Projected costs are climbing for a rail line between Los Angeles’s Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
When LA County voters approved a sales tax increase in 2016 to fund major transportation projects like this one, Metro officials estimated that a transit line through the Sepulveda Pass would cost $5.7 billion to build.
But that was before agency staffers determined that in order to meet demand from riders, the project would need to be a high-capacity heavy rail or monorail system—rather than a cheaper light rail system.
Now, with transit construction costs on the rise, Metro expects the cost of building the project to be between $9.4 billion and $13.8 billion. The exact price depends on whether agency leaders opt to build a monorail or a heavy rail system—and whether the heavy rail track is above ground or below.
Project managers Cory Zelmer and Peter Carter told reporters Tuesday that the scope of the project has also grown slightly since 2016. Early plans for the project called for a northern terminus between one and three miles south of the Van Nuys Metrolink Station, where project planners now say the line must connect to a future light rail line in the eastern Valley.
A funding source doesn’t yet exist for the additional project costs, but Carter says that the new estimate should not be seen as a death sentence for the anticipated rail line.
“It’s certainly not the first Metro project that has a cost estimate higher than its initial estimate,” he said Tuesday. “It’s certainly not going to be the last. This is an ongoing conversation.”
One factor that could affect projected costs going forward is a potential public-private partnership, in which an outside contractor would assist the agency in building and potentially operating the rail line.
This week, Metro’s Board of Directors will vote on whether to allow staff to negotiate pre-development agreements with private companies, paving the way for future public-private partnerships.
Zelmer says partnering with a private contractor could ultimately reduce costs for the agency, but won’t make funding shortfalls disappear.
“It’s not free money,” he says. “Our objective in a [public-private partnership] is to share some of the risk of the project. What the private sector may be willing to do is to take on some of that risk.”
Adding to the challenge for project planners is the agency’s goal to complete 28 local transportation projects—including the Sepulveda Pass line—in time for the 2028 Olympics.
Under a timeline presented to voters in 2016, the Valley-to-Westside rail line would open in 2033. Prior to the project’s revised cost estimate, Metro staffers calculated that the agency would need to fill a nearly $1.4 billion shortfall to get the line up and running five years early.
To open the project by 2028, Zelmer says construction would likely need to start in 2023, at the latest. That leaves the agency with little time to figure out funding and to complete environmental review for the project, a process that usually takes years.
At the same time, Metro will also begin planning a second phase of the project, which will create a rail connection between the Westside and LAX. That could be accomplished by extending the Sepulveda Pass line or the Purple Line subway. The latter now travels between Downtown and Koreatown, but is expected to begin running to the Veterans Affairs campus in Brentwood by 2027.
Metro staffers project that once the project’s second segment is complete, riders would be able to travel between Van Nuys and the airport in less than 40 minutes.
That speedy trip could be a long way off. The southern portion of the project is scheduled to open in 2057. Zelmer says the agency is also seeking the help of a private contractor to plan—and perhaps speed up—the segment serving LAX.
Agency research shows demand is high for the project. Metro estimates that rail service between the Valley and LAX could attract up to 250,000 daily riders—more than any rail or bus line in the existing system. That could eventually help the agency secure more funding for the project, if state or federal grants become available.
“We think this is a very good project,” Zelmer said Tuesday. “We think it could compete very well for other types of funding that come about, so we’ll definitely keep that as part of our plan moving forward.”
Metro will host a series of community meetings about the project starting this week.