Broadside: Billionaire Philanthropist Makes Last Minute Appeal to Re-Route Regional Connector

Nothing comes easy.

For over a year, Regional Connector seemed a sure bet to earn quick passage from the Metro Board of Directors later this year.  A route and station plan compromse was reached with the Little Tokyo community that left rail advocates and community activists feeling good.  Partial funding for the project was approved in Measure R.  The Metro Board of Directors certified the draft environmental documents and a locally preferred alternative route in December of 2010.  Without some major change to either the politics or environmental review, the project will most likely be certified by the end of the year, and given the bi-partisan support for America Fast Forward might be in line for federal dollars.

The Regional Connector is a proposed mass-transit rail project to create a new light rail corridor in Downtown Los Angeles that would connect the Blue and Expo Lines to the Gold Line and Union Station.  Metro is currently accepting comments on the Final Environmental Impact Report and final approval is expected later this year.

Community Connector Coalition

In a letter, dated August 30 (embedded above), to Metro and Federal Transit Authority staff, a shadowy group known as the Community Connector Coalition(CCC) is urging Metro to throw out all of the work already done on the routing and environmental studies of the Regional Connector and start over with a new route drawn on top of a google map.  The membership of the group is left secret, a google search of the name produced links to the letter above which I just uploaded last night and nothing else.  So why does this letter scare the bejeezus out of some Regional Connector supporters?

Because the letter is signed by Eli Broad.  Yes, the Eli Broad who is a billionaire philanthropist who has an art collection you might have heard of and certainly has the ear of many a Democratic politician.  In a sign that Broad is playing for keeps, the contact information with follow-up questions on the letter isn’t a planning firm, but a high-powered corporate legal firm.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and philanthropist Eli Broad talk to the media at the groundbreaking for the Civic Center park. Photo:## Downtown##

In what they continually call a series of simple adjustments, Broad’s team urges Metro to: move the Bunker Hill Station to the top of Grand Ave., move the Broadway/Civic Center Station and adjust the route in that area, and to move the Little Tokyo Station.  These “modest amendments” would basically require scrapping just about all of the work done over the last five years, just months before the final environmental documents were scheduled to be approved.

Even if all of the CCC’s claims about cost savings are true, by not moving forward with design in 2012 the cost of supplies, inflation, and other costs could well wipe out any savings made by the line adjustments.  And if the delay cost Metro a federal grant or low-interest loan, it would be a disaster for everyone waiting for the connector.  And there’s no way to measure the cost of the time and money already put into the project.

Broad’s curveball provides a challenge to Metro.  Will the agency staff, or Board, be swayed by this just before the bell argument, or will they resist what is surely an intense lobbying effort by the CCC?  Will Metro follow established policy for comments received during the environmental process and wait to respond until the Final Environmental Impact Report, or does Eli Broad get special treatment?  Will Metro direct staff to examine the suggestions as their outlined in the above letter and hand-drawn in blue ink on a google map?

And if they do go back on their original plan, who’s going to tell the Little Tokyo community after all the work the agency and community put in to create the current route?

Critics of Metro often portray the agency as somehow beholden to wealthy investors and developers.  Broad’s curveball might be a tricky one to hit, but it will be a home run if the agency handles it correctly.


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