof and prompted evacuations from four square blocks of shops near the Farmers Market. For days, fiery cracks opened in the earth until the seeping gas was vented.

"Once Ross exploded," Plotkin said, "we all were just frightened to death and, of course, came out against it."

Waxman said he, too, had paid little attention to the subway plans. "I was a very strong supporter of the Metro Rail system," he said. "I voted consistently for the project," figuring that those plotting the routes "must have known what they were doing."

The blast raised serious questions, Waxman said. After hearing experts' testimony and conferring with transit officials, Waxman concluded that the project warranted further study. "I had misgivings about the whole plan," he said.

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