Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Fund Pullback Deals Blow to the 'Expo Line'

Transit: Federal agency withdraws $156 million that the MTA had counted on to help build light-rail link between L.A. and Santa Monica.


The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has learned that federal officials have pulled $156 million intended for construction of a rail line that could one day link Los Angeles and Santa Monica, a move that could delay the project and force the creation of a much shorter railway.

The agency envisions 20,000 riders a day boarding light-rail trains that would roll through dense neighborhoods down a route along Exposition Boulevard. The so-called "Expo Line" would run past the University of Southern California campus and stop near Culver City. A later segment would send trains all the way to Santa Monica.

MTA officials say they've been operating for at least three years under the assumption that $156 million once tagged for a mid-city extension of the Red Line could be used on an alternative. They came up with the Expo Line after studying numerous options, including a monorail running down Wilshire Boulevard. Last June, MTA planners got the go-ahead from the MTA board to proceed with engineering the Expo Line.

But the Federal Transit Administration, gatekeeper of the nation's transportation budget, surprised MTA officials by taking the $156 million off the table.

The FTA has now made that money--about 40% of the Expo Line's budget--available to new mass transit construction projects in other regions.

Officials at the federal agency claim they never made specific promises to fund the Expo Line. What's more, they finally released the money for other projects because the Expo Line's planning will not be done in time for construction to begin by the end of next year. That's when authorization for the nation's massive four-year transit package, approved by Congress, comes to a close.

"The project is not what they specified originally ... and the MTA is still working on preliminary engineering out there," said FTA spokesman Bruce Frame. "They aren't going to be done for at least a year, maybe more."

The move forces MTA planners to pin their hopes on the FTA backing the project in future budget requests, particularly when Congress considers another nationwide reauthorization of transit construction in 2003. That means the Expo Line may suddenly find itself competing for congressional approval with scores of other light-rail lines and other big-ticket items across the country.

The FTA this year listed the Expo line as a "recommended" project, and experts close to the federal agency say the chances are excellent that the $156 million, and possibly even more, will once again be tagged for the MTA.

But some top MTA officials expressed doubt.

"The funding is in danger and the project, I believe, is in danger," said Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, county supervisor and an MTA board member. "I am definitely, definitely worried."

Though she has been a critic of the line's design, Burke said she will press for restoration of the money during a trip to the nation's capital this week. She said she was asked to do so by MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble in a meeting last week.

Snoble, meantime, seemed to downplay the funding issue.

"I'm relatively sure we can get the money later," he said. "We'll see what happens in reauthorization.... We feel they owe us."

Snoble said he would like a written promise that the FTA will back funding for the project in the future. Though generally optimistic in a recent interview on the matter, in an April letter to FTA Administrator Jennifer Dorn, he was less sanguine, writing: "Now is not the appropriate time for FTA to entertain the possibility of abrogating the long-standing commitment to Los Angeles by releasing these funds for other projects."

Snoble said one solution would be to use state and local money to build shorter legs of the route than previously planned, possibly going only as far as USC. He worries that completion of the overall project could be delayed by several years.

The proposed rail line has long been controversial. Burke is representative of a faction worried about safety if the line extends past USC onto busy streets and near schools.

The proposed path of the second phase of the project, extending the line past Robertson Boulevard to Santa Monica, has been haggled over by residents in Los Angeles' Cheviot Hills neighborhood and in Culver City, many of whom want nothing to do with a commuter train zipping through their streets dozens of times daily.

Over the years, the most consistent push for construction has come from a group of citizen proponents calling themselves Friends 4 Expo Transit, who have touted the benefits of the light-rail line.

"We're sort of on pins and needles," said Darrell Clarke, head of the group.

"To give up a position we have already won, when we were promised the money, it doesn't quite seem fair."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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