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Mark Ridley-Thomas

Mark Ridley-Thomas

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Metro Can Afford to Build the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Corridor Right

Posted: 05/26/11 10:38 AM ET

On Thursday, The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board will decide whether to build a light rail station at Leimert Park Village, the cultural heart of the Los Angeles African American community. The board will also decide if the future Crenshaw/LAX light rail line will be moved below ground for a mile-long stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard, from 48th to 59th streets, where the current plan is for a street-level train.

In recent weeks, as the debate about this decision has spread from the neighborhoods along the Crenshaw Corridor to the broader Los Angeles County community, I hear a consistent refrain: of course there should be a station in Leimert Park Village, and undergrounding the train through Park Mesa Heights makes sense, but how would Metro pay for those upgrades? A Leimert Park Village station would cost an estimated $131 million; the Park Mesa Heights tunnel would be an additional $269 million.

Among the elected officials who comprise the Metro Board, there has also been some rumbling that these enhancements to the Crenshaw/LAX rail line would take money for other future transit projects, like extending the existing Wilshire Boulevard subway to Santa Monica.

These concerns prompted my staff to work diligently with the Metro's in-house to locate the $400 million the two additions would require.

Late last week, Metro's planning staff showed us the money. It turns out an agency with a $4.15 billion annual budget and $40 billion available over the next 30 years through Measure R, the 2008 transit funding ballot measure has a little bit of financial wiggle room.

Their analysis finds that, albeit with some tough choices to make, we can indeed afford to build the Crenshaw/LAX line the right way, without financial harm to any other of the numerous transit projects planned for completion in the coming decades.

Fears of a raid on future projects are unfounded. At Metro, it's not unusual for hundreds of millions of dollars at a time to shift around from existing pots of cash.

In fact, a bit of "raiding" has already taken place in the agency's budget, freeing up funds as some priorities have changed. For example, when Metro decided to purchase Union Station this year and needed money to cover cost overruns on the Expo light rail line from downtown to Culver City, it used money set aside for a $585 million plan to add cars and upgrade the Red Line to North Hollywood.

A "raid," it seems, is in the eye of the intruder. There's not been a peep from Metro board members about these massive fund transfers. The $131 million price tag for Union Station and the Expo Line cost overrun has put the Red Line upgrade on indefinite hold. Coincidentally, that dollar amount is exactly the cost of the proposed Leimert Park Village.

I support these decisions and say it's time to stop crying wolf when priorities change. Metro already has plans to take an additional $217 million of that Red Line money for rail maintenance yards and Metrolink improvements.

Go for it, I say. That's because, even after those withdrawals, $251 million remains available in that scrapped Red Line project. That would pay for the Leimert Park Village station and still leave $120 million in that pot of money.

The Metro analysis completed last week shows another $1.4 billion slated for projects that are relatively low on the agency's priority list. These include long-term bus maintenance and fleet acquisitions, as well as highway widening projects.

These bus and highway projects are important and should be built. If, however, Metro could find a way to save 10% on these projects, that would free up $140 million. Along with the $120 million from the already-deferred Red Line project, the total would be $9 million short of the Park Mesa Tunnel cost. Cut costs 3% on the tunnel, and it's a done deal.

The Crenshaw/LAX light rail corridor is now on track for completion in 2016. It had been scheduled for completion in 2029 as a bus line. We were told there was no money for a rail line. We were told a bus was good enough. We didn't listen to those who seem to see the cost of everything but are blind to the value of anything.

Like every major infrastructure project there is a cost to the Crenshaw/LAX line upgrades. It's time to distinguish costs from investments, and recognize that there is great value in having the safest, speediest and most complete rail line we can afford - and Metro's books show we can afford a first-rate rail connection to the airport.

But I say the long-term payoff for the entire region will be far greater than the up-front construction costs. Leimert Park Village, an already vibrant spot that will become an even more attractive destination, and the Park Mesa Heights tunnel will speed travel, saving airport passengers and commuters precious minutes as they head to jobs or flights.

I've argued from the outset that the question is not whether Metro has a way to fund a first-rate rail line to Los Angeles International Airport; the question, which we'll learn on Thursday, is whether the Metro board has the will to do so.