Is 30/10 going to happen soon?

I was (predictably) hiking in Yosemite on Friday when the news broke in L.A. that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had expressed his strongest support to date of the 30/10 Initiative AND that the federal government was also supportive of doing the engineering work for the Westside Subway Extension all at once instead of in bits and pieces.

Here’s a brief Q&A that I hope explains what all this means.

Will the subway get federal funds that will allow it to reach Westwood in the next decade?

The short answer: that remains to be determined.

Metro is in the process of applying for billions of dollars in New Starts funding for both the Westside Subway Extension and the Downtown Regional Connector projects. No money has been awarded yet, nor is yet certain how much the projects may get.

That money would be combined with funds from the Measure R sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008 in addition to any funds that Metro may secure through the 30/10 Initiative, which in essence proposes to borrow money from the feds to build a dozen Measure R transit projects in the next 10 years instead of the next 30.

To sum it up: Measure R + New Starts + 30/10 Initiative = subway to Westwood by 2017.

So what’s the big hoopla about the FTA allowing the project to be engineered all the way to Westwood?

The news suggests that the FTA is leaning toward providing New Starts funding for the subway and connector projects — otherwise the agency wouldn’t care about dictating what does and does not get engineered.

It also means that Metro can do the preliminary engineering for the subway all at once so that if the above funding scenario happens, the agency has the blueprints to get the subway to Westwood.

And what happens if the above funding scenario doesn’t happen?

The long-range plan adopted by the Board of Directors of Metro calls for the subway to reach Fairfax by 2019, Century City in 2026 and Westwood in 2036. Gulp.

The 30/10 Initiative is the ingredient the agency needs to accelerate that schedule to get the subway to Westwood in 2017.

Have the feds approved of the 30/10 Initiative?

No. That will almost certainly take approval by Congress and 30/10 doesn’t appear in any federal legistation. At least not yet.

However, Secretary LaHood’s support for 30/10 is nothing to sneeze at. LaHood is an appointee of President Barack Obama and ultimately it will be Obama whose signature will be required on legislation containing 30/10.

And what will that legislation be?

Every few years Congress must approve a massive transportation spending bill. The last one was signed by President Bush in 2005 and expired in 2009 — but has been extended by Congress until a new bill is hammered out.

It hasn’t exactly been a priority for Obama and many others in Congress, given some of the other key legislation before Congress in the past couple of years — such as the federal stimulus bill and health care, to name two.

But 30/10 has the promise of garnering support from around the country as it amounts to a way for local areas to use their own funds to secure loans to build more transit. It appears to be a win-win for everyone involved.

Under the plan, the feds would be loaning money not giving it away — thus not digging a bigger deficit hole — and local areas would be able to borrow money at rates lower than they would on the open markets. The plan would seemingly enable a lot of transit to get built, thereby enabling more commuters in urban areas to get around without driving.

That could save gas and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping Obama achieve one of his stated goals.