No, the MTA Is Not Speeding Up the Westside Subway for the Olympics

L.A. subway station
L.A. subway station
Frederick Dennstedt / via Flickr

When L.A. officials announced last week that they would be bidding for the 2024 Olympic Games, they emphasized two things. First, no taxpayer money would be needed. Second, L.A. is best positioned to win the Games because it already has the infrastructure in place to host the games.

So it's a little strange, just a week later, to see the Metropolitan Transportation Authority asking for $1 billion in federal money in order to build the Westside subway in time for the Olympics. Didn't they just say they didn't need any more infrastructure to host the Games?

On Thursday, officials sought to clarify that the request for transit money is independent of the Olympics bid.

"All of this happened pre-Olympics," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, chair of the MTA board. "I want to debunk that myth. ... That really wasn't the impetus."

The $6.3 billion subway project has just begun construction. Under the current schedule, it will reach La Cienega Boulevard by 2023, Century City by 2026, and Westwood by 2036. But ever since passage of Measure R, the half-cent sales tax for transit projects, in 2008, officials have been looking for ways to speed up the timetable.

Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa often traveled to Washington to campaign for his "30/10" plan, which would have accelerated the MTA's 30-year construction plan into 10 years. That effort, later rechristened America Fast Forward, did not go anywhere.

But MTA officials are still trying. The latest effort, spearheaded by new CEO Phillip Washington, is an application for $1 billion in grants under a federal pilot program to expedite transit projects. The MTA is seeking an additional $742 million in federal loans for the project. If successful, the MTA could finish the Westside subway by 2024.

The deadline to submit an "expression of interest" in the pilot project was Tuesday, and so MTA officials sent a letter making the case for the subway project. By coincidence, L.A. was just last week selected as the U.S. bidder for the 2024 Olympic Games. And so in their letter, MTA officials noted that expediting the subway project "would directly benefit" the bid. They also said that athletes and spectators could use the train to get to events at UCLA.

They seem not to have consulted with the L.A. 2024 bid committee, which has been saying that L.A. already has enough transit projects under way to make it an attractive host city. The committee also has been guarding against suspicions that the Games will require large expenditures of public funds.

Jeff Millman, spokesman for the L.A. 2024 bid, said in a statement that a completed subway "would be great to have, but our Olympics concept would fit comfortably in our city with the infrastructure that will be built by 2024."

The $1 billion would be a federal grant. But the $742 million in loans would have to be paid back with interest out of local tax dollars, according to David Yale, MTA's managing executive officer for planning, programming and grants. That may well be a worthwhile expenditure, but the public might get wary if it's too closely linked to the Olympics.

Complicating matters further, the MTA also sent a letter seeking $77 million to expedite construction of the LAX transit connection, to move up completion of that project from 2028 to 2023. Again, the MTA mentioned getting it done in time for the Olympics. What makes that confusing is that airport officials have already said that the project will be done in 2023, without the expedited funds.

When L.A. hosted the Olympics in 1984, the city had no rail lines. Traffic was predicted to be horrible, but was in fact remarkably light. Given that history, it's not obvious that the city needs to spend billions on a rail project just for a 17-day sporting event. It makes much more sense to expedite it for the commuters who would use the subway for the subsequent decade.

But in competing with other cities for scarce federal dollars, MTA officials used every available argument.

"We’re using the arrows in our quiver that we have," Yale said. "Now we're the U.S. Olympic bid city, and we're seeing if we can make that work. We gotta get there anyway."

Another option is to pass another ballot measure in November 2016 that would add an extra half-cent sales tax. Officials are seeking state legislation to allow such a tax to go forward, and developing an expenditure plan. It's entirely likely that the plan would include speeding up the subway.


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