The Federal Transit Administration has notified Metro that it has given formal approval for preliminary engineering work to begin on the Westside Subway Extension and the Regional Connector, moving both projects a step closer to actual construction.
The notification by the FTA means that both the Subway Extension and the Regional Connector are likely to be accepted into the federal New Starts program, which helps local areas pay for large transit projects. Both the Subway Extension and the Connector are also to be funded in part by Measure R, the sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008.
The approval also means that the first installment of federal funds could be included in next year’s federal budget.
Furthermore, the FTA has again given strong indications that they support the subway being built quicker than originally planned. Under Metro’s long-range plan, the subway would reach Westwood in 2036. The FTA estimates that the subway could reach Westwood by 2024 under some funding scenarios. Metro is trying to accelerate the subway’s completion to 2022.
Both projects are currently in their final environmental study phase, which is expected to be finished in 2011. Preliminary engineering work is scheduled to be complete for the Subway Extension in late 2011 and the Regional Connector in early 2012.
Final design work is expected to take 14 to 18 months. Under the best-case scenario, utility relocation work for both projects could begin in mid- to late 2012 depending on when the FTA gives the go-ahead to begin building.
The Regional Connector is a 1.9-mile underground light rail line in downtown Los Angeles that will connect the Gold Line to the Blue Line and future Expo Line, making it easy for passengers to reach their destinations without having to transfer to a bus or another train. The Connector is scheduled to open in 2019 under Metro’s long-range plan.
The Westside Subway Extension will extend the Purple Line from its terminus at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue to the VA Hospital in Westwood. Under Metro’s long-range plan adopted in 2009, the subway would be built in three phases — to Fairfax Avenue by 2019, Century City by 2026 and Westwood by 2036.
The reason for the long timeline: The subway is a complicated construction project and Measure R funds don’t flow into county coffers all at once – both factors take time and the subway is one of many Measure R projects that must be funded.
Metro has been pursuing the 30/10 Initiative to speed up construction of all the Measure R transit projects. In the case of the Subway Extension, that will require Measure R money, federal New Starts funds and other federal funds and financing.
Legislation to secure that financing will likely be needed as part of the next multi-year federal transportation bill. Transit advocates are hopeful that Congress tackles the bill in 2011.
As part of the FTA approvals, the agency also conducted a “risk assessment” for both projects. This is a detailed analysis of the various costs and underlying assumptions that form the basis of a transit project’s cost estimates.
The results of the risk assessment show that FTA and Metro are in substantial agreement on estimating costs for guideway and track, stations, support facilities and other major technical elements of the projects. However, there are two areas that are more subjective where the two agencies differ.
The FTA believes the projects will take two years longer to complete than Metro’s schedule, and the FTA is estimating the annual growth of the local Consumer Price Index (CPI) at four percent while Metro has adopted a three percent rate based on low annual CPI increases in recent years and other economic forecasts for Los Angeles County.
Time is money — so if the schedule is extended, inflation will take its toll. FTA also recognizes that for any major public works project unforeseen risks could arise and has asked Metro to come up with contingency plans should costs go up. However, the last two New Starts transit projects Metro has overseen – the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension and the third phase of the Metro Red Line to North Hollywood — were built within budget and ahead of schedule.
Metro estimates that the subway extension to Westwood – through completion — will cost $5.34 billion if finished by 2022. It estimates the Regional Connector will cost $1.367 billion.
The FTA’s cost and time estimates could change as Metro goes into preliminary engineering and the final design of the subway. Metro officials say they believe their own cost and time estimates are valid with aggressive management of both projects.
Some readers may be curious about those above numbers. Metro planners and press releases have sometimes provided the cost of the projects in 2009 dollars while not making it entirely clear that Metro was planning the projects based on how much both would cost at the time they’re actually built.
Metro’s most recent project to receive New Starts funding was the Eastside Gold Line extension, which received $490.7 million of its $898.8-million cost from Washington. New Starts also helped pay for the existing Red and Purple lines. With transportation funding from states often in short supply, New Starts money is coveted by transit agencies around the country and the application process is competitive and thorough in nature.