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Villaraigosa has bullish plan for rail transit projects

October 29, 2009 |  6:44 pm

If Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has his way, Los Angeles County is about to embark on a commuter rail building boom the likes of which the region has never seen.

On Friday, the mayor will unveil an ambitious but politically risky transportation plan that fast-tracks several high-profile rail projects to be completed within the next decade. That’s a big speed-up because officials have generally been talking about completing them within 30 years.

Villaraigosa has made building more rail a top priority of his administration — though he’s the first to admit it’s going to take more than speeches and good intentions to get it done.

“Yes this is a stretch-goal, yes this is going to be tough, but I think by now folks shouldn’t count me out,” Villaraigosa told The Times in an interview.

“The fact is that this is the most important thing that we can do to alleviate congestion and gridlock, to improve the quality of our air and to really vindicate the people’s will for the need to address transportation,” he said.

The mayor scored a big victory last year when voters approved a sales tax measure to help fund the projects, which include a subway to the Westside, the extension of the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley, the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica and new rail lines down Crenshaw Boulevard and through downtown L.A.

The mayor’s office estimates that the revenue from Measure R and other available funds would provide only an estimated $5.2 billion if they were to expedite the projects. The rest would have to come from private sector partners, the federal government or other public funding. 

Villaraigosa has made it clear he thinks the Westside subway — by far the most expensive project with a price tag of $5 billion to $6 billion — is his top priority. That has sparked conflict with backers of other rail projects demanding that their lines be given equal consideration.

By fast-tracking projects throughout the region, the mayor could ease those concerns — but only if enough money is available. And that remains an open question.

The mayor’s office says the county needs at least $10 billion in additional funds to complete the projects in 10 years. The first step, he said, is building a regional coalition to promote the project.

Then the hard part — finding sources of funding, whether in the form of public-private partnerships or money from the federal government in the form of a no-interest loan, among other ways, the mayor’s office said.

Villaraigosa said he thinks the federal government would be more likely to give Los Angeles County money for the project than other cities because of the passage of Measure R.

He also thinks it will be an attractive offer because, during tough economic times, it would create thousands of jobs much faster than originally planned.

Art Leahy, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that, hypothetically, if there was sufficient funding, the agency would be able to accelerate projects and that it may be cheaper to expedite projects now because “right now we’re in a period of relatively low construction costs.”

Villaraigosa will discuss the plan for the first time Friday at the Los Angeles Business Council’s 2009 Mayoral Housing, Transportation and Jobs Summit at UCLA.

He will tell the group that “30 years is too long” to wait and that all 12 transit projects he wants to expedite can be built in a decade. It’s called the “30/10” plan, and he will joke that some might say he’s “coming up with another dream.”

“The projects are going to happen, there’s no question about that, and I’m going to be very aggressive at getting federal funds.... My goal is to make it happen sooner rather than later,” Villaraigosa said. “I recognize that it’s a daunting task, but I love the challenge and I’m up for it.”

--Ari B. Bloomekatz