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There’s no money for rail on Vermont Avenue, but Metro will pursue it anyway

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A bus rapid transit line is planned for the busy corridor. But would a train make more sense?

A rendering of the bus rapid transit project. The rapid bus would travel in a bus-only lane running either alongside the curb or in the center of the street.
Los Angeles Metro

Metro’s Board of Directors voted unanimously today to keep examining options for a train along Vermont Avenue, in addition to a bus rapid transit project that the agency aims to complete by 2028.

Funding is available for the $310 million bus project through Measure M, the sales tax hike approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2016. Money for a rail route, which is projected to cost between $4.4 billion and $8.4 billion, will be harder to find.

“We have to be eyes wide open about this—there isn’t money for a rail line right now,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who co-authored a motion ordering Metro staff to include options for light rail and subway service along the route in an environmental review of the bus project.

Still, Garcettti pointed out that money might later become available for a more ambitious project—potentially through a public-private partnership, in which a private company could contribute to development costs in exchange for future revenue.

“What we all don’t want to do is have a busway that’s a little faster... but not the same kind of noticeable improvement as with rail,” he said.

The stretch of Vermont between Sunset and Wilshire boulevards is already served by the Red Line subway, but buses without a designated lane are the primary transit option for riders south of Wilshire.

The rapid bus, similar in concept to Metro’s successful Orange Line, would travel in a bus-only lane running either alongside the curb or in the center of the street. Metro staff estimates that with a rapid busway in place, the length of a trip between Hollywood Boulevard and 120th Street would fall up to 24 minutes, from over an hour to as little as 44 minutes.

A rail route—particularly a subway—would likely be faster, and could carry more riders. Metro estimates that a train along Vermont would attract between 91,000 and 144,000 daily passengers. Buses that currently run along Vermont now carry roughly 45,000 riders on a typical weekday.

Agency staffers pointed out Thursday that a rail route could later be constructed, replacing the bus rapid transit project, even if the latter project comes first.

Garcetti argued that building a line capable of carrying a large number of riders as soon as possible would be a worthy investment, given the amount of development taking place in Exposition Park and other areas along the route.

“When we first looked at this, there was a lot of activity that wasn’t happening that’s now happening,” said Garcetti.

The mayor’s motion, co-authored by board members Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, Janice Hahn, Hilda Solis, and James Butts, also directs Metro staff to discuss extending the line all the way to Harbor City, where it would link up to the Silver Line at Pacific Coast Highway.

Hahn noted that such an extension would give South Bay riders a direct transit connection to Griffith Park and other attractions.

At least one member of the board was skeptical of plans to expand upon the project’s original scope.

“We may be stepping a little far afield,” warned board member John Fasana, who pointed out that other projects, such as an extension of Metro’s Gold Line rail route, have recently been plagued by budget issues due in part to rising construction costs.

“We need to really be careful here,” said Fasana. “I think we’re building a list of projects that we’re not going to be able to fund.”