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Exploring Light Rail Options

By Jorge Casuso

October 14 -- Up or down? That’s the big question Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials will face when they carve out a route for the Expo Light Rail Line from Culver City to Downtown Santa Monica.

But whether the rail line stays above ground after straddling Cloverfield Boulevard or travels at street level along Olympic Boulevard or Colorado Avenue, it will end up at the current site of the Sears Automotive building Downtown, and it could get there as soon as 2015.

Bolstered by hopes L.A. County voters will approve a tax hike for public transit when they go to the polls November 4, City officials are gearing up for Phase 2 of the Expo Light Rail Line from Culver City estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

“2015 is tomorrow the way government works,” said Mayor Herb Katz, who is an alternate to the MTA Board. “We have to get our infrastructure in place. You want them to come and ride and get them around the City” using shuttles.

“We need it,” said Katz. “The Westside has the most employment in L.A. County outside of Downtown L.A. The people have to go to work and go home. This will alleviate congestion on the 10. That freeway may start to move again.”

Light Rail Map

But before the City can start preparing for the long-anticipated arrival of the rail line, a route must be chosen from the four alternatives being studied by the MTA, which is currently finalizing the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Phase 2.

“We want it (the Light Rail Line) here and we want it here as soon as possible,” said Ellen Gelbard, the Planning Department’s assistant director. “It’s a question of the alignment and where the stations will be.”
Federal transit officials, as well as the public and the Santa Monica City Council, will have ample time to weigh in before the MTA board picks the final route, according to MTA officials.

“Right now we’re looking at the worst case scenarios to identify impacts and find out how to mitigate them,” said Monica Born, the MTA’s project director in charge of the Expo Line. “We’ve looked at various scenarios the City (of Santa Monica) has asked us to look at.”

“The EIR will flush out the advantages and disadvantages, what the impacts would be, what we as a community would prioritize, what’s important to us,” said City Council member Pam O’Connor, who sits on the MTA Board. “It’s such an exciting project.”

Among the scenarios being explored by transit officials is elevating the rail line 30 feet above grade along Colorado Avenue between 11th Street and the anticipated terminus at 4th Street Downtown. A second scenario – which City Officials requested the MTA to explore – would keep the rail line at street level.

The proposed route down the middle of Colorado Avenue worries some merchants who fear a rail line at grade could impact their bottom line, City officials said.

“Colorado merchants are concerned,” said Gelbard. “Some have parking, some have access issues.
Some of the left turns would be restricted, so getting to a business might be a bit more difficult.”

But while the alternative that calls for elevating the rail line might offer a spectacular view of the Pacific as riders swoop into Downtown, it may not be such a good idea, O’Connor said.

“There are a lot of down sides to having it double-graded,” O’Connor said. An elevated rail would separate riders from the services and housing at street level, making it a less pedestrian-friendly alternative, she said.

The two proposed routes down the Olympic Boulevard median also have their pitfalls – including a big political bump in the road if some of the street’s iconic coral trees are removed. Under the worst case scenario, all 40 of the coral trees in the center median would have to be removed, a politically volatile move.

Placing one-way rail lines along the sides of the median at street level would still require going above-grade at 11th Street to straddle Lincoln Boulevard , a scenario that also calls for removing some of the trees. But keeping the rail at grade – the only scenario that would preserve most of the trees – would have major traffic impacts.

“It would be a challenge, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” said Born.

The MTA also is exploring where the stations in Santa Monica will go. In addition to a stop Downtown and another at Bergamot Station near Cloverfield Boulevard, the City has asked the MTA to study adding a station around 17th Street to service Santa Monica College and the hospitals, City officials said.

The MTA’s initial plan calls for a final stop on the rail line at the Sears Automotive building the City bought more than two years ago. The building is just four blocks east of the pier entrance.

But an alternative plan is being considered that would place the final station on Colorado Boulevard in front of Santa Monica Place, which is currently undergoing a major remodel, City officials said.

Resembling more of a roller coaster ride than a train trip, the plan to bring light rail to Santa Monica has seen a series of dizzying ups and downs.

After the Expo light rail received $315 million two years ago from the California Transportation Commission to kick-start the stalled project, it faced a $640-million shortfall some three months later.

The shortfall – due to optimistic construction estimates – threatened to cut short the first leg of the Exposition line to Culver City, until MTA officials announced the plan would move ahead.

The estimated cost of bringing the rail line from Culver City – where the phase from Downtown L.A. will be completed in 2010 – has mushroomed from some $800 million to between $1.1 billion for a direct route and $1.6 billion if the line is diverted along Venice Boulevard, according to transit officials.

While the light rail line has had its ups and downs, including budget overruns and funding shortages, it is rapidly turning from a distant vision into a distinct reality.

The light rail line could receive a major boost if L.A. County voters in November approve Measure R, half percent hike in sales taxes for transit projects. The tax, which would generate an estimated $40 billion over 30 years, would help buy clean-fuel buses and help to build new rail lines throughout the county, according to MTA officials.

The tax hike requires at least two-thirds of the vote and would become a law in January if State legislators give L.A. County authority to levy the tax.

Meanwhile, MTA officials are putting the final touches on the EIR before sending the report to the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA), which co-authored the document, Born said.

“It usually takes between 30 and 90 days,” Born said. “But it’s a pretty straight-forward project, so it could be 30.”

After making corrections to the document, the MTA will take it to the public for input, a process that can take 30 days, and as many as 60 days “if the public needs some time,” Born said. City officials said the council will soon take up the issue to present its recommendations during the public input period.

After gathering all the public comments, transit officials will then take the EIR to the MTA Construction Authority and, finally, to the MTA Board, which will pick an alternative.

The Expo Light Rail isn’t the only line on the horizon that could be bankrolled by the tax increase on the November ballot.

Last month, MTA officials began exploring two possible scenarios for the Subway to the Sea, both of them ending up on 4th Street and Wilshire in Downtown Santa Monica.

One option, which would cost $6 billion, would extend the subway from the Wilshire/Western Purple Line station. The other would be a $9 billion combined route that would stop at the Hollywood/Highland Red Line terminal.

Ted Winterer for Santa Monica City Council

Dr. Margaret


Vote # 158


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