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Media Bashes 710 Alternatives…the Transit Ones Anyway

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 2.34.19 PM

This idea totally makes sense and would only cost $5.6 billion dollars!

Last week, Caltrans and Metro released the long-awaited draft environmental impact report for options to improve transportation near where the I-710 ends, 4.5 miles south of the I-210. As usual, the discussion around the document depends on whether or not one thinks it’s a good idea to dig a five-mile tunnel 150 feet underground to connect one freeway to another freeway.

Metro will receive public comment on the report starting on Thursday of this week and continue collecting until July 6. Details on how to comment are available at the end of the article. In addition, Streetsblog will submit this article, and any others published between now and July 6, as part of the public record.

Following the report last week that traffic has not improved at all following the massive and costly widening of the I-405 through the Sepulveda Pass, one would think the media might consider a $5.5 billion double-decker tunnel or $3.1 billion single-level tunnel a farcical proposal not worthy of further discussion. One would be wrong.

Most media played it straight, announcing the report’s findings, the public comment period, and other basic factual information. “Closing the 710 Freeway gap would take years and cost billions,” reported the Times. “Caltrans Releases EIR For Proposed 710 Freeway Extension,” snored Patch.

But much of the rest of the media applied a more critical eye and came down hard–against the option to provide better transit service instead of digging a gigantic tunnel. The $240 million cost of the bus rapid transit option, which is 7 percent of the single-level tunnel option and roughly 4 percent of the double-decker tunnel option, is the subject of the headline “Busway option to close 710 freeway gap would cost five times early estimate” at KPCC.

But it’s not just the cost of the busway option that is under intense media scrutiny. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Contra Costa Times and Daily Breeze all printed the story, “Environmental report on 710 freeway gap: Tunnel would ease traffic more than light rail.”

It’s always good to see the media jump on a story. Those six giant exhaust stacks planned for Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena? Eh, who cares? That the tunnel would increase the number of cars on the freeway and local streets, as we’ve just seen happen on the Westside? That’s just a theory. What about what happens if there’s a crash or other disaster in the tunnel? It’s “addressed in the report.”

The option of building light rail, at a fraction of the cost of digging the tunnels, is dismissed out-of-hand because of displacement and the bizarre reasoning that, “According to the EIR/EIS, impacts to land, air, noise, and aesthetics are minor compared to the impacts from building a 7.5-mile light-rail train from East Los Angeles through Alhambra and Pasadena.”

That’s right, a report with a Metro logo on it dismisses a light rail proposal because it would be too noisy, pollute too much, be too noisy and too ugly.  Way to have some ideological consistency.

So let’s look at the last transit option standing. Read more…

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News Bits From Metro Board February Committee Meetings

Metro's FY2015-16 budget is expected to exceed $2 billion for the first time. Graph from Metro [PDF]

Metro’s FY2015-16 budget is expected to exceed $2 billion in capital expenditures for the first time ever. Graph from Metro [PDF]

The Metro board of directors will meet next week, Thursday February 26. This week, the agency hosted its regular series of board committee meetings, where most of the negotiations occur. Here are eight things gleaned from this week’s meetings:

1. Utility Relocation Threatens Rail Tunnel Construction Delays

For downtown L.A.’s upcoming 2-mile long Regional Connector light rail subway, the ground was broken, and demolition is underway. But, wait! Metro is still working on the “pre-construction” relocation of utilities. Shocker: it turns out that there are lots of unknown things, mostly abandoned utility infrastructure, buried beneath downtown’s hundred-plus-year-old streets. Metro reports that they are still expecting 2020 completion, but are 3 to 5 months behind on utility relocation. And that is just the prep work that needs to completed before real tunnel construction can get underway.

Metro staff alluded to further details coming to the Metro board in April. It is not clear, but it could mean approving more money for Regional Connector pre-construction. 

And speaking of more money for the pre-construction phase (which is not always a bad thing – especially if it means paying now to avoid paying more later), next week the board is considering [PDF] adding $20.8 million to the $115 million pre-construction contract that is getting things ready for the second phase of the Purple Line Subway extension. Maybe newer Century City streets hide fewer buried infrastructure hazards than downtown does.

2. Metro Looks to Joint Development, Focused on Affordable Housing

SBLA expects to publish more on this soon, but the staff report [PDF] is out on Mayor Garcetti’s motion pushing for Metro to step up its role in joint development of transit-oriented affordable housing. Some of the news is good: Metro lawyers are okay with encouraging affordable housing by discounting property the agency owns. Some of the resistance is predictable: Metro staff opened with a comment about the difficulty of providing enough transit-user (free) parking at these sites.  Read more…

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A Wonky Debate Over Metro Regional vs. Sub-Regional Funding

Metro's map of subregions and regional facilities. Source: Metro handout [PDF]

Metro’s map of subregions and regional facilities. Source: Metro handout [PDF]

There is an item that was bounced around at the Metro Board last month regarding freeway projects and whether they are “regional” or “subregional” facilities. Lakewood City Councilmember and Metro Boardmember Diane DuBois is pushing for L.A. freeway-widening projects to be classified as “regional” rather than “subregional” projects. Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin raised some issues over this re-classification. The final decision is likely to come back to the Metro Board for a showdown in April. 

All of this is pretty wonky. It does have implications on transportation funding priorities, including how transit projects compete with highway projects over scarce flexible Metro dollars.

In Metro’s 2001 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), Metro divided L.A. County nine sub-regions (map above):

  1. Arroyo Verdugo (Glendale, Burbank, and adjacent areas)
  2. Central Los Angeles
  3. Gateway Cities (Long Beach, and most of South East L.A. County)
  4. Las Virgenes / Malibu
  5. North Los Angeles County
  6. San Fernando Valley
  7. San Gabriel Valley
  8. South Bay
  9. Westside Cities

These sub-regions were mainly used for long term planning, but, since the 2008 Measure R transportation sales tax, the sub-regions have also been woven into the way Metro funds projects.

After Measure R passed, Metro adopted what’s called its Measure R Cost Containment Policy (the full formal name is the Unified Cost Management Process and Policy for Measure R Projects.) That policy bills itself as a “new step-by-step cost management process will require the MTA Board to review and consider approval of project cost estimates against funding resources at key milestone points throughout the environmental, design, and construction phases of the Measure R transit and highway projects.” These transit and highway projects, are, of course, often multi-billion dollar projects. Examples include $2.8 billion to extend the Purple Line subway four miles, and $3.3 billion to widen about 70 miles of the 5 Freeway. Multi-billion dollar projects are prone to massive cost overruns.

So, according to the cost containment policy, when a Metro Measure R project’s costs increase above what has been approved, the agency looks to take specific measures to either lower the costs or get money to cover the overruns. The policy specifies that cost overruns will be met through the following sources in the following order:

  1. Value Engineering and or scope reductions;
  2. New local agency funding resources;
  3. Shorter segmentation;
  4. Other cost reductions within the same transit or highway corridor;
  5. Other cost reductions within the same sub-region;
  6. Countywide transit cost reductions or other funds will be sought using pre-established priorities.

These are jargony. The crux of the matter is that item 5 (and, to an extent, items 2 and 4) means that when projects exceed their budgets, costs will be covered within the sub-region. One project’s overruns will reduce the budget for other projects in the same sub-region where the project is located.

In January, the Metro board established a special set of regional projects immune to the sub-regional cost overrun procedure. All airports, sea-ports, and Union Station are classified as “regional” projects (see map above), because theoretically everyone in the county benefits from, for example, LAX and Port of Long Beach improvements. For these regional projects “cost increases to Measure R funded projects… are exempt from the corridor and subregional cost reduction requirements. Cost increases regarding these projects will be addressed from the regional programs share.”

Metro boardmember, and Lakewood City Councilmember, Diane Dubois, along with boardmembers Don Knabe and Ara Najarian, introduced a motion [PDF] that would essentially classify “[i]nterstates, freeways or highways” as regional projects, hence “highway sub-regional funding will not be subject to the Unified Cost Management Process and Policy.” Though the motion requested that Metro staff analyze and report back, it clearly specified that highways would become exempt from the cost containment process in the meantime.  Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: Cars Running the Red at Venice and Robertson

Expo super-fan Gökhan Esirgen sends along the above video of cars running the red light at the newly-reconstructed intersection of Venice Blvd. and Robertson Blvd. Esirgen writes, “Note that this is not a seldom event — it happens for about five seconds in almost every cycle during rush hour and it’s typical of this intersection now. A pedestrian who looks at the signal but not the cars would be hit.”

Streetsblog editorial board member Jonathan Weiss forwarded the message to staff at LADOT. Before the afternoon was out, Jay Greenstein with Councilmember Paul Koretz’s office responded that engineers with LADOT are re-examining the intersection and LAPD’s enforcement division was notified.

We’ll keep an eye of our own on the intersection to see if there are any new, more positive, changes in the coming weeks and months.

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President Obama’s Proposed FY15-16 Budget: $330M for L.A. Subways

Today's announcement means that Angelenos should be able to ride the Wilshire Subway to La Cienega in 2023. Image: Metro website

The presidential budget proposal gives a boost to relatively-timely construction of the Metro Purple Line into Beverly Hills and Century City. Image: Metro website

U.S. President Barack Obama released his administration’s proposed FY 2015-16 budget which includes $330 million in New Starts funding planned for subways in Los Angeles:

  • $115 million for the Regional Connector
  • $115 million for Phase I of the Westside Subway Extension (Purple Line from Western to La Cienega)
  • $100 million for Phase II of the Westside Subway Extension (Purple Line from La Cienega to Avenue of the Stars)

The Regional Connector and Purple Line Phase I monies are more-or-less expected, as part of the federal government generally committing to finish construction projects already underway. The Regional Connector broke ground in October 2014, and is anticipated to be completed in 2020. The Purple Line extension Phase I broke ground in November 2014, and is anticipated to be completed in 2023.

The big news is $100 million for Phase II of the Purple Line. According to Metro’s most recent (late 2014) project fact sheet [PDF], the 2.6-mile Westside Subway Extension Phase II was expected to begin construction in 2019 and be completed in 2026. The extension will add two new stations: Rodeo/Wilshire in Beverly Hills and Avenue of the Stars in Century City. The fact sheet lists pre-construction activities taking place from 2017-2018. It is unclear whether the federal funding might move up this schedule.

  Read more…

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Youth Rise Above Heckling to Win Concession for Community on Metro Projects at Neighborhood Council Meeting

Irvin Plata from YouthBuild Boyle Heights gives the thumbs up after a victory at the neighborhood council Wednesday night. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Irvin Plata gives the thumbs up as Canek Pena-Vargas (at left), Site Coordinator at YouthBuild Boyle Heights, debriefs with students after a victory at the neighborhood council Wednesday night. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“They’re not even from Boyle Heights!” heckled an agitated Teresa Marquez before the handful of youth from YouthBuild Boyle Heights that had nervously stepped up to speak at the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council (BHNC) regarding the fate of Metro-owned properties Wednesday night had even had a chance to make their comments.

Another woman, Yolanda Gonzalez, also jumped up to argue against listening to the youth, proclaiming angrily that they were too busy with ethnic studies to know anything about civic processes or economic development.

The women — both property owners known for being vocal in community politics (Marquez is also a member of Metro’s Design Review Advisory Committee for the Boyle Heights sites currently slated for development) — couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I spoke in Genaro Francisco Ulloa’s economics classes at YouthBuild last week, I found a group of young people who were highly engaged in questions of how economic development and public policy intersect in lower-income communities like theirs. Some even mustered up the courage to take a stab at speaking out at the January 22nd Metro-run meeting. Their discussion of how the social fabric of the area could be undermined by the erasure of important cultural markers and the displacement of existing residents and businesses was some of the most poignant testimony of the night.

Since that meeting on the 22nd, the youth had been working with their teachers and Joel Garcia and Cesia Domingo Lunez of the Boyle Heights Youth & Arts Stakeholders Committee to come up with a set of testimonies and concrete demands to present to representatives of the BHNC, Metro, and developers regarding the plans for the Metro-owned properties in Boyle Heights.

It was crucial to speak up Wednesday night, they felt, because the BHNC was about to vote on whether to recommend Metro grant a “phased” or “interim” ENA (Exclusive Negotiated Agreement) to the developers looking to build affordable housing at 1st and Soto and Cesar Chavez and Soto.

They recognized that the phased-ENA approach — a new effort by Metro that would set aside a 3-month window for intensive community outreach and the incorporation of feedback into site plans before the full ENA is granted — was a step in the right direction. But they didn’t think it went far enough, given how outreach around plans for Mariachi Plaza — one of the most important sites in the community — had been completely neglected.

To that end, they had a few demands. They asked that Metro both extend the “interim” phase of the ENA to 6 months and revamp its current advisory committee process, which tends to rely heavily on the usual suspects and is not particularly transparent. They also asked that part of that revamping include hiring a local community group to do outreach to ensure that all sectors of the community — especially youth — were represented as well as “afforded the time needed to understand how these projects will impact their lives.” [The full list can be found here.] Read more…

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Move L.A.’s South L.A. Forum Asks if Transit Can Deliver Shared Prosperity

Figueroa Ave., just north of 85th St.

A man takes shelter in the shade of a telephone pole at a bus stop on Figueroa Ave., just north of 85th St. in South L.A., on a hot summer day. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Riding my bike the 15 miles between my apartment and a Move L.A. forum on the future of transit at Southwest College on a dreary Saturday morning while battling the tail end of a stubborn respiratory infection was not among the brightest ideas I had ever had, I reflected as it began to drizzle and my hacking started getting the best of me.

But I hadn’t wanted to take the bus (buses, as, technically, I would have had to have taken two). Between the walking and the waiting for lines that run less frequently early on Saturday mornings, my door-to-door journey would probably come out at about two hours — half the time it took me to ride the route.

And the scenes I passed at bus stops on my way down the length of Vermont were not exactly selling bus riding to me.

The many, many folks crowding narrow sidewalks at unprotected bus stops looked rather miserable in the areas where rain was falling. Most yanked hats down over their ears, snuggled deeper into jackets, held newspapers or other random things over their heads to fend off the drizzle, and huddled over their kids to keep them dry. There are actual bus “shelters,” but they are few and far between, generally filthy and overflowing with trash, and offer little protection from the elements.

I even found myself dodging wet, frustrated people who had stepped out into the street to make the long-distance squint up Vermont that only regular bus riders can, searching in vain for a flash of orange. Others called out to ask if I had happened to pass a bus on its way to pick them up.

The state of the bus system in L.A. is not spectacular, in other words, despite the fact that it is responsible for ferrying 3/4 of all Metro transit riders (approximately 30 million people) back and forth per month.

But discussion of the bus situation was notably absent from the discussion on the future of transportation that unfolded over nearly five hours the morning of January 8.

Aside from the remarks of Southwest College alum Leticia Conley, who complained that some students’ ability to access education could be harmed by having to rely on buses that only ran once an hour, most of the discussion focused on rail.

The dotted blue lines represent Move L.A.'s proposal for expanded rail lines throughout L.A. County.

The dotted blue lines represent Move L.A.’s proposal for expanded rail lines throughout L.A. County.

In some ways, the oversight was by design. Besides gathering together leaders from the African-American community to talk about opportunities to make investments in transit translate into investments in the development of South L.A., the larger goal of the forum was to build support for putting a proposal for “Measure R2″ on the 2016 ballot. Read more…

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Streetsblog Talks Bike Share on KCRW 7pm Tonight

wwlaStreetsblog writer Joe Linton appears on KCRW’s Which Way L.A. tonight at 7p.m.

Host Warren Olney interviews Linton and city of Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait about bike share programs.

Metro is currently receiving bids for a 1000-bike downtown Los Angeles bike share system billed as a 2-year pilot. If all goes as expected, bikes will be on L.A. streets about a year from now. If it is successful downtown, then the system is expected to be expanded to various locales throughout L.A. County. Read SBLA’s recent preview article on Metro regional bike share.

The Orange County cities of Anaheim and Fullerton both recently pulled the plug on their unsuccessful small-scale trial bike share systems.

The interview will be broadcast at 89.9 on the F.M. dial and at the KCRW website. We will provide a direct link to the interview in tomorrow’s “Today’s Headlines” post.

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Finally Given a Platform, Boyle Heights Speaks Out on Metro’s Mariachi Plaza and Affordable Housing Plans

Irwin Plata speaks about the importance of cultural markers in communities while Stephanie Olwen awaits her turn to speak. Both are students at YouthBuild in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Irvin Plata speaks about the importance of cultural markers in communities while Stephanie Olwen awaits her turn to speak. Both are students at YouthBuild in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Accused of smirking her way through Metro’s heated community meeting on the fate of Metro-owned properties in Boyle Heights by an agitated attendee, a clearly flustered Jenna Hornstock (Metro’s Deputy Executive Officer of Countywide Planning) had had enough.

“It’s hard to stand up and say, ‘We screwed up!'” she said of feeling like she had been on an apology tour since last November, when Metro bypassed the community engagement process and announced they were seeking to grant Exclusive Negotiated Agreements (ENA) to proposals for Mariachi Plaza and affordable housing projects at 1st/Soto and Cesar Chavez/Soto.

Agreeing that the community had indeed been overlooked, Hornstock declared to the packed house at Puente Learning Center that she was not smirking. Rather, she was trying her best to absorb the pain and heartfelt concerns of residents who feared being displaced — both culturally and economically — from their community.

But as residents continued to hammer her about the fact that implementing federal housing guidelines — the calculation of rents using the Area Median Income of L.A. County ($81,500) and the use of federal funds to build the sites — would harm the community by both pricing out area residents and opening up the applicant pool to folks from outside the area, she couldn’t help but throw up her hands.

“I don’t know what we should be doing,” she said citing the very real economic dilemma affordable housing proponents and projects face. “If developers can’t fund projects, they won’t build them.”

That dilemma is precisely why people seemingly counterintuitively cry “gentrification” when told affordable transit-oriented housing projects are coming to their communities.

In the case of Boyle Heights, for example, the median income is $33,325 — far below L.A. County’s median. And because it is the median and not the average, the number of households earning less than $40,000 per year is nearly three times that of those above the threshold.

Screen grab from the L.A. Times' neighborhood guide indicating ~16,500 homes are below $40,00 per year. Source L.A. Times.

Screen grab from the L.A. Times’ neighborhood guide indicating ~16,500 households in Boyle Heights earn below $40,000 per year. Source L.A. Times.

The majority of Boyle Heights residents would easily meet the first set of qualifications by falling below the maximum income limits set (calculated using percentages of the county AMI) on affordable units.

The problem is, as well over 9,000 households earn below $20,000 a year, a great many of them will struggle to the meet minimum income limits and the resulting rents developers may set for the apartments (see a sample set of requirements from the East L.A. Community Corporation below). Read more…

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3 Months After Metro Fare Increase: Revenue Up 7.7%, Ridership Down 4.4%

Metro fare revenue is up 7.7 percent comparing October through December for 2013 vs. 2014. Image via Metro presentation [PDF]

Metro fare revenue is up 7.7 percent, comparing October through December for 2013 vs. 2014. Image via January 2015 Metro Quarterly Financial Update presentation [PDF]

Metro released its latest Quarterly Financial Update [PDF] at this week’s Finance Committee meeting. The report gives an early glance at the impacts of Metro’s mid-September 2014 fare increases.

Financially, the news is good. Comparing the second quarter, October to December, of FY2014-13 vs. FY2014-15, fare revenue is up 7.7 percent.

The picture is not all good, though. Revenue is up; ridership is down.

This week, the agency also released ridership data from December. Compiling monthly ridership data for the same second quarter three-month window as the above revenue data, Metro’s ridership is down 4.4 percent. Though the average is not particularly instructive (November and December are generally low ridership), for those three months, overall Metro system ridership dropped from 30.8 million per month in 2013 to 29.3 million in 2014. See actual monthly data compiled in this spreadsheet.

One interesting post-fare-increase trend within the data is that bus ridership is down quite a bit more than rail ridership. For October, November, and December, bus ridership dropped 5.0 percent. During the same period, rail ridership declined only 2.7 percent.

Overall, Metro buses still carry about 30 million riders per month — three-quarters of Metro ridership. Rail carries about 10 million riders per month — a quarter of overall ridership.

There are lots of overall trends that impact ridership, so it is impossible to attribute all the revenue increases and ridership declines solely to fare increases. The state is seeing upward trends in transit utilization. Metro continues to make “service changes” that amount to cuts to the bus system. Metro spokesperson Marc Littman has emphasized that other factors can impact ridership:

[I]t will take up to six months to really gauge the revenue impacts of the fare changes. And while we expect some temporary drop in ridership, you can’t tag it just to the fare changes. Gas prices today are the lowest since February 2011, the economy is picking up, they latched the gates at half the Metro Rail stations and are cracking down on fare evasion. Too many variables to draw conclusions that it’s all related to the fare changes.

Even with revenue trending upward, departing Metro CEO Art Leahy, at least as of yesterday, was still predicting an impending fiscal crisis could be only a couple years off. With such an ambitious rail expansion program, Leahy had pressed for Metro to approve three successive fare increases. His board only approved the initial 2014 increase. Leahy’s tune has changed slightly, though. Before, he was saying that “we” face a coming deficit. Yesterday, the pronoun changed to “you.”