For decades, people have said the traffic-choked Westside, more than most other parts of the region, needed a mass transit system that went beyond crowded buses. But neighborhood opposition and high costs have always stymied proposals for light rail or subway.
As it happens, plans for a Westside rail system are already chugging along, just not where many people think they should be.
The transit line that appears close to becoming a reality for the Westside isn't the long-debated Wilshire Boulevard subway running through the heart of Beverly Hills, Westwood and Brentwood and near Century City's worker-jammed office towers. It is instead a light rail line miles to the south that would extend through a largely industrial and residential area that parallels Exposition Boulevard.
The 9.6-mile Expo Line would begin at the existing 7th Street Metro Rail station and follow a former freight route through southwestern Los Angeles before heading west to Culver City. It is intended eventually to run to Santa Monica.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to release the project's environmental impact documents Monday, and officials said Friday that they have identified $590 million in federal and state funding, $50 million shy of the total needed for the downtown-to-Culver City run. The MTA expects to begin the first phase of construction early next year.
The documents call for 10 stations along the route, with two possible routings through downtown and five variations offered for the hotly debated Culver City "interim terminus" that would complete the first phase in 2010.
Unlike the long-stalled Wilshire Boulevard subway, which would cost $1 billion for its first three miles, the Expo Line could be built less expensively because it would be above ground and on an old Southern Pacific right of way that the MTA owns.
Although some residents along the right of way still oppose the Expo Line, their chorus of boos has grown more muted as traffic congestion has steadily worsened and the prospect of perpetually high gasoline prices has settled in.
"With time has come the realization that we cannot continue our current methods," said Steve Cunningham, Culver City's transportation director. "Many people are ready for another option to be there."
Still, critics contend that the MTA is picking political expediency over sound transit planning.
They say the agency is foolish to move ahead on a relatively remote route rather than fight for a more obvious, if problematic, subway line that would draw thousands more commuters.
They worry about another disappointment like the struggling Pasadena-to-downtown Gold Line, which has low ridership and draws complaints about noise, and the Green Line, which runs along the 105 Freeway but stops short of LAX.
"The Wilshire Corridor is probably the only corridor in Los Angeles that one could justify mass transit on," said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the Metrans Transportation Center, a joint research center of USC and Cal State Long Beach. "It's the only corridor to me that has the potential for generating ridership that justifies an investment in high-capacity transit."
David Mieger, the MTA's director of Westside planning, said the Expo Line would attract riders even though it wouldn't pass the retail and business centers along Wilshire.
"The more we've studied it, the more we've become convinced it will be a heavily used line," Mieger said.
The line would, indeed, link some high- and medium-density pockets: the Convention Center-Staples Center area, USC, Exposition Park, the Crenshaw district, Leimert Park and downtown Culver City.
"We see a lot of ridership coming from those residential communities," Mieger said. He noted that the Expo Line would share two stations with the Blue Line, which runs from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach and which the MTA says is the most heavily used line in the nation.
The Expo Line push comes amid a growing clamor about the Westside's snarled traffic. Many key intersections receive a grade of F, the worst possible, from city traffic engineers, and traffic is expected to grow heavier as construction continues in Santa Monica, Westwood, Century City and Marina del Rey.
If the line is built, it would provide the first test of whether West L.A. commuters are willing to use rail.
Connecting the Westside and downtown Los Angeles by rail has been the dream of traffic planners for more than four decades. But the most discussed idea has been constructing a subway under Wilshire Boulevard, completing the Red Line, which now runs from downtown to Western Avenue. The Red Line was originally envisioned as going farther west, but opposition from neighborhood groups in the 1980s killed the plans.