The biggest winners in recent months in the regional battles for transit capital are supporters of the Pasadena Blue Line, who scored a major win in Sacramento this year that resulted in the creation of a new joint powers authority to build a light rail line to the San Gabriel Valley independently of the problem-plagued MTA. MIR spoke with three electeds who represent areas directly impacted by the Blue Line -- Duarte Councilmember and MTA Board Member John Fasana; L.A. County Supervisor and MTA Board Member Mike Antonovich; and Pasadena's new City Manager, Cynthia Kurtz -- about the impact the line will have on the San Gabriel Valley, and how the Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority could prove a model for future construction efforts.
Let's start out by talking about the significance of the coming establishment of the Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority. What does it mean to the San Gabriel Valley, the region and the MTA?
Supervisor Mike Antonovich
We have been held hostage by the subway. Every $350 million we spent for a mile of subway could have bought five miles of light rail. The establishment of the new joint powers authority liberates the Pasadena Blue Line from the vested interests of the MTA, who are wedded to the subway.
About 17% of the Blue Line has already been built. Now we just need to find the additional cost-savings to make the project solvent.
"The debate should absolutely be over where the alignment is. The very idea that we have gotten into this needless debate of what type of transit there should be is really too bad. The mode you choose depends on the physical and ridership characteristics of the corridor you're trying to serve."
Building this Line will be a big win for the County and the MTA.
When the Blue Line project was managed by MTA -- and this isn't to bash them -- continual delays were driving the costs up all the time. These delays were about to cost the project out of reality.
The private sector knows better than anyone that the faster you do a project, the more money you save. I'm really excited that we will be able to use this project as a model for delivering transportation throughout L.A.
The objective is not to take away MTA's authority. They are still the entity responsible for prioritizing project funding and construction. They are still the entity that gets the federal and State money. They are still the policy entity.
But they don't have to turn over every brick.
Some people still call into question investment in any sort of rail system in a region where 97% of all trips are by automobile. Why choose rail as opposed to, say, a busway to Pasadena, an option some say would be more flexible and less expensive?
The debate should absolutely be over where the alignment is. The very idea that we have gotten into this needless debate of what type of transit there should be is really too bad.
The mode you choose depends on the physical and ridership characteristics of the corridor you're trying to serve. People forget that the EIR we did in the mid-80s looked at bus as an alternative for this corridor. The decision was made in favor of rail because it was the best solution for this corridor.
Still, we recently asked a company to tell us what it would cost to put a dedicated busway in along the Pasadena freeway. We considered a dedicated busway the only alternative to rail because without one, the buses would simply sit in the traffic on the Pasadena Freeway with everyone else -- no public service would be performed.
The capital costs for a busway in current dollars were pegged at $777 million, versus $817 million for light rail. Considering not only the MTA's existing investment of $242 million but the ongoing operational differences, changing modes now on the Pasadena Line would certainly be more expensive.
The real opportunity is in pursuing multiple investments -- to look at expanded buses and jitney service, but also to utilize the rights-of-way we already have, like this one.
I agree with Cynthia: The reality is that it's hard to make busways work in these communities -- particularly because of the grade separation issues. And, as she indicated, it's highly questionable whether you have significant cost savings on busways versus light rail when high capacity and high performance are at issue.
In light of the approval of SB 1847 and Prop. A, how do you see the MTA realigning its priorities?
Supervisor Mike Antonovich
Stopping the subway dead in its tracks with Proposition A allows the MTA to use its sales tax dollars for their original intent -- to expand light rail and bus services in the County.
"Stopping the subway dead in its tracks with Proposition A allows the MTA to use its sales tax dollars for their original intent -- to expand light rail and bus services in the County ... ."
Our regional problems call out for cost-effective regional solutions -- not padding the pockets of vested interests who want nothing but a taxpayer-funded $350 million-a-mile project that will never serve the entire County.
The JPA's new Board and new procurement methods will work to maximize the benefits to the taxpayers and the riders -- not the contractors.
More broadly, we still need to preserve the existing rail rights-of-way and opportunities they represent here in the County. Years from now, if there is a desire for the subways, the voters can address the issue at that point.
How will the funding gap be closed in order to build the Blue Line? And what do the MTA's higher-than-expected receipts from the feds as well as from State and County sales taxes mean for the project?
Supervisor Mike Antonovich
The MTA has about $500 million to play with. I suggested that approximately 22% of that be appropriated to the Blue Line -- fully funding it -- and that we use the remainder to expand the County's bus service.
There is a concern that some Board Members want to put all $500 million into a bus system when those dollars ought to go into an above ground light rail as well as the bus system.
If there's any way to close that funding gap, the people who will serve on this JPA will find it.
The gap is probably a little over $200 million. But we've looked at three different independent reviews and feel pretty confident that we can save $100 million through turnkey, design-build proposals we've been discussing.
We're looking at parking revenues, development revenues, sales tax -- any source that could create a revenue stream. Even if we can't find $100 million in cash, $10 million of on-going revenues could certainly be capitalized to fill the gap.
Still, the economy is changing. And what we can do will depend on when all this goes out to bid.
Almost immediately after SB 1847 passed, the Bus Riders' Union and others began speaking about the possibility that they would file law suits to prevent the MTA from transferring even the money that it had already allocated to the Blue Line. What do you believe is the legal ground they could stand on to potentially block the proposed transfer of funds to the new authority?
Supervisor Mike Antonovich
The Bus Riders' Union is a hoax. It's a group of activists and so-called public interest lawyers who are receiving compensation from the MTA for this frivolous lawsuit. Instead of charging legal fees, they ought to be ensuring that all resources go into an improved transit system, not into this pseudo union.
"For us to sit back and let the Bus Riders' Union take away rail transit -- which we need -- while refusing to acknowledge the benefits of other means of operating our bus system really would be unacceptable."
Stopping the Pasadena Line is not the solution for the Bus Riders. The solution is implementing systems like the Foothill Transit Zone in the San Gabriel Valley or transit zones like the current zone proposal in the San Fernando Valley.
More input needs to be allowed at the neighborhood level through locally organized boards -- that's the real solution. For those of us in areas served by independent or semi-independent bus systems, the greater efficiency and local responsiveness has made a big difference.
For us to sit back and let the Bus Riders' Union take away rail transit -- which we need -- while refusing to acknowledge the benefits of other means of operating our bus system really would be unacceptable.
This is an area where the whole County can benefit. We can build a rail system and have a better bus system by reorganizing.
What's the schedule for filling in the seats on the JPA Board?
We have to have the people in place by January 1, 1999.
All the entities who will be represented on the Board are busy establishing how to make their appointments. I'm glad that South Pasadena has taken the lead by appointing one of their Councilmembers, David Saeta. My understanding is that San Gabriel Valley Council Governments will probably appoint their member on November 18, 1998. Pasadena has indicated they will proceed with an appointment in early December.
I'm not sure what the process and schedule are for the Los Angeles appointment -- or the MTA appointment.
When we spoke to Senator Schiff earlier this month, we asked him to discuss how the Blue Line's operations will be funded. What's the status of MTA's preparedness to handle operations at the Blue Line?
MTA's recently adopted Regional Transit Alternatives Analysis has money set aside to operate the Blue Line. The JPA is in place to construct the Line. When complete, the Line will be turned back over to MTA for operations.
The commitment to build a rail line like the Blue Line reflects a commitment to developing higher density uses around rail stations and improving pedestrian access to surrounding areas. What will be the land-use implications of a successful Blue Line? What will it do to the landscape of the San Gabriel Valley in the way land-use decisions are handled around its alignment?
When we updated our General Plan five years ago, we were convinced the rail line would be operating by now. We did our Land-Use and Transportation Elements jointly, with that in mind.
We increased density around station sites and ratcheted down parking requirements given the access the Blue Line would provide.
"Unlike the subway, the Blue Line is coming in with full community support. It's not going to impact businesses along the path of construction. It's a public/private partnership, and the vested interests are not part of that marriage. The community is speaking with one voice, just as it was with the Foothill Transit Zone."
One of these that actually got built was the Holly Street Village, where more than 300 apartments currently stand over a future rail station. The other proposals fizzled out as the Blue Line's completion moved further and further out of sight.
But now that the JPA is in place, I'm beginning to get calls from developers again. I'm relieved about that.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich
The subway started out with a low-ball figure. Once it was approved, however, the price suddenly jumped to $350 million a mile. And we had sinking streets, multimillion dollar litigation and tragic fatalities because workers were working under unsafe conditions.
Unlike the subway, the Blue Line is coming in with full community support. It's not going to impact businesses along the path of construction. It's a public/private partnership, and the vested interests are not part of that marriage. The community is speaking with one voice, just as it was with the Foothill Transit Zone.
This is an example of empowering a community, showing that if we get outside of the vested interests' bear hugs, we can provide cost-effective transportation to people of all races, colors and creeds.
What light rail corridor will be the next light rail priority for the MTA? And will that line be built by the MTA or by another JPA?
Supervisor Mike Antonovich
There are several. In East Los Angeles there's a need for light rail. There are also needs to expand the Blue Line through Duarte to the County line.
We also have a need in the West San Fernando Valley for a transit system along the 101 freeway -- which I support -- that would help alleviate the congestion along the 101 and 134 freeways. This would also serve the media district and people in the Burbank/Glendale/San Fernando Valley area. This would begin at Valley Circle, serving Warner Center and potentially Ventura County, coming all the way down to the 134, serving the Eagle Rock community and connecting to the Blue Line's Marengo Station in Pasadena on the 210 freeway.
A great region of the County would be served. And this would help us clean the air, reduce pollution and move people at a fraction of the cost of the subway.
First we're going to have to demonstrate success with the Blue Line.
Our peer review and competitive procurement processes for the Blue Line will ensure that our budget will continue to be lower than it was even in 1990. If we can demonstrate that efficiency, if we can get some competitive bids in here, if we're able to build it successfully on time, then people will want to copy us when we move to some of these other projects.
Now that we've gotten the bill through, implementation's the key. If we do our job right, it will be great for the County.
When will we see the first trains running to Pasadena?
I'd love to say that we will absolutely build it by 2001. But that's going to take someone to sit down with all of the designs and the as-builts and everything that we will get from MTA.
I would say on the outside 2002, but I'm still optimistic that maybe it'll be 2001.