Jim Smith

The Solid Gold Subway

By Jim Smith

The most expensive subway money can buy will one day run down Wilshire Blvd. all the way to the sea, or at least Westwood, if the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the rich guys in the construction business and their pet politicians have their way. But it might be cheaper to send a Limo for anyone who wants a ride down Wilshire Blvd. during the next 20 years or so.

On the other hand, many transit activists and ordinary citizens began having second thoughts after reading the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which was released on Sept. 3. In it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) admitted that the subway would reduce auto traffic congestion by only 1 percent. The current price tag for a subway only as far as Westwood was revealed to be $9 billion. Nine billion dollars for 1 percent traffic reduction? That’s right. That’s what the characters who thought up this massive transit project are now telling us. The truth is, the project will probably cost twice that amount by the time it’s finished. Cost overruns are how Dick Cheney and lot’s of other multi-millionaires and billionaires have made their money.

If you blinked, you missed the hearings on the EIR. The last one was on Sept. 29 in Santa Monica. There is no place in Venice to view this document which describes a transit project costing a minimum of $9 billion. You’ll have to go to read it at the Santa Monica Public Library, if you don’t have internet access. If you do, then google “subway eir.”

Bill Rosendahl has sent a somewhat belated email dated Sept. 22 urging constituents to comment on the subway project by Oct. 18. The MTA will vote on the project on Oct. 28.

It’s not just the money. The subway project would suck the air out of lots of other more modest transit projects in our area for years to come.

The construction of a subway through the Miracle Mile area was outright banned by federal legislation for 21 years, beginning in 1985. In that year a methane explosion blew up a Ross Dress for Less store clothing store north of Wilshire at the intersection of Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, injuring 24. The Los Angeles City Council designated a 400-block area of Wilshire between La Brea and Western avenues as a “gas risk zone.” It was considered unsafe to tunnel in this volatile area or operate a subway. Efforts to get the subway back on track continued in spite of the explosion threat. In 1994, it was estimated that the subway would cost $4 billion to build. But a subway would revitalize the stagnant business climate on Wilshire and possibly bring in hundreds of billions in new high rise construction along the miles-long corridor. After intense pressure, Rep. Henry Waxman agreed with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to have an “impartial” panel rule in 2006 that it was safe, after all.

As if explosive gas was not enough to contend with, the proposed subway route cuts through earthquake country. The 1994 Northridge quake cut a swath through the LaBrea/Fairfax area, dropping a freeway overpass at La Cienega and Venice Blvd. Proponents of the subway claim the system weathered that quake well, and was up and running within 24 hours. However, there were no subway lines where the quake was most severe. Would they have been unaffected, or would people have been buried alive?

The only thing certain in building mass transit seems to be cost overruns. The Expo Metro line has ballooned from $640 million to $862 million for the 8.6 mile route from downtown L.A. to Culver City. An extension to 4th and Colorado in Santa Monica will cost more. Even so it is about one-tenth the cost of the subway, which will also go from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica.

Another option is a monorail, which can be built for one-tenth the cost of a subway. (see www.monorails.org). Or to put it another way, 100 miles of mass transit via monorail can be built for the cost of 10 miles of subway. The subway will cost a minimum of $9 billion (and probably much more) after everyone gets their hands in the till.

Even without a monorail, costs could be reduced substantially by having the subway emerge from its hole near Western Avenue and run at above ground level, that is, “elevated.” Even that would be lots cheaper than underground.

The bottom line is that we need mass transit throughout Southern California and if we squander all our transit funds on one subway, it’s going to set back the cause for years.

A Venice member of Bill Rosendahl’s District 11 Transportation Committee, David Ewing, said: CD 11 took position that we wanted Alternative 5 (in the EIR) which includes a West Hollywood loop and that the subway should come all the way to Santa Monica. We did not consider cost. We also want a line through mountains to the Valley, although that’s not currently a consideration. Personally, I have questions about the duplication of function between the subway and the Expo Line. We missed a chance for a better transit system in the 1970s when Calvin Hamilton, the head of the Planning Department promoted a proposal for “centers” of greater density around the area. They would have been linked by transit corridors. If we could have any system we wanted it would be a tight subway grid in the downtown area. Unfortunately, when you add in a subway to the sea, it creates sprawl.

Another Venice member of the District 11 committee, Steve Freedman, added: “It (the subway) is an extremely expensive approach to mass transit. I question that. The subway seems to be moving forward. Our existing transit system is a hodge-podge of different technologies. They’ve operated in isolation to each other. There are a lot of east-west transportation lines in this city. What’s lacking is north-south lines. I would like to see a major initiative for north-south lines, with a subway going over the hill (or under the hill) to the Valley and all the way to Long Beach.”

Bill Rosendahl’s planning deputy Paul Backstrom told the Beachhead that the Councilmember is “reviewing the alignment and is eager to hear public input.”

Backstrom can be reached at 213-473-7011 or paul.backstrom@lacity.org.

Did anyone ask why light rail is good enough for Black people in South Central and Latinos on the East side, but white folks have to have a ten-times more expensive subway? If there is another eruption of social unrest in Los Angeles (the last one was in 1992), it may not be due to the westside subway, but that is sure to be part of the postmortem.

The Western Avenue to the sea (or close to it) subway extension would cut through the richest and whitest part of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Century City. This is an object lesson on who is important and who is not important in the city of Los Angeles.

Also left out of the discussion by MTA in its desire to steamroll the subway is the Bus Riders Union, which is probably the most effective transit advocacy group in history, and the first one to be led primarily by people of color. As it promotes a subway, the MTA is busy cutting bus lines which are utilized by more people than light rail, commuter trains and subways combined.

Nothing is going to get people out of their cars and onto any kind of mass transit except economics. When gasoline rises to $5 a gallon, lots more commuters will take the bus, train or what have you. When it hits $10 a gallon, which will likely be sooner, not later, everyone will be demanding mass transit on their nearby busy street. If MTA and the Mayor respond, “Sorry our transportation funds are tied up in this subway for the next 10 years or more,” there will be hell to pay.

If some form of mass transit is going to travel the Wilshire Blvd. corridor, a reasonable and cheaper, alternative to a subway could be an “elevated,” rolling a few feet above the ground and down the center of the street, which would involve no change of train right into downtown L.A. Don’t confuse a quiet and colorful elevated with the ancient ones still rattling above the streets of Chicago. Or, it could be an even cheaper Monorail that could curve south at Western Avenue to pick up workers bound for Beverly Hills, Westwood and Brentwood.

Why do all the trains begin and end in downtown L.A.? It is only a small fraction of the megalopolis’ population and area. But it is where corporate wealth and power in concentration, along with L.A.’s city hall. Another example of who’s in charge.

An “Elevated” could actually improve that ugly, car-chocked artery. Let’s close Wilshire to auto traffic and make it a 10-mile-long pedestrian mall full of cafes, green grass, kids playgrounds, bike trails, etc. Cars could drive west-bound on 6th, and east-bound on 7th/8th streets. With a little traffic engineering, driving would be less clogged than it is now, on Wilshire.

The result could be a much cheaper train, a boost for moribund businesses along Wilshire, a mall that would attract both residents and tourists from around the world, and an economic engine that would last long after construction was finished.

Come on, let’s try to envision more than a hole in the ground.

Categories: Jim Smith, Mass Transit

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