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Metro directors pick two options for new rail line through Downtown LA

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The line, called West Santa Ana Branch, will run through the Gateway Cities

Metro trains.

Metro’s Board of Directors voted unanimously Thursday to carry two potential routes for the Downtown portion of its future West Santa Ana Branch line into the environmental review process.

The new rail line is slated to run about 20 miles from Downtown LA to the Gateway Cities in southeast Los Angeles County. South of Downtown, the line will pass through Huntington Park, Bell, Cudahy, South Gate, Downey, Paramount, Bellflower, Artesia, and Cerritos.

For the Downtown portion, the board selected options that would either route the train beneath Alameda Street to Union Station, or beneath Alameda to about Seventh Street, where it would turn west and terminate near Pershing Square or Seventh Street and Metro Center.

It rejected an option that would have built an elevated rail line in Little Tokyo and another that would have ended in the Arts District, near the Sixth Street Viaduct.

It also discarded an option supported by Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis to study a route along the LA River, just east of Downtown. Solis proposed a modified version of what Metro staff call option H, which could potentially have turned the West Santa Ana Branch into an extension of the Red and Purple subway lines, opening the door to a regional heavy rail line from West Los Angeles to the Orange County border.

“The heavy rail option, [costing] $12 to $18 billion, I think would be the most expensive line in American history. But it also would [put us farther] out time wise,” said Metro board chair and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I’m still open to studying H if anybody wants to, but I don’t hear much desire to.”

The Metro Board voted move forward with options E and G.

Solis was not present at Thursday’s meeting. A few Metro directors indicated they were intrigued by her proposal, but none offered to vote for it.

The option would have potentially delayed the project, which is included in Metro’s Twenty-Eight by ’28 initiative. Spearheaded by Garcetti, the initiative aims to complete 28 major transportation projects by the 2028 Summer Olympics.

Metro has about $4 billion earmarked for the West Santa Ana Branch’s construction over the coming decades. Much of that is projected sales tax revenue that won’t be available until the 2040s.

The two alignments that Metro just voted to study are each estimated to cost $5.8 billion. That’s a significant funding gap that the agency needs to fill, more so if it intends to plan, build, and open the line in the next 10 years.

To get the line funded and built sooner, Metro is looking to enter into a “public-private partnership,” known as a P3. In that partnership, a public agency trades some sort of long-term return on a private investment, like future sales-tax revenue.

Using P3s to accelerate infrastructure construction is fairly routine in other parts of the world, but they are relatively novel in the United States. Only a few have been completed in the country, none on the scale of a multi-billion dollar rail line through one of the most densely populated corridors in the country.

“What we are looking to do [is] implement this on a schedule that is accelerated to the point that my team is calling this a ‘unicorn schedule,’” Metro CEO Phil Washington, said at a Metro planning committee meeting earlier this month. “A unicorn meaning they have never seen such an animal before, and so this schedule must be unattainable.”

In the past, Metro director and county supervisor Janice Hahn has said that this sort of partnership could potentially accelerate construction of the West Santa Ana Branch by 14 to 15 years.

A full map of the West Santa Ana Branch line. By now, options that don’t connect to the Blue Line have been discarded.

Metro has already received three private proposals to build the West Santa Ana Branch line. Two of those, prepared by construction giants Skanska and Kiewit are being evaluated by Metro.

The proposals were received by Metro before it issued a “notice of preparation,” a technical document that formally defines the project’s scope and begins the state-mandated environmental analysis process.

Washington said Thursday that he does not want to “predetermine” outcomes for this particular project. Doing so, he said, would be “borderline illegal.”

In a letter to the board on Wednesday, Solis emphasized that she too was concerned about precisely that risk, which is why she pushed for studying “all feasible build alternatives.”

“The time and expense required to thoroughly vet viable and feasible alternatives in the early stages of a project is offset by minimizing exposure to CEQA-based legal challenges,” she wrote.

Ethan Elkind, who wrote the book The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City, says P3s can be a tempting option for cash-hungry public agencies.

“There’s an incentive to go to P3s, because we run out of public dollars to invest in these projects, and we get pretty desperate to try and get a private entity to fund some of the construction,” he says. “I wonder how much of the interest in P3s is born out of the desire for political expediency that says ‘hey we can get a private company to speed up this delivery in time for the olympics.”

Elkind isn’t opposed to public-private partnerships, but he says there are other ways to accelerate projects.

“P3s can work out well if they’re done right. But the ideal situation would be getting these projects done cost effectively, and trying to recapture some of the value transit gives private property owners along the route to help pay for the investment,” he says.