LOS ANGELES -- It's as hard to travel under the ground in Southern California as it is on top of it.
Here in the city the car built, the latest attempt to bore a subway line beneath some of the most congested roads in America is recalling civic brawls of a generation ago, when fear over where tunnels could be constructed safely left the region with a subway system so stunted it gets as much ridicule as ridership.
This time, transit planners hoping to run a 9-mile subterranean line into the city's densely packed Westside have hit resistance within a cluster of stately, red-roofed buildings surrounded by manicured hedges and lush, rolling lawn – Beverly Hills High School. Tentative plans call for drilling a tunnel 70 feet beneath the campus, where Angelina Jolie and Nicholas Cage once roamed the hallways.
Local officials say ambitious plans for new classrooms and parking would be threatened, and they worry the French Normandy-style buildings could be damaged by construction or train vibration. They want the line to run on an alternate route a few blocks north, along busy Santa Monica Boulevard, though regional transit consultants say that would take the train into the path of unstable earthquake faults.
The consultants are confident tunneling would not endanger the 2,200-student school, but some envision the worst: a tunnel collapse directly below campus, with students inside the buildings.
"It's terrible, I dislike it intensely," Theresa Pinassi said with a grimace, as she waited outside the school for her 16-year-old grandson. "It would be dangerous to have it under the school – God forbid, if we had an earthquake."
It's all deja vu to Mark Fabiani, who served as deputy mayor and chief of staff to former Mayor Tom Bradley, who in his era envisioned a subway that would link downtown Los Angeles with the Pacific coast, a line befitting one of the world's great metropolitan areas.
It never happened.
A local congressman pushed through a tunneling ban in 1986 because of fears that construction could cause an explosion of naturally occurring methane gas, a move some viewed as a thinly disguised maneuver to safeguard tony Westside neighborhoods from outsiders. The city ended up with a subway that's invisible to many of its 4 million residents – it's about 20 miles overall in a city covering 468 square miles, petering out just west of downtown's skyscrapers.
To Fabiani, Bradley's dream would have helped avert Los Angeles' traffic nightmare.
"When you have no culture of mass transit in your area, it's harder to visualize what the benefits might be down the road," he said.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, chaired by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, isn't expected to endorse a route until early next year, and it's not clear how much of the $5.4 billion line will be built, or when. The most optimistic schedule calls for construction to begin next year, with trains rolling in 2022.
Local voters boosted sales taxes to bankroll transit projects, but money is scarce in gridlocked Washington. The ban on using federal funds for tunneling was lifted in 2007, but current plans stop well short of reaching the beaches in Santa Monica. Meanwhile, Beverly Hills has enlisted its own consultants for a fight that might end in the courtroom.
The transit agency long envisioned the line running along Santa Monica Boulevard through that area, but in 2010 it floated a plan that would move the route slightly south, under the school. The MTA's experts recently concluded the route under the school would be safer than along Santa Monica Boulevard, where faults could pose a threat.
But district officials suspect that developers with ties to City Hall are influencing the decision-making.
The disputed route would take the line under the school and to a station in the nearby Century City neighborhood that's virtually at the doorstep of a planned 37-story tower proposed by JMB Realty Corp., a major landlord that owns other buildings in the area. JMB executives have invested heavily in Villaraigosa's political ventures, government records show. One company affiliate gave a committee linked to the mayor $100,000 in 2006.
"We do believe politics has driven this alignment, not transit rules or standards," said Lisa Korbatov, who heads the local school board. She calls the MTA's data "very heavy in assumption."
A statement from Villaraigosa's office said only that he is confident in the MTA's experts and the conclusions of its technical studies. A local coalition supporting the route that would cut under the high school asserts the plan is safer, given the MTA's findings, and would place a station within easy walking distance for nearly 30,000 workers in Century City.
JMB senior vice president Patrick Meara disputed that there was any connection between donations to the mayor and decisions on the subway. When asked who drafted the route that would build a station near his company's properties, which would almost certainly boost their value, he said, "I honestly don't know."
Among students, there appears to be little anxiety about a train line that wouldn't begin moving people until years after they graduate.
Justin Blaylock, a 17-year-old senior, said he supports expanding public transit and would welcome the chance to avoid the city's dirty, crowded buses. "It makes me just want to walk," he said.
In a way, the MTA is trying to rebuild the past.
Los Angeles once boasted one of the finest public transit systems in the nation, the Pacific Electric Red Cars, which trundled along 1,000 miles of track that crisscrossed the region. The last one was gone by 1961, dismantled with no small push from auto and oil interests as the car culture took hold in Southern California.
Freeways replaced trolley tracks, and huffing buses took over for electric rail. In time, a booming population led to sclerotic traffic and the blankets of smog that came with it.
Today, rush hour knows few limits on heavily used stretches of freeway around downtown, in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside. Nearly 6 million cars are registered in Los Angeles County, and one 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405 sees 500,000 vehicles on a typical day. An eight-lane ribbon of highway linking downtown and Hollywood – the infamous 101 – is often ranked among the most strangled roads in the U.S.
With a push from Villaraigosa, a transit boomlet is under way, including development of an above-ground light-rail line to Los Angeles International Airport. A light-rail line is pushing east from Pasadena, and another 6-mile spur running out of downtown opened in 2009.
But it's unlikely to do much to open a pathway for cars.
There are just too many vehicles attempting to navigate the city's sprawling geography – only a fraction of the region's jobs are located downtown, meaning drivers are crisscrossing the region in a tangled web of commuting patterns.
Even if the Westside subway extension is built, "the congestion is so terrible, it will just be sucked up," says Genevieve Giuliano, a University of Southern California professor who specializes in transportation policy. "Traffic might improve a little bit, not a lot."
A study by a team of experts conducted for MTA concluded that the Westside project "is not expected to pose new threats" to students, faculty or the community, but hasn't eased anxiety in Beverly Hills.
City and school officials don't object to transit development – just the route below the school. Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker dismisses any suggestion that the city is protesting because it fears the subway would import crime from scruffier neighborhoods.
"Any association with, `Don't come into our city,' may have been an issue for some people a decade or two ago, but it's never been a discussion" with the latest plan, Brucker says.
There's more at stake than easing traffic.
In a region with double-digit unemployment, business leaders see subways and light rail as the fast track to Los Angeles' future, and they predict that housing and other development will flourish around stations and lines.
"Local resistance has been a part of this project for a long time and actually killed it for a long time," says Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
"We believe we should put emotions aside," Toebben added. "We have a lot of people who think in their minds they would never ride a subway."