The rail has been a priority for a succession of mayors dating to Tom Bradley. And planners have envisioned a subway in the Wilshire corridor since 1980, according to experts.
But early plans for the Wilshire subway literally went up in flames with a 1985 methane explosion in the Fairfax district that led to concerns about tunneling through an oil-field zone with pockets of the explosive petroleum-related gas. Until several years ago, an underground subway was contrary to federal law because of a ban engineered by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
Another hurdle was a voter-approved initiative that cut off such projects from a key funding source. That effort was led by Westside Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. But safety studies, entreaties from Villaraigosa and others, and worsening traffic prompted Waxman to agree to a repeal of his ban; and Yaroslavsky, also an MTA board member, voted for the extension Thursday.
"It's an important turning point for public transportation in Los Angeles," Wachs said.
He added that even with the approval, the subway must go through a lengthy process of planning and obtaining permits, followed by congestion and detours during construction.
Transit systems exerted a huge influence on local transportation and development in the evolution from horse-and-buggy to trolley, but less so when modern transit systems have faced competition from cars, said Eric Morris, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA and a transportation blogger for the New York Times.
"In our current world, the auto provides point-to-point, high-speed travel," Morris said. "It's flexible and it's convenient.
"But I can see a subway project in that corridor being competitive. The Wilshire corridor is so dense. There are a lot of jobs within walking distance. If any project has the ability to reshape travel patterns, it's this one."
In the months ahead, contention is likely to occur over exactly how the subway goes through communities such as Beverly Hills and Century City. Citing a huge sinkhole and methane gas problems associated with construction of the Red Line subway two decades ago, the city of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills Unified School District expressed opposition Thursday to any subway route under homes and the city's high school.
Possible routes run along Santa Monica Boulevard or Constellation Avenue with a station at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars, a major commercial area and job center. Beverly Hills residents and officials support a route and station along Santa Monica, although it might have seismic problems because of an earthquake fault.
Ken Goldman, president of the South West Beverly Hills Homeowners Assn., told the MTA board: "We all say to you with one voice: 'Don't risk the high school to save riders one block.'"
On a motion from Yaroslavsky, the MTA board approved further study of the alignments, including the risk of tunneling through areas with gas and oil deposits.
"Lots of legitimate issues have been raised about the routing," Yaroslavsky said. "We need to know the pros and cons of both routes."
The MTA board also heard concerns from residents and businesspeople in Little Tokyo, who feared that construction effects of the connector would disrupt commerce and tourism in a culturally significant area of Los Angeles.
"Little Tokyo is not a big place. It's a gem of a place, a big part of the downtown scene," said Kenji Suzuki, a local businessman. "Many stores have been there a long time. The construction will devastate those stores, which are what Little Tokyo is all about."
Times staff writers Rick Rojas and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.