Battle Brews Over Subway to the Sea

One of the most important transportation projects in California, aside from my beloved high speed rail project of course, is the Subway to the Sea. A long-planned effort to build passenger rail to Santa Monica via the Wilshire corridor, it has become a primary goal of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Few areas in North America are as congested as LA’s Westside, and a subway through this region would be a godsend, creating thousands of jobs and reducing dependence on oil while untangling the traffic mess.

But LA County also has several other passenger rail projects they’re considering, and with the passage of Measure R (a tax approved by 2/3rds of voters in the state’s most populous county last November) along with a transit-friendly White House, Metro can actually reasonably expect them to get built.

The question is what gets built and when – and with what federal funds. As with most other transportation projects around the country, Metro’s projects will need federal “new starts” funding. Villaraigosa wants Metro’s board to prioritize the Subway to the Sea and another related project, the “Downtown Connector” (finally linking the Blue and Gold lines, as originally intended).

Villaraigosa’s plans are getting some pushback from local members of Congress. 14 members of Congress, including Adam Schiff, Jane Harman, David Dreier, and Maxine Waters, wrote a letter telling the Metro board that if they follow Villaraigosa’s plan, they risk losing out on federal funding:

The 14 members of Congress who signed a letter released Tuesday said those two programs [Subway to the Sea and Downtown Connector] don’t have a good shot at immediate federal funding.

Further, they said the county risks not getting much from the federal New Starts program for several years unless it adds other regional transit proposals to the application, including the Gold Line extension east from Pasadena, a rail line down Crenshaw Boulevard and the Gold Line Eastside extension Phase 2 from East L.A. to South El Monte or Whittier.

“We are very concerned that Los Angeles County is not positioning itself well to receive its fair share of New Starts funding in the near- and long-term,” the delegation wrote.

The background is that there are three other projects that some Metro board members and legislators want funded: a light rail line down Crenshaw, connecting the Red and Purple lines to the Expo and Green lines; and two extensions of the Gold Line into the suburban San Gabriel Valley.

The battle reflects typical political debates in LA County, with the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector seen as benefiting the wealthy Westside at the expense of the less prosperous and more diverse South LA and San Gabriel Valley communities. And as the legislators’ letter makes clear, it’s inconceivable that Metro could get new starts funding for all 5 projects.

Yonah Freemark, who runs The Transport Politic, one of the best transportation blogs out there, points out that the other 3 projects would serve far fewer riders than the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector, and that from a transportation need perspective, those should be prioritized.

Of course, the US Congress isn’t a place where such sensible considerations rule the day. David Dreier, whose district includes the I-210 corridor along which one of the Gold Line extensions would run, has been particularly adamant about ensuring that project gets support from the Metro board. And South LA representatives understandably want to ensure that their communities get served by transit – as residents there have the greatest dependence on transit, their case is strong.

If it were up to me, I’d back the Subway to the Sea, the Downtown Connector, and the Crenshaw line and tell Dreier to shove it. As the LA Subway Blog notes, the Subway to the Sea will have enormous regional benefits. Just because it is located on the Westside doesn’t mean that’s the only place it will assist – just as the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach doesn’t just benefit people living in San Pedro and Wilmington.

But the real issue here isn’t picking which of the 5 worthy projects gets supported and which doesn’t. Metro would be in better shape if the state of California wasn’t in the process of abandoning its support for mass transit. The state ought to be able to help fund construction of one or two of these projects, leaving the feds more able to support the other three. For example, the state should be able to help start the Crenshaw line and one of the Gold Line extensions, enabling the feds to fund the Subway to the Sea, the Downtown Connector, and the other Gold Line extension.

Southern California was the poster child for the 20th century sprawlconomy, and is now suffering greatly for having clung to that model for too long. Voters there now recognize it is time to change, and have put their money behind the kind of mass transit solutions the region desperately needs. It’s up to the state and federal governments to deliver their share. We’ll see what happens at today’s Metro board meeting.

UPDATE by Robert: The Metro board voted today to recommend the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector for federal new starts funding. The board also passed an amendment by Mark Ridley-Thomas directing Metro to seek all other possible funding (aside from new starts) to build the Crenshaw and Gold Line extension LRT projects.

9 thoughts on “Battle Brews Over Subway to the Sea”

  1. Why isn’t a mass electric bus line being considered with commuter express lines? I know its been a while, since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” but electric bus lines are an important part of many cities mass transit system. They are able to reach more sections of the city, run clean, and don’t have issues with oil and gas pockets in LA, where especially in the west side you see tar bubble up through the sidewalks (to say nothing of the earthquake issue). The red cars took people from all over town to any section they wanted and back (and for a nickel back then). This seems like a logical alternative not being discussed.

  2. This situation is infuriating.  First these other areas are trying to keep from the Westside Subway moneys from the regional Measure R funds (and these same areas opposed Measure R !!!); now they’re trying to keep the Westside Subway from federal funds.  Maddening!  

    It’s not just that the Westside has suffered from a lack of funds for transit to date and deserves a share – worse is that it’s just plain good policy for the region.  

    This post makes that point already.  More people come into the Westside every day than the number of people who travel within, or out from, the Westside.  The REGION needs people to move more efficiently in and out of the Westside.

  3. But as a former resident of Pasadena, even, the Westside needs transit more without question. It doesn’t just serve “rich people” – indeed, the Santa Monica area has a lot of jobs – that people commute to via interstate 10 from other areas – and it also has UCLA. The westside is perpetually clogged with traffic at all hours, and has few alternate routes.

    The 210 corridor is getting worse, but it’s not nearly as bad as the westside, and besides, there are several alternate routes.

    Even if I still lived in Pasadena or further out in Azusa, say, I would still rather be able to drive to the Gold Line and then from there be able to take transit out to UCLA, to the Santa Monica Pier, or to the jobs I turned down on the westside because of the horrible commute.

  4. You have a project that should have been built during the post-war boom or earlier, the Wilshire subway, competing with SGV extensions that might not even be viable.  Particularly, from what I’ve read (can find links if someone really wants), the 210 extension of the Gold Line is arguably not even a viable project in terms of ridership today.  It probably will be someday, but the Wilshire subway has been a viable project since Wilshire was more than a country road.

    The constant war in LA of suburban v. urban and urban lower class v. urban middle class is just outrageous.

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