Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reason #7. This measure will impact the likelihood of the Wilshire Boulevard subway from ever getting to Santa Monica.

When Antonio Villaraigosa was elected Mayor of Los Angeles, he also became Chair of the Board of Directors of MTA or Metro as it has rebranded itself. In that capacity he announced his intention of completing the Purple Line subway, also known as the Wilshire Boulevard extension, or the “Subway to the City.” At present the Purple Line extends from Union Station to Wilshire at Western (yes L.A. does have a subway) while a longer branch known as the Red Line, extends through Hollywood to North Hollywood. Now that Congressman Waxman has overturned the prohibition on constructing the Wilshire Blvd. subway, Metro is busy studying the feasibility of the Purple Line extension, holding community meetings in West L.A., Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica, while contemplating the details of the best route and attempting to precisely define station locations -- all this as they go about the task of estimating costs and ridership.* This effort is, in part, preparation for an application to the federal government to help fund the project to the tune of…, well who knows yet, let’s say many billions of dollars. This application will go into a pool of other deserving proposals where it will compete under the “New Starts” program. Applications that offer the most riders for the least cost per rider will tend to rise to the top.

Estimating the potential ridership is a key part of this funding application. The feds have to believe the applicant’s numbers. Applications for systems where the employment and housing densities surrounding the proposed stations are already in place are the easiest to support. However, “transit supportive” land-use policies (e.g., zoning, general plans, specific plans, etc.) surrounding proposed stations can also be compelling to federal government reviewers, particularly where there is a robust mix of uses provided for in those policies (with emphasis on employment, I would add).

Wilshire Boulevard, outside of Santa Monica, is the most densely populated corridor in the nation not currently served by high quality rail transit (i.e., a subway). And as you look at the Wilshire corridor, it is pretty obvious that the busiest station along this alignment would be in Westwood, though Century City and Beverly Hills probably provide some pretty good numbers on their own (yes I know Century City is not along Wilshire – but planners are contemplating a bit of a detour so as to incorporate that employment rich area). It is easy to imagine that a “new starts” application with those stations in the application would provide a cost per rider ratio that would hold its own against applications from New York City (the 2nd Avenue line) or Washington, DC (the Dulles Airport extension through Tyson’s Corner), among others that are being prepared.

However, west of Westwood, densities begin to drop off, particularly as Wilshire moves into Santa Monica. It is true that a stop in the vicinity of Wilshire and 4th Street would seemingly deliver a good cost/rider number particularly as there is not only a large employment base, but also a significant tourist and destination retail draw in that location.

But there is a lot of tunnel and track and several potential station locations in between Westwood and 4th Street that wouldn’t look as compelling today from a cost/rider point of view, as the rest of the system, but with transit supportive policies in place might still be projected to look good, or good enough, in the future. And when I say transit supportive, I'm not talking Century City scale of development, I'm talking Miracle Mile density of development. However, given a 75,000 square foot annual cap on commercial development in the entire city of Santa Monica, as is proposed with Proposition T or RIFT (with no priority given as to where those square feet can be built) it is pretty doubtful that the cost/rider ratio can be anticipated to be any better in the future than it is today. The tunnel and stations between Westwood in L.A. and 4th Street in Santa Monica would simply be unlikely to deliver the ridership to justify the cost. The cost/rider equation would be so low as to bring down the overall average weakening the application for the entire project.

If you’re a member of the Metro Board (which consists of 12 voting members, most of whom are elected officials with, but one member from Santa Monica) then you have a big decision to make. You have to triage the application, decide what to save and what to jettison in order to have the best chance of success. Should you submit an application with absolutely boffo numbers that extends the line to a terminal station in Westwood, or submit one with what is likely to be a weaker cost/rider ratio that extends under a 20-to 25-block stretch of corridor with an unsupportive RIFT land-use policy? As sexy as it sounds to say “subway to the sea,” I think the choice will be obvious.

How ironic it would be, if a land-use policy such as RIFT, aimed at reducing traffic were to wind up being responsible for negating the possibility for high quality transit in Santa Monica along its most significant commercial and employment rich corridor.** It would be tragic enough if such unintended consequences could not have been foreseen, but in this case, they’re in plain sight if we just open our eyes.

*For more on the public process visit: http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/westside/meetings.htm

** Yes, I know the Expo line, a light rail, which for the most part will run on grade, may one day also get to Santa Monica if a route through Culver City can be negotiated and funding secured, but its potential impact on traffic reduction while not insignificant is in my opinion simply no where near what the Wilshire line’s would be. Ideally, Santa Monica should be fighting for both lines (as they go to different places) plus a third line running south on Lincoln to the LAX and El Segundo.

1 comment:

Darrell said...

The Expo Line phase 2 is funded in Metro's Draft Long Range Transportation Plan and planned to reach Santa Monica around 2015.

Conversely, the Purple Line / Wilshire subway is not funded unless Measure R passes in November, and then only as far as Westwood, with construction in phases from 2013-15 to 2034-36 (Metro 7/24/08 staff report, pdf page 25).

There is ample ridership with existing jobs and population in Santa Monica to justify the Expo Line.

Conversely, would Santa Monicans accept Century City-scale development if it took that to justify a Wilshire subway west of Westwood?

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