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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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An Underground Movement Forms in L.A.

Supporters See a Window of Opportunity for Subway Extension

By Josh Stephens

LA Metro

Metro stations have been credited with

revitalizating their surrounding areas,

most notably Downtown Los Angeles and

Hollywood, where several transit-oriented

developments have been built or are

underway.

As Los Angeles has grown more populous and traded density for sprawl, banter about “Manhattanization” has picked up. To the chagrin of many residents, development in the 469-square mile city, and even in its surrounding eponymous county, has consumed nearly all buildable land, and anything further may have to grow up rather than out. How anyone will get to these new developments is another matter.

Anxieties run particularly high on the city’s affluent Westside, an informal subregion encompassing a portion of the city of Los Angeles as well as the full measures of Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Culver City and Santa Monica. This agglomeration spreads seaward in a rough triangle bounded on the north the Santa Monica Mountains and on the south by a gradual transition into working class neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway. The city’s great horizontal boulevards terminate at the unmistakable barrier of the Pacific coast, meaning that, unlike in centrally located downtown L.A., traffic flows through a few key corridors and pools into a relatively small area.

There is neither a Hudson nor East River, but even within its indefinite bounds, the “Los Angelization”—if not the Manhattanization—of the Westside took hold long ago. While a heady mobility defined the city’s early days, congestion has become the city’s answer to the Empire State Building as a symbol of a place and its way of life. But if a growing chorus gets its way, the Manhattanization of at least a piece of L.A. may come to pass—from the ground up.

After over a decade of dormancy and a litany of mishaps, civic leaders are trying to get Los Angeles’ famously chaotic public transportation scheme in order, and a focal point of these efforts is the extension of the subway to the Westside, a project whose prospects have, over the past 35 years, wavered between inevitable and unthinkable. While the city’s signature industry has created entire worlds year after year, its civic leaders let dreams fall by the wayside.

“An advocacy infrastructure . . . has been nonexistent except for recent times,” said Denny Zane, former Santa Monica mayor and co-founder of the Subway to the Sea Coalition, a grassroots group that is trying to fill that void. “It’s time to build the subway.”

In the face of historic opposition and mistrust of the county transit agency, forces such as Zane’s are marshalling to build what might be the missing link in the region’s transit system. Political will is building, public frustration is growing, and a new study has put the dreams of armchair transit planners to paper. But, like any blockbuster, this particular fantasy still needs time, deliberation, and money—in Titanic amounts.

America’s Longest 14 Miles

Though a subway had been discussed since 1925, the first official effort came when then-Mayor Tom Bradley vowed in 1972 to build a line that would go at least as far west as Fairfax and then head north to the less densely populated but politically important San Fernando Valley. Instead, a 4-mile version of Bradley’s subway opened in 1990. Though light rail has boomed in recent decades, subway-type heavy rail—high-speed passenger trains operating on tracks separated from vehicular and foot traffic—has fallen into dormancy. Los Angeles’ system was the first and only urban heavy rail system built from scratch in the United States since Atlanta’s MARTA debuted in 1983. 

Unceremoniously referred as the “minimum operable segment,” the first leg was not so much a system as a symbol. It traveled from one edge of downtown to the other. It grew by 14 more miles in the following decade—but not necessarily the optimal 14 miles.


LA Metro

A Metro subway car pulls into the Hollywood/Vine station,

where decorative film reels adorn the ceiling.

Completed in 2000, the resulting route runs through downtown and then heads westward under Wilshire Boulevard, splitting at Vermont Avenue. Its northern spur, named the Red Line, passes through Hollywood and terminates at the eastern edge of the San Fernando Valley. The Purple Line continues below Wilshire but was cauterized a mere mile past Vermont, at Western Avenue, whose disorienting name is a vestige of less sprawling times. Between the current subway and Metro’s 55 miles of light rail and three decades of building and planning, not one inch of track has penetrated the Westside.

The blame for this shortcoming falls on a cast of thousands. Westside residents voiced opposition to the intrusion of the subway—and its largely poor, minority riders—into their plush neighborhoods. In turn, the Rapid Transit District (RTD) was accused of discrimination for wanting to serve the Westside in lieu of minority neighborhoods. RTD and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) were disbanded and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) was created in 1993 to serve the unusual combined role of highway planner and transit operator for the entire county. Three years later, Metro faced a civil rights lawsuit and agreed to a 10-year federal consent decree that required it to dedicate more resources, mainly buses, to underserved communities. Meanwhile, subway contractors were accused of shoddy work and malfeasance.

To top it off, the ignition of a natural pocket of methane gas in the subway’s would-be right of way blew up a clothing store. Unconvinced that tunneling could proceed safely, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) successfully passed legislation freezing further federal funding for tunneling in the area. (Engineers have always maintained that Waxman’s concerns were scientifically unfounded.)

Even amid this chaos, the rudimentary subway system that emerged now garners over 130,000 boardings per day. They’re hardly New York numbers (overall subway ridership there is about 5 million per weekday), but they are enough to make transit advocates and Metro planners wonder what could happen if the subway actually was allowed to follow its most logical course.

“L.A. does have areas that are very dense, and the Wilshire corridor going out to the Westside is our densest corridor,” said David Mieger, Westside project manager at Metro. “In this particular corridor . . .  we’re at subway densities.”

They are also at rickshaw speeds. The Los Angeles region was once again ranked the most congested U.S. city in the 2007 edition of the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report. Commuters waste an average of 72 hours per year in traffic at an annual cost of $1,300 per driver. Just on the Westside, the 10 Freeway carries more cars than any other in the nation, with over 300,000 per day. In any other city, Wilshire Boulevard wouldn’t be a busy street—it would be a busy freeway. In Westwood, where Wilshire fans out as wide as 10 lanes, it carries over 100,000 cars per day.

For all those cars, Metro records over 1 million bus and train boardings per day. Most of these riders, however, do not take the bus of their own discretion. Vast commutes make even the current transit network impractical for would-be discretionary riders, leaving Metro with a largely poor ridership that has no choice but to endure the region’s thickening street traffic.

Bygones

Three years ago, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa included in his campaign a pledge to build a “Subway to the Sea.” In truth, the Subway to the Sea was a peppy alliterative fiction. Metro had no active plans at the time of the election, and upon election Villaraigosa was allowed to appoint only four of Metro’s 14 board members (including himself). But the slogan resonated strongly enough that it caught the imagination of both the public and the city’s leadership.

“[Subway opponents] are becoming isolated as the community broadly recognizes that you can’t have a first-class economy without a first-class transportation system,” Zane said.

“There’s a palpable change on the Westside,” said Jody Litvak, who is leading the Metro’s Westside outreach efforts. “People get it. … Their travel times get worse. People are very supportive.”


Rios Clementi Hale Studios

Rios Clementi Hale Studios has drafted a long-range

master plan for Century City, the Los Angeles area's

largest concentration of office buildings outside

downtown. Intended to make Century City more

pedestrian-friendly, the plan anticipates a potential

subway portal at Santa Monica Boulevard and

Avenue of the Stars--six miles west of its current

terminus.

This enthusiasm arrives at a pivotal moment in the city’s history. To Metro’s relief, a judge allowed the consent decree to expire on schedule in 2006, and higher-density development has been underway all over the city. Meanwhile, Metro overcame historical derision to win a national transit award in 2005, and even the city’s stereotypical racial tensions—epitomized years ago by Rodney King and “Boyz N the Hood”—have receded from the spotlight in the face of a common enemy: traffic.

Perhaps most importantly, Waxman brought about the repeal of his funding ban, allowing Metro to finally do more than just daydream about revving up the boring machines. Freed from the ban, Metro released earlier this year the results of the Westside Extension Alternatives Analysis Study, a preliminary step towards garnering support and making the project eligible for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) New Starts funding.

The study surveys a variety of routes and modes, including bus rapid transit (BRT), aerial rail, monorail, subway and a pro forma “no build” option. Though it makes no official endorsement, the analysis implies that aerial infrastructure would not be appropriate for what is already the region’s most built-up corridor and that even a dedicated busway would not attract nearly as many riders as rail and would raise the ire of businesses along Wilshire.

“I don’t think [Metro] has an easy job,” said Lisa Schweitzer, professor at USC’s METRANS Transportation Center. “Trying to wedge a rail system into a mature metropolitan area—it’s a very hard thing to try to do.”

“One of the factors that goes into making a recommendation is public acceptance,” said Litvak. “Everybody widely said that they want [the] subway.”

Of the study’s four favored subway alignments, the most straightforward is a 12-mile, 12-station shot down Wilshire that would serve major nodes such as Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Century City and UCLA/Westwood. A more ambitious “combined” alternative would extend both the Wilshire and Hollywood lines, with the latter swooping southwestward under West Hollywood and merging with the ocean-bound Wilshire line underneath Beverly Hills. Upon full build-out, either route would take less than 20 minutes to cover distances that can be interminable via auto.

The Price of Traffic

Many drivers stuck on the 10 Freeway eastbound at dusk would pay almost any price to get home faster. But the enormity of the projected $5.5 billion project makes a strict cost-benefit analysis a dicey proposal for Metro, especially when it is running a nine-figure annual operating deficit. On those grounds, some observers believe that if the subway never arrives, it will be too soon.

“I’m still skeptical [about] … the huge cost compared to how much difference it could make; it’s very difficult to justify,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation. “Given how jobs are dispersed all over the five-county metro area, we have millions of different trips, and a small number of them can be conveniently made by rail.”

Jim Moore, director of the Transportation Engineering Program at USC, said that any new capital costs should go into buses, which can better respond to the region’s diffuse travel patterns. In contrast, he said that Los Angeles has suffered when attention has turned to rail.

“Rail has absorbed a lot of resources from what would be the bus side of the house,” Moore said.

According to Moore, Metro’s rail projects have actually coincided with a drop in systemwide ridership, from a high of 496 million boardings in 1985 to a low of 360 million in 1996. He noted that boardings are again approaching their all-time high, but with a population 20 percent greater than it was 20 years ago.

“Ridership dropped in aggregate by about 3 billion boardings,” Moore said. “That was done at considerable expense.”

A Broader View

In a new Los Angeles, however, the subway may be not only about shuttling people around the county, but taking advantage of trends in smart growth and urban living.

“It will cost more, but one should not simply calculate the benefits in terms of passengers per dollar,” said Zane. “There are so many other benefits.”

Supporters hope that the subway extension would complement demographic and cultural shifts that counteract Los Angeles’ stereotype as a suburban monstrosity by liberating residents from cars and creating dense, dynamic neighborhoods—perhaps not like Midtown, but maybe like SoHo.

“[Residents] are interested in living in more urban, more urbane communities where you can live and work in the same community,” said Gloria Ohland, vice-president of Reconnecting America and a Subway to the Sea Coalition board member. “People are making different lifestyle choices.”

Supporters say a resulting increase in property values will make the subway a worthwhile investment. Studies by the American Public Transit Association (APTA) indicate new rail stations can spur significant increases in the value of surrounding real estate that would indirectly compensate for Metro’s expense.

“In this economic downturn, housing closer to rail is doing significantly better than those communities that are far away from rail,” APTA Vice President Rosemary Sheridan said.

Traditionally, freeways would link those communities with workplaces and other urban nodes. The strict accounting methods that make the subway seem inefficient make Los Angeles’ signature mode look downright ghastly.

“We never justify our road system at all,” said Bart Reed, executive director of local advocacy group The Transit Coalition. He compared the subway with a 10-mile carpool lane being added to the 405 Freeway in which “you’re basically spending $1 billion to accommodate 2,800 cars per hour.”

No matter the outlay, proponents contend that the subway’s longevity alone justifies the expense. According to FTA standards, some elements of a Westside extension, mainly the tunnels, could be amortized well into the 22nd century.

“What happens when we take a look at Los Angeles in 2050 or 2090?” Reed said. “Things will evolve, but we’ll have this backbone system.”

A Federal Case

Whatever the Westside extension’s long-term value may be, without funding up-front it will remain less than a hole in the ground. In its fullest form, a Westside subway extension would be among the most massive current projects to seek FTA New Starts funding, which supporters say is crucial. They also say it would be a worthwhile investment, even in a national context.

“L.A. is the capital of the Pacific Rim for the United States. . . . Our local economy is one of the most important and creative sectors in the American economy,” Zane said. “That prosperity ultimately rests upon the efficiency of its transportation and communications infrastructures.”

Though the FTA has been particularly generous towards light rail in recent years, two heavy rail projects have already laid the tracks for Metro’s appeal to the federal government. Within the past year, the New Starts program has approved seed money for New York’s Second Avenue subway and a rail link in Washington, D.C., to Dulles Airport. Those approvals suggest that heavy rail is in the FTA’s good graces. Or that the well is running dry.

“Given the way FTA has structured the program, combined with rising capital costs, it’s getting harder for subway projects to qualify,” said Jeff Boothe, a consultant who heads the New Starts Working Group, which lobbies for funding of transportation projects.

Even so, the political and literal climates may be tilting even more in Los Angeles’ favor.

“There’s an opportunity for Congress to grow the program to respond to the demand for transit and to respond to pressures related to gasoline prices [and] climate change,” Boothe said.

The Westside extension would not necessarily be larger than those projects, but whereas the Washington and New York extensions would add to robust networks, the Westside extension would nearly double Metro’s entire heavy rail system. But compared to the expected half-million daily riders who would eventually use New York’s Second Avenue line, the Westside extension teeters on a rail-thin margin between efficiency and excess.

According to Metro’s analysis, the most straightforward alternative, the single Wilshire extension, would attract 70,000 new boardings and save riders an average of 55,000 hours per day. It would also connect to commuter rail and Metro’s vast bus and light rail systems, thus linking the Westside with heretofore inaccessible corners of the county.

But the figure that matters most to the FTA is an obscure calculation of cost per passenger-hours saved. In light of the study’s ridership estimates, each hour saved over the useful life of the project would cost $31. The Wilshire-only extension falls in what Metro describes as the FTA’s traditional $25-$35 acceptable range, and the combined alternative exceeds it by a dollar.

“We’re pretty close to being cost-effective,” Metro’s Mieger said. “The ridership and travel time savings are so great that they balance the high costs.”

Getting Local Supporters on Board

While federal funding depends, in part, on formulas and calculations, local funding presents a more subtle challenge. To pay the remainder of the tab, subway supporters are gearing up to assemble what might be the most complex funding package ever for an American transit projects. Proposals include public-private partnerships, benefit assessment districts and a countywide sales tax hike that would require the approval of two-thirds of the county’s voters.

“This one is going to be tough,” Mieger said. “We’re trying a number of ways to raise money.”

Los Angeles County is, in fact, seldom regarded as an entity in its own right. But Metro’s countywide jurisdiction means that the Westside extension will have to win over stakeholders who might not want so much capital funding to be concentrated in one corner of the county.

For that reason, the subway would eventually have to be integrated into the many projects of Metro’s long-range transportation plan. The current draft lists the subway only as a “Strategic Unfunded” project among the total of $152 billion worth of projects Metro would like to pursue between now and 2030. Once integrated, the subway would be eligible for funds generated from, for example, a sales tax, but it would not be able to make anything resembling an exclusive call on them.

Nevertheless, the subway’s supporters see the potential for strength in numbers, which is why the Subway to the Sea Coalition has renamed itself the LA County Transportation Funding Collaborative and has positioned itself to lobby for funds for all Metro projects.

“It has to be a coalition and campaign that appeals to all residents of L.A. County. It can’t just be one project,” Ohland said. “It has to be a vision for making the [region] more transit-oriented.”

The Metro board recently voted to  draft a half-percent sales tax measure and is expected to vote in July on whether to put it on November’s ballot. The Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation estimates that such a tax would ultimately generate $32 billion in economic activity in the county.
 
Even in the face of those numbers, unifying the county’s 10 million residents will require a radical break from the attitude that prevails when everyone is locked in their rolling metal cages, fighting for position and racing to beat the red light.

“Everybody is my ally, and nobody is my opponent,” Zane said. “We need a two-thirds vote for the half-cent sales tax. You make your friends.”

If amity prevails and Metro is authorized to proceed with further studies—settling on an alignment and doing preliminary engineering work—the Westside extension still will not break ground for another half-decade at the earliest. But, with increases in everything from greenhouse gas emissions to fuel prices to commute times, by then it may be welcomed all the more heartily.

Josh Stephens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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