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$9 Billion Subway-to-Sea Rip-off 

War of words erupts when data show tiny ridership won't help jammed L.A. or Westside

Thursday, Sep 23 2010
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When USC professor and transportation expert James Moore heard the findings several days ago that the $9 billion Subway to the Sea won't relieve congestion on the Westside, as vowed by Antonio Villaraigosa, Moore was among a number of transportation insiders who wasn't stunned.

"I didn't need an Environmental Impact Report to know that," says Moore, iconoclastic director of transportation engineering at USC, referring to an environmental study by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Moore says the truth about how Metro plans to use up to $9 billion in sales taxes being paid by 8 million consumers in Los Angeles County is: "We're not building [a subway] to ease congestion. We're doing it for political reasons."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER

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The draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is making waves in political, fiscal and transportation circles here and in Washington, D.C.

The study directly contradicts Metro board members, Villaraigosa, former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane and others who promised that the crammed corridor between the region's key job centers — downtown L.A. and Santa Monica — would see congestion relief by extending the Purple Line to Westwood.

Opponents called the subway a foolish waste, saying Villaraigosa, Zane and others were peddling a giant public works project to please unions and special interests, and that the $9 billion — reaped from a half-cent county sales-tax hike approved by voters in 2008 — should go to county road-capacity projects put off for decades, extensive bus lines to bring the region into the 21st century, and scores of less glitzy projects.

The EIR makes plain that Villaraigosa's Subway to the Sea — praised by no less than President Barack Obama — will deliver none of his promised congestion relief.

Now, cities whose residents are paying taxes into the L.A. subway's cost — but are getting little or none of their money back for their own aging roads, new buses or better transit — are asking how Villaraigosa can justify a subway that's more PR icon than traffic relief project.

Carson Mayor Jim Dear wants a complete rethinking, saying, "The plans should be revamped so some of that $9 billion goes to other traffic projects that will show a true benefit."

Marsha McLean, mayor pro tem of Santa Clarita, supports mass transit but says her feeling now about the Westside subway is, "If you're going to have a pot of money, you need to hand it out to all areas who need it — not just one." Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, calls it a "collosal construction project that does nothing" for those paying the taxes.

Metro's Sept. 3 EIR found that in 2035, the subway extension from Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard to Westwood/UCLA will create a virtually unnoticeable, less-than 1 percent reduction in cars, as measured in "vehicle miles traveled" and that crammed freeways and arteries — the San Diego Freeway, Santa Monica Freeway, Wilshire Boulevard and others — will remain badly congested as more people move in. "Study Area vehicle miles traveled would be reduced by 0.57% compared to No Build," the EIR tersely states.

The embarrassing data left top backers grasping to explain how Metro's board and L.A. leaders got so far into a $9 billion project without solid facts.

At a surreal meeting Monday night, 200 mostly Wilshire-area residents crammed together to discuss the possible route where the subway tunnel will be laid, but Metro officials failed to correct residents' widespread misimpression that the subway would dramatically cut congestion.

The troubling EIR findings, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, haven't filtered out to average Angelenos — and Metro's David Mieger, a project manager, did nothing to set things straight. "We're choked. We're choked with gridlock," said Ron Fields, a writer who indicated he believes the subway is the answer. Steve Twining, an elderly Westsider, said his neighborhood is "drowning in traffic," adding, "We badly need the subway."

Monrovia Mayor Mary Ann Lutz, who wants a rail line built to her San Gabriel Valley city, has simply decided the EIR is bad, saying, "Some of these studies are not always correct."

Zane, who, with top labor leaders dreamed up the half-cent tax in part to create a source of union jobs and power, tells the Weekly: "Environmental Impact Reports generally understate the positivity of a project."

John Walsh, a Metro watchdog and Hollywood activist since the 1980s, says both of these civic leaders are "full of shit."

"It's the opposite," he says of Zane's criticism of the EIR as underselling the future subway ridership. "The MTA writes the EIR. They always oversell it," typically boasting too-high ridership numbers, Walsh notes.

In fact, environmentalists in Southern California regularly file lawsuits because Metro and other agencies routinely use EIRs to understate a project's negative impacts — not its positive ones, as Zane now claims.

Marcia Hanscom, a leading L.A. wetlands environmentalist, sees Zane's pooh-poohing of the EIR as "puzzling." She says that while she embraces the desire for better transit, her bigger worry is uncontrolled growth — specifically, the poorly conceived Westside subway.

"Why would people want to put such a massively expensive construction project underground in earthquake country, while methane underground still exists on the Westside?" Hanscom asks. "The only thing that changed is the politics — not the geological facts."

Measure R, the tax hike approved by county voters in 2008, will over the next few decades generate $40 billion for roadway modernization, extending light rail to LAX and into some foothill areas, and increasing capacity on the I-5 and 405 freeways.

Elected officials in cities including Pomona, Glendora and Carson, and county supervisors Antonovich and Gloria Molina, were incensed when Metro's board — controlled by Villaraigosa and his allies — chose to hog a big chunk of the $40 billion for their short, Cadillac-priced subway line. Though touted as costing $4 billion in 2008 dollars to extend the Purple Line to Westwood, the subway's pricetag is expected to hit $9 billion due to Metro cost overruns.

"We wanted our sales taxes to contribute to a project in our area," recalls Glendora Mayor Pro Tem Douglas Tessitor, explaining why his city, South Pasadena, Monrovia and West Covina all opposed Measure R in 2008.

Villaraigosa promised county voters that the subway would benefit the whole county, easing horrific Westside and L.A. congestion that hundreds of thousands of non-Angelenos pass through.

Now Zane is backpedaling, saying, "My expectation has always been that not just one program will ease traffic." He theorizes that smaller Measure R projects, particularly extended rail lines, when combined with the subway, will effectively reduce L.A. congestion.

The problem with Zane's vision — though popular among L.A.'s "smart growth" transit enthusiasts — is that new rail projects don't appear to make traffic any better in other U.S. cities. But they do soak up precious transportation money.

Wendell Cox, a transportation expert and subway critic who has studied rail systems globally, says, "There's no evidence anywhere in the world that shows rail projects relieve congestion."

He calls Zane's theory — that a mix of rail projects, along with the Westside subway, will have a noticeable impact on L.A. traffic — "absolutely ludicrous."

Moore and Cox say people overwhelmingly prefer to drive unless they live and work in an unusually dense metropolitan job center — and in the U.S., Manhattan is one of the very rare examples of that.

Instead of rail, "Road capacity is always a good buy," Moore says — a claim that infuriates rail advocates who want to get Angelenos out of their cars.

Metro has poured billions into light rail and subways, letting road systems badly age. And still, only 2 percent of residents in the greater Los Angeles urban area, stretching from Orange County to Pomona to the Valley, use public transit. Cox estimates that getting a single motorist out of a car and onto the Westwood subway will cost $7,500 to $15,000.

Still, voicing support for rail is shrewd politics today.

Elected officials use the Subway to the Sea to promise construction jobs to L.A.'s politically influential labor unions and, increasingly, to promise "green" development and sustainable living to vocal transit-advocacy groups.

Says Moore, "It's sheer pandering."

But Bart Reed, executive director of The Transit Coalition, says younger people will change their behavior if the Purple Line extension is built, promising "a whole new generaton of Angelenos who can ... get out of their cars."

Today, Glendora Mayor Pro Tem Tessitor and Monrovia Mayor Lutz no longer oppose the half-cent sales-tax hike.

Again, shrewd politics is at play.

In late 2009, Metro's board promised to tap the sales tax to extend the Gold Line light rail to far-flung Monrovia and Glendora.

"Once we got our fair share of the pie," says Tessitor, "we figured we needed to build a [rail] system that's countywide."

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

Reach the writer at pmcdonald@laweekly.com

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