Area politicians and Gold Line officials are fighting to get to the end of the line
By Carl Kozlowski
What’s the one thing that could save 1.5 million gallons of gas and eliminate four tons of carbon monoxide, enable anyone to zip all the way from Montclair to Los Angeles in just 75 minutes of angst-free travel, and even make a round trip with a day pass that costs just $5?
The answer is the Metro Gold Line, a massive public works project, launched a decade ago, that opened its first phase from LA’s Union Station to the east Pasadena station of Sierra Madre Villa back in July 2003. Not only have the trains miraculously stayed largely graffiti- and stench-free throughout their four-year run, but the project managed to finish the first stage of construction on time and $10 million under budget.
So building the next phase, from Sierra Madre Villa station to Azusa by the end of 2011, should be a breeze, right? Sadly, the answer is no.
Build and they will ride
Though the track record shows that mass transit is a realistic goal and essential need for the San Gabriel Valley, officials at the Metro Gold Line Construction Authority (MGLCA) — the Gold Line’s official oversight board — are nervously seeking funding approval in a year when California’s state budget deficit is projected to be $14 billion. Luckily they are pursuing a tri-level funding plan that would rely primarily on federal transportation funds, but it’s got to be frustrating to know exactly how to change the world, only to find there’s no pot of gold waiting to help you do it.
“In Phase I from downtown through Pasadena, we were lucky we were an anomaly. [The authority was] created specifically to create an MTA project, and we were given all the money right away,” explains Susan Hodor, public affairs director for the MGLCA. “We didn’t have the challenge of raising money for that first phase because were the only mass transit project in the county when we started, and now there’s many others that have sprung up on the schedule and the competition for dollars is heavier. Even if you go to the feds, they’re doing what they can but there’s a war going on.”
Indeed, mass transit project proposals are booming in the LA area these days. A separate Gold Line extension through East LA is already underway, with another extension to Whittier in the planning stages. Add to those a new EXPO Line I being built through central LA, a planned EXPO Line II to West LA, a planned Downtown LA Regional Connector, a potential Gold Line extension to the rapidly growing LA/Ontario International Airport and the crown jewel idea of them all: a “subway to the sea” concept along Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica that has garnered enough enthusiasm to lift a 20-year band on tunneling in the city of Los Angeles.
They couldn’t come at a better time, as estimates predict a nonstop traffic jam by 2020 if no one moves to halt automotive congestion. And aside from saving our collective sanity as well as the environment, the slew of projects promises to radically transform the social and economic relations of LA County for the better. If people can commute to any area they please cheaply and efficiently, then the walls that separate communities are coming down and leveling the playing field of Southland life.
“It’s a very important project for Pasadena, just as the first phase was. It will make it easier to access jobs and entertainment here, and for folks in Pasadena to access things elsewhere as well,” says Paul Little, the newly appointed CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce who represented Pasadena on the MGLCA board throughout Phase I and served as its chair three times. “It’ll be a great project because the train to Pasadena continues to grow in ridership. We just had a great example of what could be on New Year’s, as the MTA let people ride to Pasadena free and it was jammed. Build it and people will see the benefits and follow.”
‘All fronts’ funding
The MGLCA and its supporters can draw hope from the story of the Gold Line’s first phase of construction, for despite its ultimate success, the project faced its own severe challenges at first. In fact, the authority’s very existence came about because Metro had suspended funding for the line, leaving it in limbo.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Pasadena and the California Legislature stepped in and created the authority in 1998 as an independent agency whose sole purpose was to complete the line. Thanks to incredible focus and determination, the 13.7-mile line was built in just under three years and opened with a $10 million surplus.
However, Phase I construction did have one major advantage over the current Phase II budget struggles: The authority was handed $400 million at birth, so it had to battle for only $60 million in funds. This time around, there is no rich uncle and no silver spoon.
“One of the things we think is important is that people should look for the best value and business decisions, and this project is ready for construction,” says Habib Balian, CEO of the MGLCA. “Delays cost a lot more money, so you need to really push the things that work in your favor. One big thing is that we’ve made all the environmental impact studies, gained approval from all the cities along the way and the MTA has bought all the land we need, so we’re going to be using existing right-of-way routes from old Santa Fe train lines.”
According to Hodor, the authority’s plan is to pursue an “all fronts” funding strategy that would ease the burden from each government level enough to earn authorization. First, they hope to draw funds through 2005 federal legislation called the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, alternately known as SAFETEA-LU.
This provides $286 billion in funding for various new highway, transit, freight, safety and research programs, and even identified the Foothill Extension as a potential “New Starts” project, enabling the federal funding application process to begin in earnest. But in order to guarantee the money, the authority must provide ridership projections, find local matching funds and get a financial commitment from Metro/MTA to operate the line once constructed.
Just last month, Congressman Schiff announced an alternate federal funding plan that centers on a “local challenge.” He announced that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would be wiling to fund 80 percent of the line from Pasadena through Azusa, as long as state and local sources provided the remaining 20 percent. Right now, the authority is pursuing both.
Hodor is optimistic that Schiff’s new plan might offer the solution; she believes the authority has a good shot at receiving Proposition 1B state funds for construction. The proposition was approved by voters in November 2006 and allows Metro/MTA to either directly fund construction or provide matching funds for federal dollars. The key is proving project readiness, something that she believes they can easily accomplish.
“We’ve done the homework, certainly. You can’t just go in with a good idea, and like Habib said, we’re cleared on all the environmental and local government levels,” says Hodor. “We’ve worked towards that for the last three years; if we get the money a bidding process will take a year and then construction takes at least two years.”
That may sound like a long time, but Hodor notes that the long-term impacts make it all worthwhile. Dream big and the results will be enormous, as a fully implemented extension should connect to Montclair by 2015 and then might reach to Ontario airport by 2020. Not only would road traffic be drastically reduced, but each town and city along the way could experience economic booms without attendant parking and congestion problems.
Moreover, making another airport accessible would alleviate the perpetual noise, air pollution and congestion that plague overstretched LAX and its neighboring areas.
A whole new world
Monrovia Mayor Rob Hammond and Laverne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff are two of the plan’s true believers. Standing on the platform of the Sierra Madre Villa station last Tuesday afternoon, Blickenstaff observed both the westward flow of the existing line and its abrupt end to the east.
From the platform on the 210 freeway median, the visual impact was striking. The very problem the Gold Line promises to alleviate, the roar of traffic, was occurring on both sides of the platform while the operational west-bound train lines showed that the idea of a light-rail solution is ready to deliver on its promise. To the east, there was only congestion, frustration — and the challenge to find relief.
“We see this as a strong enhancement of our local business interests. It will lead to transit-oriented development, which is both commercial and residential,” says Blickenstaff. “I feel like it will have a neutral effect on existing housing but a very positive effect on new housing, which would be built in conjunction with the train.”
Hammond noted that rather than disrupting the small-town atmosphere of Monrovia, the extension will spotlight its best features. The proposed stop in his town of 40,000 would be at the historic Santa Fe train depot that has gone largely unused in recent years, reinvigorating the area and providing a convenient entry point less than a mile from the charming old town section along Myrtle Avenue.
“This is the best of both worlds, because it will allow people who live here to get to points east and west without contributing to an increase of cars on the freeway, but also allow people to enjoy the amenities of Monrovia without bringing cars in,” says Hammond. “We’ll make sure the new neighborhoods around the depot will be created with the same eclectic style as the rest of the city, keeping the uniqueness rather than creating a bland new environment.
People concerned with funding the Foothill Extension may want to weigh voting against Proposition 91 in the Feb. 5 election. According to the website of California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, Proposition 91 “prohibits certain motor vehicle fuel taxes from being retained in the General Fund and delays repayment of such taxes previously retained. It also changes how
and when General Fund borrowing of certain transportation funds is allowed. This measure will increase stability of state funding for highways, streets and roads and may decrease stability of state funding for public transit” as well as the stability “of certain local funds for public transit.”
Ultimately, Little notes, funding is always a battle for even the best of projects. But he sees this as a fight that must be taken on and won.
“Funds are always a political process, unfortunately. They’re not guaranteed at all. But I’ve known Habib since forever; he’s incredibly capable and I know that the folks on the board now are very dedicated and working very hard,” says Little.
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