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Go, Henry, Go

Twenty years after powerful Westside Congressman Henry Waxman halted subway construction over safety concerns, a panel of tunneling and transportation experts has found that a Wilshire Boulevard subway can be built without setting off methane explosions. For Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, now comes the hard part of rallying public support for his multibillion-dollar subway to the sea. The process will test his ability to make good on his promises to use rail to ease Westside traffic congestion. The five-person panel, jointly chosen by Waxman and the American Public Transportation Association, concluded that, “By following proper procedures and using appropriate technologies the risk [of tunneling] would be no greater than other subway systems in the U.S.” The panel’s final report should be delivered by November 17.The Wilshire Red Line subway, which now stops at Western Avenue, was originally supposed to run to Fairfax Avenue. But after leaking methane gas blew up at a Fairfax-area store in 1985, Waxman pushed through a congressional ban on federal subway funding in L.A. In doing so, he allayed many of his wealthy constituents’ fears of undesirables invading their neighborhoods. Since then, worsening traffic has turned sentiment in favor of the subway, to the point where Villaraigosa made it part of his winning campaign. Many believe that safety was never really the issue and that Waxman was just looking for political cover. “The report is a face-saving device for Waxman,” said former Rapid Transit District president Nick Patsaouras, and “a vindication for us who all along believed that it was safe to build.” Waxman insists that safety was the only issue, and says he is ready to drop the ban. “If technologies exist now — and the panel indicates that they do — to make tunneling safe, the federal prohibition would no longer be necessary and I would move to lift it.”While all agree that moving Waxman off the dime is critical to reviving the subway, it is only the first step. Another crucial phase may be persuading County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to ask traffic-weary voters to overturn his 1998 ban on spending county funds on subway projects. For now, Yaroslavsky is holding firm and does not favor putting the question to voters.But it’s still early. The project, at a cost of $200 million to $300 million per mile, isn’t even in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s long-range plan. “It’s been taken off the charts and when it comes back it’s going to go to the end of the line unless new money becomes available,” said MTA CEO Roger Snoble. “And then we still have all the questions of whether this is feasible from a cost-benefit standpoint.” Once Waxman removes the federal ban, the MTA will most likely put the subway in its 2006 long-range plan. The agency will also conduct an “alternatives analysis,” described by acting MTA planning director Carol Inge as a yearlong community “scoping process” to air the questions of whether a subway is needed and what route it should take. Certainly there will be grandstanding by bus-only advocates and non-Westside leaders who fear losing funds for their pet projects.Subway opponents can be expected to argue that the Exposition light-rail line to Santa Monica, scheduled to start construction soon on an old right-of-way south of the Santa Monica Freeway, will make the Red Line unnecessary. But Snoble says both lines are crucial. “This is a huge corridor. You could put the Expo and the Red Line in to Santa Monica and it would still take an hour to get to Beverly Hills. There is definitely a need for both.” Beverly Hills Mayor Linda Briskman agrees. “Expo is only part of a regional solution,” she said. “Millions of dollars are being spent to get the outlying residents here and not enough to manage them once they get here.”Assuming no early derailments, the alternatives analysis is expected to result in the selection of a subway extension route on Wilshire from Western to Fairfax. (Villaraigosa said the next two phases will be from Fairfax to Westwood Boulevard and from there to Santa Monica.)After the MTA selects a route, it will take another two to four years to get preliminary engineering work and environmental-impact reports approved by the MTA board and (if federal funds are going to be used) the Federal Transportation Administration. At this point, the project will be “competing [for money] with projects all over the country,” said Snoble. The MTA also will be looking for state and local contributions.This will be the diciest period for the Red Line. Villaraigosa, Yaroslavsky and other local leaders will need to work together to push for money and support from all available sources. “If we expect Villaraigosa to bring us a present with a red ribbon on it, the project will lose,” said James Watt McCormick of the Coalition for Rapid Transit, a subway advocacy group. “What are required are a real movement of leadership in the community and a consensus of support for extending the Red Line.”Other than a general agreement that a subway would be nice, there is no such consensus. Waxman’s removal of the federal funding ban doesn’t mean he will back appropriations for a subway in Congress. On the county level, Yaroslavsky said he sees no reason to ask voters to rescind a 1998 ban he sponsored on county sales tax contributions for subways. “To ask voters throughout Los Angeles County to repeal Proposition A to allow for a subway down Wilshire Boulevard is bound to fail,” Yaroslavsky wrote in response to questions from the Weekly (For a full text of Yaroslavsky's comments, see end of story). “We should work to secure federal and state funds for the Wilshire project. It will be a long haul, but that is how major, expensive projects get built.”Villaraigosa said overturning the Yaroslavsky ban should be considered, though Snoble said that removing it wouldn’t matter anyway in the foreseeable future because local sales tax money for transit is “programmed out” for more than 20 years.The mayor said he hopes to secure subway funds through a $10.3 billion transportation and housing bond initiative sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland. About $320 million of those funds would be earmarked for discretionary spending by the MTA. The measure was shelved in November and may get on the state ballot for the June 2006 election. In the volatile world of California state politics, that is not much to count on. Neither are the recent rumblings from Sacramento about a $50 billion public works bond.The very size of the Wilshire subway project, and the fact that it is rising from 20 years in the grave, creates challenges that will make the Waxman prohibition look like nothing. West L.A.’s congressional and county leaders are ambivalent toward the Red Line extension. The mayor will be going it alone on this issue until there is evidence that the voter support for a subway that helped put him in office has translated into popular readiness to pay for a huge tunneling project on the city’s main street.The mayor said he “definitely intends to continue pushing for the Red Line.” From now on, that pushing will have to include some passing of the hat. The Subway Interview Here are five questions the L.A. Weekly asked county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, with his responses: L.A. WEEKLY: Are you willing to ask voters to repeal the 1998 ban on the use of county matching funds for subway tunneling? If so, when do you intend to do so? If not, why not? ZEV YAROSLAVSKY: No. Proposition A was approved by over 65 percent of the voters in 1998, and I don’t believe that the result would be substantially different today. The only place where there is any discussion about a subway project is along the Wilshire corridor. In my judgment, it is the only place in our region where the residential and employment density justifies the more than $300 million per mile investment that a subway entails. To ask voters throughout Los Angeles County to repeal Proposition A just to allow for a subway down Wilshire Boulevard is bound to fail. Our energies would be better spent identifying other funds that are subway eligible to fund the Wilshire subway, and I believe that is possible. We should work to secure federal and state funds for the Wilshire project. It will be a long haul, but that is how major, expensive projects get built. A state infrastructure bond is now being discussed by the governor and the Legislature’s leadership, and a Wilshire subway extension should certainly be included in that bond. While local sales taxes cannot be used for tunneling, they can be used for non-tunneling aspects of a project. For example, the East Los Angeles Gold Line extension project has approximately two miles of subway. Federal funds are being used for the tunneling while local sales taxes are being used for other aspects of the project. In other words, there are a number of viable and credible funding sources that are available for a Wilshire Boulevard subway extension without asking voters to do something they are not likely to do, i.e., repeal Proposition A. Have you had any discussions with Mayor Villaraigosa in the past four months regarding the extension of the Red Line to Fairfax Avenue? If so, please describe them in detail. I have had discussions with Mayor Villaraigosa about extending the Red Line to Fairfax Avenue and beyond. I have suggested to him a funding strategy for a Red Line extension that would include federal, state and infrastructure bond funds as a basis for financing it. I believe he is in agreement with that approach and that he and his staff are working toward that goal. Have you had any discussions with Henry Waxman in the past four months regarding the extension of the Red Line to Fairfax Avenue? If so, please describe them in detail. I have had several conversations with Congressman Waxman in the last 18 years regarding tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard. Mr. Waxman has always indicated to me that if it could be demonstrated that tunneling under Wilshire is safe, he would be willing to consider amending his congressional legislation that prohibits tunneling in the methane zone under Wilshire. My most recent conversation with Congressman Waxman was last Friday when he and I discussed his reaction to the peer-review panel’s conclusion that a subway could be safely constructed under Wilshire Boulevard. He told me that he has not had an opportunity to read the report as yet but that he had a positive reaction to the unanimity of the panel’s recommendations, including his own appointees to the panel. Understandably, he wants to reserve final judgment until he reads the report. In an August 19, 2005, L.A. Weekly article, you said: “If there’s ever going to be another subway in L.A., it’s going to go down Wilshire, no doubt about it . . . Eventually, it’s going to happen because it’s the only way to move people east/west.” Do you still believe these comments to be true? If so, please describe what efforts you intend to make to extend the Red Line west on Wilshire. I do stand by my comments as quoted in the August 19, 2005, L.A. Weekly article. As to what my efforts and, by extension, those of the MTA will be, I refer you to answer No. 1. I do and will support efforts to secure federal, state, infrastructure bond funding and eligible local funding for a Red Line extension. Has the increase in traffic congestion on the Westside since 1998 changed your opinions as to whether it is appropriate to use county funds for a Wilshire subway? Actually, traffic congestion on the Westside has been intense for years. I have always supported a Wilshire subway extension, as I supported the extension of the Red Line to the San Fernando Valley when many demanded we stop it in Hollywood. My issue has been with its source of funding and with the MTA’s ability to approve a subway where it was justified and to say “no” in areas where it made no transit or economic sense. Indeed, when local sales taxes were subway eligible, every community in Los Angeles thought they were worthy of a subway. If the MTA had pursued such a plan, as the majority of its board was inclined to do at that time, it would have bankrupted the agency and would have made it impossible to fund transit improvements of any kind in any community in our county. Since the passage of Proposition A in 1998, the MTA has opened, is building or will soon commence construction on four mass-transit lines: the Gold Line to Pasadena (completed in 2003), the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley (completed in 2005), the Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles (under construction since 2005) and the Exposition Light Rail from downtown to Santa Monica (construction to begin in 2006).


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