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Officials choose path for long-awaited subway to the Westside [Updated]

October 28, 2010 | 11:47 am


Development of a long-awaited subway link from downtown Los Angeles to the Westside took a giant leap Thursday when county transportation officials selected a general route from the Wilshire-Western station to the veterans hospital in Westwood.

The decision by board members of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority sets the stage for the trickier business of going block by block to establish the precise path and determine where to place stations.

Construction is set to begin in 2013 after a final environmental impact review.

MTA staff had recommended the 9 1/2-mile route to the veterans' hospital because of higher ridership projections. The estimated cost of that option is $5.15 billion.

Four other options were under consideration by the board, which included Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has stressed the need for a Westside "subway to the sea" throughout his tenure as mayor.

Those included a nine-mile extension from the Wilshire-Western station to Westwood-UCLA; a 12-mile alignment to the beach in Santa Monica; a route to the veterans hospital campus plus a spur to West Hollywood; and a 12-mile link to Santa Monica plus the West Hollywood spur. The estimated costs of the projects ranged from $4.2 billion to $9 billion.

Also under consideration Thursday was a $1.37-billion regional connector through downtown Los Angeles that would allow light-rail users to travel across the county without time-consuming transfers.

[Updated at 1:08 p.m.: Board members also subsequently approved that plan by a 10-0 vote.]

MTA officials have said both projects would provide an incentive for motorists to break their long dependency on cars by offering more access to key destinations and faster travel times, especially during rush hour.

The regional connector alone, officials said, could boost the number of subway and light-rail users anywhere from 5% to 18% depending on the line.

[Updated at 1:08 p.m.: Both approvals are a milestone in the region’s transportation history, one with the potential to shape where people live and work as well as shorten the time of their commutes, experts said.

The connector would make all parts of the system faster and more usable. And the Wilshire corridor extention to the Westside finally fills in a gap that, based on traffic patterns, was among the highest priorities all along.

“This is a big moment,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the METRANS Transportation Center at USC. “A subway is the single biggest item on the transit construction list, and this is the single busiest corridor in the entire region. If there should be a subway anywhere it should be there.”

Transit systems have exerted a huge influence on transportation and beyond when the change was from horse-and-buggy to trolley, but less so in Southern California when modern transit systems have faced competition from cars, said Eric Morris, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA and a transportation blogger for the New York Times.

“In our current world, the auto provides point-to-point, high-speed travel,” Morris said. “It’s flexible and it’s convenient. But I can see a subway project in that corridor being competitive. The Wilshire corridor is so dense. There are a lot of jobs within walking distance. If any project has the ability to reshape travel patterns it’s this one.]

[Updated at 2:12 p.m.: Even the project’s supporters, including USC’s Giuliano, raised funding concerns, noting that money has not been identified to operate the system, for which fares provide well under half of operating costs.

That concern was echoed by critics, including organizer Eric Romann of the Bus Riders Union, which advocates for the rights of low-income bus riders. He cited the project’s environmental impact report as evidence that the multibillion-dollar cost would provide limited returns in terms of ridership compared to other potential projects.

The Bus Riders Union has persistently criticized subway construction for leading to higher bus fares and more limited bus service, especially in difficult economic times. Romann also raised a civil rights issue. The subway, he said, would serve disproportionately white and prosperous commuters at the expense of low-income black and Latino residents who rely on bus service. But difficult economic times also offer an economic advantage to this moment, said Giuliano, in terms of lower construction costs. That’s why Villaraigosa’s efforts to accelerate the timetable for construction are so crucial, she said.]

[Updated at 11:55 a.m.: Here is a map from Metro on the selected route, which is in purple. It would run largely along Wilshire Boulevard. See more maps at Metro's Source blog.]


-- Howard Blume and Dan Weikel

Photo: Los Angeles Times