Street­car plan faces ob­sta­cles

Ris­ing costs, fund­ing short­fall and slow travel times im­pede progress on L. A. line.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - LAURA J. NEL­SON laura. nel­son@ latimes. com Twit­ter: @ lau­ra_ nel­son

Two and a half years ago, down­town Los An­ge­les res­i­dents over­whelm­ingly ap­proved a new prop­erty tax to build a street­car line through the heart of their reemerg­ing neigh­bor­hood. Of­fi­cials said the lo­cal rail loop would at­tract busi­ness and new de­vel­op­ment to dor­mant blocks and help re­vi­tal­ize the city’s his­toric core.

But since that po­lit­i­cal vic­tory, progress on the Los An­ge­les street­car has slowed as politi­cians have con­tended with fluc­tu­at­ing cost es­ti­mates and sched­ules, new op­er­at­ing chal­lenges and a per­sis­tent fund­ing gap.

The latest es­ti­mate, re­leased last week, puts the cost of the tram at $ 282 mil­lion, with just $ 62.5 mil­lion in fund­ing se­cured.

The price tag is pre­sent­ing city of­fi­cials with tough choices, in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of cut­ting part of the route to close the $ 220mil­lion short­fall and qual­ify for fed­eral funds that are cru­cial to the plan.

The com­pli­ca­tions partly re­flect con­fu­sion over what the Los An­ge­les street­car is sup­posed to be, ex­perts say.

The trains have been pro­moted as a transit sys­tem, and the city is seek­ing fed­eral trans­porta­tion fund­ing, although the route won’t con­nect to Union Sta­tion and con­struc­tion is be­ing over­seen by an agency that has never built a rail line.

The pro­ject also is be­ing pitched as a tourist at­trac­tion and stim­u­lant for down­town real es­tate de­vel­op­ment.

Ex­perts say the best hope for suc­cess is to en­sure the four- mile loop ef­fec­tively serves the needs of riders.

“The pro­ject is only go­ing to serve as an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment tool if it’s use­ful,” said Yonah Freemark, a Chicago ur­ban plan­ner and writer who has an­a­lyzed U. S. street­car projects. “If the trains are mov­ing so slowly that peo­ple have no rea­son to take them, then the pro­ject it­self prob­a­bly won’t gen­er­ate any other ben­e­fits.”

The street­car would run along Broad­way from 1st Street to 11th Street, then west to Sta­ples Cen­ter and north through the fi­nan­cial dis­trict.

Along two legs of the route, streets have re­cently been nar­rowed to one lane to make way for bike lanes and pedes­trian im­prove­ments.

And since the street­car was first pro­posed a decade ago, down­town has be­come one of L. A.’ s hottest neigh­bor­hoods, with the traf­fic to match.

An­a­lysts now think the street­car will move “sig­nif­i­cantly slower” than first ex­pected, av­er­ag­ing just 3.5 mph dur­ing af­ter­noon rush­hour, and 4.5 mph over­all, said James Lefton, the city Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of transit ser­vices.

“Doesn’t the av­er­age per­son walk 3 or 4 mph?” City Coun­cil­man Mike Bonin asked dur­ing a City Hall com­mit­tee meet­ing last week.

The latest es­ti­mates are “ob­vi­ously con­cern­ing,” Lefton said, es­pe­cially for peo­ple who have to wait more than five min­utes for the next train. “If you have to wait that long for such a short trip, and if the speeds are that slow, you’ll choose other op­tions.”

The only way to guar­an­tee faster ser­vice is by re­mov­ing cars from the equa­tion, ei­ther by clos­ing streets to traf­fic or ded­i­cat­ing a lane for transit, he said.

How­ever, nei­ther of those op­tions is un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.

To en­sure that trains ar­rive ev­ery seven min­utes dur­ing peak pe­ri­ods, Lefton said, the city would need to add four more cars at an es­ti­mated cost of $ 24.3 mil­lion, which would in­crease the pro­ject’s price tag to more than $ 300 mil­lion.

Where that money would come from isn’t clear. Down­town res­i­dents ap­proved a prop­erty tax dis­trict that will raise $ 62.5 mil­lion for con­struc­tion, but that fund­ing would cover only about 25% of the pro­ject cost.

“We are at a crit­i­cal point in terms of de­vel­op­ing this pro­ject,” City Coun­cil­man Jose Huizar, the pro­ject’s cham­pion, said dur­ing the meet­ing last week. “We are set­ting up a road map.”

A fed­eral grant of up to $ 75 mil­lion that Huizar’s aides hope to win re­quires the pro­ject bud­get to re­main be­low $ 250 mil­lion. Any es­ti­mates higher than that — in­clud­ing the cur­rent $ 282- mil­lion fig­ure — would bump the street­car into the next cat­e­gory of com­pe­ti­tion for fund­ing and pit it against the na­tion’s most so­phis­ti­cated and ex­pen­sive trans­porta­tion pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing high­way projects and sub­way lines.

But, an­a­lysts said, Los An­ge­les will not be con­sid­ered for any fed­eral grants with­out a plan to elim­i­nate the short­fall and fully fund the street­car pro­ject.

Of­fi­cials aim to bring the pro­ject in un­der $ 250 mil­lion. But there are few welcome op­tions for cut­ting $ 32 mil­lion from the bud­get.

Plan­ners could elim­i­nate the por­tion of the route that passes the Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall and the Dorothy Chan­dler Pav­il­ion on Grand Av­enue. Or they could try to re­duce the costs of util­ity work, typ­i­cally one of the most ex­pen­sive con­struc­tion fea­tures on such projects in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

To close the fund­ing gap, of­fi­cials also could seek a pri­vate com­pany to build and op­er­ate the line, or real es­tate de­vel­op­ments along the route to gen­er­ate ad­di­tional rev­enue. “We’re tak­ing an op­ti­mistic ap­proach and hop­ing we can find a way to make this work,” a city an­a­lyst said dur­ing the meet­ing.

Some coun­cil mem­bers voiced skep­ti­cism. Re­spond­ing to the city an­a­lyst, City Coun­cil­man Paul Kreko­rian asked: “Is there any rea­son to be op­ti­mistic about that?”

Huizar said two dozen firms have ex­pressed in­ter­est in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­ject.

First ex­pected to open in 2014, the street­car now is sched­uled to be­gin ser­vice in De­cem­ber 2020 — af­ter the Down­town Re­gional Con­nec­tor, the 1.9- mile rail con­nec­tion that will knit to­gether the Blue, Gold and Expo lines be­tween the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict and Union Sta­tion.

A REN­DER­ING de­picts the pro­posed steet­car at the in­ter­sec­tion of 6th and Hill near Per­sh­ing Square. The Down­town L. A. Street­car was planned as a mod­ern, con­ve­nient sys­tem, but the es­ti­mated speed would av­er­age 4.5 mph, much slower than orig­i­nally ex­pected.

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