Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

L.A.’s Westside Subway is Practically Ready for Construction, But Its Completion Could be 25 Years Off by Yonah Freemark

[ Most of you are probably familiar with Yonah Freemark’s fantastic blog The Transport Politic. If not, I just suggest checking it out right away. Yonah is a strong advocate for progressive urban transportation policy, but not jingoistic about it. He’s willing to ask the tough questions about projects that many advocates often aren’t with an eye towards making rational investments that are all they can be. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find there – Aaron. ]

Of the nation’s public transportation improvement projects, Los Angeles’ Westside Subway is one of the most important: It would offer an alternative option for tens of thousands of daily riders and speed travel times by up to 50% compared to existing transit trips. It would serve one of the nation’s densest and most jobs-rich urban corridors and in doing so take a major step forward towards making L.A. a place where getting around without a car is comfortable.

L.A. County’s transit provider, Metro, released the final environmental impact statement for the 8.9-mile Westside Subway project last week, providing the most up-to-date details on a multi-billion-dollar scheme that is expected to enter the construction phase next year. The project received a positive review by the Federal Transit Administration in the Obama Administration’s FY 2013 budget, and it is likely to receive a full-funding grant agreement from Washington later this year. Local revenue sources generated by taxes authorized over the years by voters will cover the majority of the project’s cost.

But questions about the project’s completion timeline remain unanswered: Will L.A. have to rely on conventional sources of financing, or be able to take advantage of federally-backed loans to speed construction?

In addition, the project’s specific plans for station construction suggest that there are opportunities to improve station layout and do more to develop land around certain stops.

(I) The Project’s Significance

Many of the rail expansion projects being built in the United States today serve corridors with rather limited existing bus service — there are few people who currently take the bus from downtown Washington to Tyson’s Corner or Dulles Airport, for instance, but a huge Metro extension is currently being built to connect the three, fundamentally to build a new market of transit riders.

L.A.’s westside, on the other hand, already has a very large base of transit users, and most of them are concentrated on the Wilshire Boulevard Corridor, which runs from downtown, through Beverly Hills, the Century City business district, and UCLA, before reaching Santa Monica. The three intermediary areas together contain about 150,000 jobs — and most of them are concentrated within a quarter mile of the street. The city’s famed congestion, especially severe in this area, has attracted people to transit: The local and express bus routes along the line — the 20 and 720 — carry about 60,000 daily riders.

It is no surprise, then, that the corridor has been a focus of L.A. transit investment proposals for decades. The Purple Line subway, which currently terminates at the Wilshire and Western station, was supposed to extend much further into the city when it was first designed, but the threat of gas explosions, a lack of adequate funding, and significant political opposition delayed that action. Yet the election of Antonio Villaraigosa to the mayoralty of L.A. City in 2005 altered the situation entirely, as he ran on a platform that explicitly endorsed the project’s completion and he later campaigned for a sales tax increase to pay for the project — 2008′s Measure R — passed by a large majority of voters. An alignment with seven new stations was selected by Metro in Fall 2010 after three years of studies, though final decisions on station locations were not announced until this week.

Estimates released by the agency point to the degree to which the subway will improve the performance of the transit system, whose service to the westside is currently plagued by traffic-induced delays. Trips from downtown’s Pershing Square to UCLA will decline from 55 to 25 minutes. Riders travelling from South L.A. will save 23 minutes on their journeys; those from east L.A. and Pasadena will save 29 minutes (see above image). These travel time savings are enormous — more than almost any other transit project in the country — and will attract a projected 49,300 daily riders to the line.

Though the subway’s completion will likely not reduce congestion on the highways (because automobile capacity, it seems, never ceases to be consumed), those who need to travel within the corridor will get a new, much faster travel option that is in many cases faster than that which is offered by private automobile, a remarkable achievement in the realm of public transit.

(II) Questions of Time

Because all of L.A. County’s voters approved the Measure R sales tax increase, it would have been unreasonable to focus all revenues in one corridor (and indeed, one suspects that such a plan would not have been approved). Thus the Westside Subway shares the stage with a blizzard of other transit projects being funded over the next twenty years, including the Regional Connector, Crenshaw Corridor, Exposition Line, Gold Line Extensions, South Bay Green Line Extension, and Orange Line Extensions, among others. The large quantity of funds being consumed to build these lines mean that under conventional financing techniques, the Westside Subway will not be completed to its proposed terminus at the V.A. Medical Center until 2036. Only the first phase — a 3.9-mile link to the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega — would be done by 2020.

For Mayor Villaraigosa and much of the L.A. community, this timeline is unacceptable: To have to wait almost twenty-five years to see a long-planned project completed is scary. Yet the Westside Subway’s $4.4 billion cost (in 2011 terms) is too large for the county to raise money for in a short time period.

Thus L.A. proposed its 30/10 initiative — later renamed America Fast Forward — to use federal loan guarantees to reduce the cost of borrowing and essentially use tax revenues expected to be raised in the future to pay for projects today. This proposal, concretized in the expansion of TIFIA proposed by the U.S. Senate in its transportation reauthorization bill earlier this month, would make it possible for L.A. to build its full subway line by 2022, fourteen years ahead of schedule. Advancing the project’s completion would reduce year-of-expenditure costs for the project from $6.29 billion in the 2036 completion date scheme to $5.66 billion in the sped-up scheme. And it would do it without increasing the level of federal grant commitments to the project, just by reducing borrowing costs for the local agency. Because future residents of L.A. will benefit from transit expansion now, it does not seem unreasonable to use future revenues to pay for the project.

Yet there remains a possibility that the U.S. House, controlled by a GOP delegation that has opposed practically all legislation that Democrats have proposed, will decide not to pass the Senate’s bill and therefore prevent the expansion of the TIFIA program. This would put the timely completion of the Westside Subway in serious doubt.

(III) Station Location

Whatever the Westside Subway’s overall merits in terms of travel time improvements, there remain significant questions about how exactly the line will be constructed. After all, a well-designed transit project is not only one that moves people quickly from station to station but also one that cultivates dense, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Though for the most part the project’s construction has been welcomed by affected neighborhoods, the Century City station — about halfway down the line — has undergone significant opposition because of the proposed alignment. Metro supports the construction of a stop under Constellation Avenue, in the heart of the Century City business district, compared to an alternative under Santa Monica Boulevard, about two blocks north. This is the reasonable choice as the latter alignment runs through an earthquake-prone zone, faces a golf course, has half as many jobs within a quarter mile (10,000 versus 20,000), and would see a third fewer daily boardings according to current estimates (5,500 versus 8,600). Though some locals have complained that the Constellation routing would run under Beverly Hills High School and therefore put students in danger, those concerns are hyperbolic considering precedent in other cities and the obvious advantages of that alignment.

Although most of the stations on the proposed line will have entrances at street intersections in relatively dense, urban areas,* the stop at the end of the line, at Westwood/V.A. Hospital, is an exception. The station exit as proposed would deposit people onto a series of winding paths just adjacent to a parking lot and a section of Wilshire Boulevard that is effectively an expressway (at the intersection with Bonsall), about 1,200 feet away from the entrance to the V.A. Medical Center (see above image). The situation is made worse by the parkland just adjacent to the stop and the impassable barrier of I-405 northeast of the stop. This is a pedestrian-hostile environment that will offer a disincentive to taking the train.

As Metro’s Steve Hymon notes, the V.A. Hospital stop will play an important role in serving the region’s veterans, but terminating the line there misses tens of thousands more people living further southwest along Wilshire in dense neighborhoods. They, too, should be provided improved transit service, but they will have to wait until 2036 or later to see another subway extension because of budget limitations. Many of them will likely want to drive to the station in order to take the subway because of the significant time savings offered, but Metro proposes no park-and-ride facilities there. Though bus connections will be important, the agency is effectively losing out on potential passengers by not providing for that need.

It would make sense for Metro to consider working with the V.A. Hospital to develop the parking lot directly abutting the stop into a high-density residential or office use, considering the significant demand likely to be spurred on by the completion of the subway.

* With stations spaced at about one station per mile, the argument could be made that these neighborhoods are not being served well enough, especially the community situated between the proposed UCLA and Century City stations, which would be about two miles apart.

See the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, Final Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary and Accelerated Financial Plan.

Images above: from L.A. Metro’s The Source and FEIS Executive Summary

This post originally appeared in The Transport Politic on March 25, 2012.

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