Despite moves in Congress this week to lift a longtime ban on subway tunneling, the epic struggle to build a subway under Wilshire Boulevard remains very much in the slow lane.
The "Subway to the Sea" has long been seen by transportation leaders as a key to easing L.A.'s notorious traffic congestion -- but its $5-billion price tag has long been a stumbling block.
Over the last year, the subway has been the subject of much discussion. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the "Subway to the Sea" crucial to the city's future and made it a top priority. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who two decades earlier had pushed through legislation effectively banning tunneling under Wilshire, had a change of heart, and bills moved forward in Congress this week to reverse course.
But although political opposition has eased, money remains a seemingly unmovable obstacle.
Villaraigosa's office over the last year has been quietly gauging whether the public would agree to foot the bill. In one of the many private polls it has commissioned on a variety of subjects, the mayor's office asked residents if they would support some type of tax increase to pay for the subway and other transit improvement.
The results have not been released. But City Hall sources have said gaining the needed two-thirds majority for either a bond measure or a sales tax hike for the subway looks daunting.
Midway through 2007 -- with high turnouts expected for next year's presidential primary and general election -- Villaraigosa has yet to produce a proposal to take to voters to help pay for the project.
His aides say they are studying all possible scenarios. These include "benefit assessment districts" that would levy extra taxes on residents within half a mile of the subway line. Another idea is to find a private firm that could build and possibly operate the subway.
"The project is possible, but it is not a done deal," said Deputy Mayor Jaime De la Vega. "What needs to change is that we need to grow the funding pie."
One vocal supporter of the subway is Jane Usher, president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission. Yet, Usher believes that the Westside line was closer to getting built when she worked as general counsel for Mayor Tom Bradley in the early '90s than now, when there is no consensus or funding plan in place.
"I thought it was going to happen back then and then I watched the dismantling of consensus in the 1990s and replaced with so much less than was promised," Usher said. "Building a rail line takes a consensus and that consensus is bigger than the mayor, though I believe he can lead us in that direction -- and I believe he is."
Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates L.A.'s other rail projects, have in recent months stressed that the project is far from a top priority.
"We're just really starting and any project of this magnitude is a long-haul program because we have to do the planning studies, preliminary engineering, [receive] environmental clearance, get our funding partners in place. This is not something that we can do quickly," said MTA Chief Executive Officer Roger Snoble.
A telling moment will come later this year when the agency's board approves a long-range plan that prioritizes future projects. Villaraigosa and his appointees to the board are pushing for the subway to be at or near the top of the list.
The MTA is now working to complete two new rail lines -- to Culver City and to East L.A. Moreover, the Wilshire subway faces tough competition for funds from other regional rail proposals, including a less expensive line that would connect Pasadena with the Inland Empire.
The MTA board approved a $5-million "alternatives" study of the Wilshire subway last month, a necessary step that requires the agency to justify why the line should be built. But several board members who approved the study pointedly raised questions about the project's viability.
"When we speak in terms of competing for federal funds, there's also other projects we're looking at for federal funds," said board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. "I want to be clear that this action, although a first step, is not in any way, shape or form approving a 'Subway to the Sea.' "
In the end, local taxpayers will probably have to contribute heavily to the subway effort, as they do in most large mass transit projects being constructed around the country.
Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Assn., said the federal government rarely, if ever, pays 100% of big capital improvements, such as a new light-rail or subway line. Instead, the federal government usually chips in about half -- and only after local agencies show they can provide the rest.
Some subway backers are not giving up on a sales tax increase.