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Transit Symposium Focuses on Light Rail

By Gene Willimas
Staff Writer

May 8 -- As Bill Millar looked out from the stage into a room filled with perhaps as many as 200 Westside officials, it was clear that this genial round-faced Midwesterner was in his element.

“We’re talkin’ transit,” said Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. “And nothin’ could be better than talkin’ transit.”

As chief advocate for the nation’s public transit industry, Millar had come from Washington D.C. to the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood to moderate a day of discussion called Transportation Symposium 2.

Hosted by the Westside Council of Governments, Friday morning’s meeting came less than six hours after legislators in Sacramento passed a series of bond proposals that could bring in as much as $37 billion for public works, including $4 billion for public transportation.

“But it doesn’t happen unless voters approve it in November,” said Art Baur, an aide to State Senator Alan Lowenthal. “November is a lifetime from now.”

And so the meeting quickly took on the flavor of a motivational rally, as one speaker after another talked about the need to stand together and get the vote out next fall.

Officials from Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City and West Hollywood are hoping the bond money will help complete the Exposition Light Rail, linking Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles.

When it’s finished, 72,000 passengers are expected to ride the train each day.

Phase 1 of the project to bring the train west to Culver City is already funded and will break ground next year. If all goes well, it will be completed in 2010.

Now officials are scrambling to come up with $750 million more to bring the line the rest of the way to Santa Monica. Projected completion for Phase 2 is 2015.

But even if November’s transportation bond passes, that doesn’t mean any of it has to go to Expo Rail or any other Westside project.

“The bond is not project specific,” said Roger Snoble, CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Officials predict stiff competition for the state money.

Snoble urged Westside officials to take it one step at a time. “The important thing now is to get it passed,” he said. “Because if we don’t get it passed, we don’t get any of it.”

Pointing to transit projects throughout the country, Millar said there is more transit money out there than ever before. But the need is greater too, he said, making the funding harder to get.

“There is an enormous gap between what is needed and what is available,” Millar said.

When it comes to competing for state and federal transit funds, Westside leaders say they keep coming out on the short end of the stick -- unfairly, they add, given the area’s need and its economic importance to the region.

On Friday, they seemed determined not to let that happen again,

“There will be pressure to siphon money off to other parts of the county,” said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Nearly every other section of Los Angeles County already has rail transit, Yaroslavsky pointed out, including Claremont, “a city with a whopping population of 36,000.”

“We have to spend the money where the need is, not where the political muscle is,” he said. “This has been going on for a long, long time, and we’ve waited long enough.”

The Westside is second only to Downtown Los Angeles in employment with some 460,000 jobs -- 74,000 of which are in Santa Monica --- according to the Westside Council of Governments.

In addition, Westside contributes 18 percent of the County’s total sales taxes, even though it has only 6 percent of the population and 3 percent of the county’s total land area, council officials said.

When it comes to transit, some 300,000 ride Westside bus lines each day, and the Wilshire corridor boasts the largest bus ridership in the county.

Yet the Westside as yet has no light rail, while its two freeways -- the I 10 and the 405 -- are the two most congested in the nation, and public buses crawl on the surface streets at an average speed of 11 mph.

Eventually, transit officials hope for a subway along the Wilshire Corridor that will connect West Hollywood with Santa Monica, but at $300 million per mile it won’t be cheap.

Estimated completion for the subway, which has yet to find funding, is 2020.

“I hope I get to ride it before I die,” a long-time transit advocate said Friday.

Yet officials at the symposium were optimistic, even though many of them had worked for a decade or more on these projects with only limited results.

“We’re poised to make a big impact,” Yaroslavsky said. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, and the key is to keep it going.”

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