Metro officials prepare to seek federal money for subway and connector projects


We launched the Source quickly last month in time to report on the October meeting of the Board of Directors. But I wanted to circle back and try to better explain something that happened at the September meeting — when the Board voted to seek federal funds for both the Westside extension of the subway to Westwood and the downtown regional connector light rail.

The news of the day is that Metro officials are now hoping to secure that federal money by late summer 2011 and, on a more immediate note, are preparing to immediately seek millions of dollars in President Obama’s next budget to help pay for preliminary engineering of the projects. The best way I can summarize what this means: the political game involving the projects has now largely shifted from Los Angeles County to Washington D.C.

Both projects are getting money from the Measure R sales tax increase approved by voters last year. Getting that money was essentially the first half of the funding game. But that money — $4.1 billion for the subway and $160 million for the connector — doesn’t flow to the subway or connector all at once. That’s why Metro officials hope to secure federal money to add to the Measure R money, giving them enough to open the first phase of the subway to Fairfax and the connector in 2019. The federal money request is the second half of the funding game.

The Federal Transit Administration (the FTA) runs a program called “New Starts” to help transit agencies pay for big new rail and busway projects. New Starts provided for about $490 million of the $898 million cost of the Gold Line Eastside Extension line that is opening later this month. But once the Gold Line is complete, Metro doesn’t have any other projects in the New Starts funding pipeline.

Agency staff at last month’s meeting pointed out to the Board that the result is that Los Angeles County isn’t getting its fair share of federal dollars — that’s the message the above graphic tries to convey. Of course, it’s also fair to point out that to get New Starts money one must first ask and fill out several forests’ worth of paperwork. New Starts funding doesn’t just fall out of the sky and until recently Metro hasn’t asked for more New Starts money because: 1) until Measure R passed there weren’t many big projects in the works, and; 2) the Metro Board had not agreed what to ask for.

In the meantime, other regions were asking. And getting. The following is the current crop of projects either getting New Starts money or expected to (“LRT” is an acronym for “light rail transit”):

Phoenix, Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail
Los Angeles, Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension
Denver, Southeast Corridor LRT
Denver, West Corridor LRT
Washington DC Metropolitan Area, Largo Metrorail Extension
Chicago, Ravenswood Line Extension
Minneapolis-Big Lake, Northstar Corridor Rail
Northern New Jersey, Hudson-Bergen MOS-2
New York, Long Island Rail Road East Side Access
New York, Second Avenue Subway Phase I
Portland, South Corridor I-205/Portland Mall LRT
Pittsburgh, North Shore LRT Connector
Dallas, Northwest/Southeast LRT MOS
Salt Lake City, Mid Jordan LRT
Salt Lake City, Weber County to Salt Lake City Commuter Rail
Northern Virginia, Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project Extension to Wiehle Ave.
Seattle, Central Link Initial Segment
Seattle, University Link LRT Extension
Sacramento,  South Corridor Phase 2 (FFGA)
Orlando, Central Florida Commuter Rail Transit — Init. Oper. Seg. (FFGA)
Northern New Jersey, Access to the Region’s Core (ESWA)
Houston, North Corridor LRT (FFGA)
Houston, Southeast Corridor LRT (FFGA)

Let’s go through that list. The New York metro area has three projects, including the first phase of a new subway under Second Avenue and $3 billion for a new tunnel under the Hudson River to add train service between New Jersey and Manhattan. Several other metro areas have two projects apiece — including Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Houston. Nothing against Utah — it’s very scenic! — but Utah has a population of only 2.7 million people. Los Angeles County has more than 10 million. (here’s a link to a federal spreadsheet with more info about the above projects and here’s a link to a lengthy federal report with more details about the projects).

But, as the list shows, it’s unusual to have more than two projects per region or per state. That’s why the Metro Board in September decided to ask for money for two projects, the subway and the connector. But that request made some people unhappy.

Fourteen members of Congress and several state legislators wrote the Metro Board last month asking them to expand their request in order to get money for the Foothill Gold Line extension, the Crenshaw Corridor project and an extension of the Eastside Gold Line. And some elected officials continue to insist more projects should be added to Metro’s New Starts list.

However, the Metro Board at the October meeting decided not to change its New Starts request. That was not surprising — did anyone really expect the Board to tear up something it had just agreed to? However, the Board did approve an amendment as part of the agency’s long-range plan that seeks to get other federal money for the Crenshaw Corridor, the Foothill Extension and the subway project.

Metro officials have now started looking for that money. One source of money that Metro officials are looking at is the next version of the federal TIGER program — it stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery — which was originally part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

As for the subway and the regional connector, the first big hurdle that Metro officials hope to clear is to secure money for preliminary engineering of the two projects. Officials are working on estimates of the cost of that now. It will almost certainly be a multi-million dollar request.

There are two ways to get the money. The first is for the Obama Administration to direct the FTA to pay for it as part of the President’s 2011 fiscal year budget; the request must be submitted by Metro within the next few months.

If that doesn’t happen, then Metro will have to seek an appropriation for the engineering money from Congress. That would put the ball in the court, among others, of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee.

But it’s no sure thing Congress would grant the money — members of Congress, both outside and within California, could stymie the request for any number of reasons. For example, they may not like the subway or regional connector projects. Or they may feel that other projects in the region are more worthy.

The engineering money is important because it allows the subway and connector projects to keep moving forward at a steady clip. Metro federal affairs manager Raffi Hamparian said the agency hopes to have an agreement in place for the New Starts money for the subway and connector projects by Sept. 2011. If that happens, construction could hypothetically begin soon thereafter, assuming all the environmental studies and design work is complete.