America Fast Forward and FrontLines: Could 30/10 work for Salt Lake City?

Existing transit network with planned extensions in dark blue and red.

Existing Utah Transit Authority transit network with planned extensions in dark blue and red.

This is the second story in our series examining how L.A. County’s 30/10 financing model could help other cities around the country.

On the eve of the 21st Century, the citizens of Salt Lake City cut the ribbon on their first light rail project, a 15-mile line connecting downtown to the city of Sandy to the south. The Salt Lake metro area was already booming and the 2002 Winter Olympics were soon coming to town.

From 2000 to 2009 the population of Salt Lake County grew over 15 percent and its southern neighbor Utah County grew a whopping 48 percent. Compare those to 3.4 percent for Los Angeles County. And despite the national economic downturn, New Geography notes, “one of the country’s largest downtown development projects is taking shape in Salt Lake City. The city’s center displays a landscape of cranes, cement-mixers and hard-hats — something all too rare in these tough times.”

The side effect of that growth — representing an additional 320,000 residents — is more people traveling around the region and more air pollution. Los Angeles and Salt Lake City are geographically kindred spirits. Both are surrounded by majestic, but smog-trapping mountains, and it usually takes a good storm to clean the air.

A light rail train bound for Sandy in the Salt Lake City area. Photo by vxla, via Flickr.

By 2006, residents had embraced the light rail line to the tune of 40,000 daily boardings. So, rather than tie their collective fate to ever-crowding freeways, residents voted that year to increase their local sales tax to pay for a dramatic expansion of commuter and light rail in the region.

FrontLines 2015, as the project is known, entails five new lines — four are light rail and one commuter rail — covering 70 miles. The four light rail lines are supposed to open by 2015 and two could debut as early as this August. Even when 2015 rolls around, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) won’t be done with its building program.

According to Gerry Carpenter, UTA Media Relations officer, once the initial commuter and light rail system is in place, the key will be increasing connections from homes and jobs to train stations. The UTA already has a list of bus rapid transit and streetcar projects, as well as bus enhancements, that it would like to roll out. Rough estimates suggest those additional 20 or so projects could cost a total of $3 billion.

The good news for the UTA is that the 2006 sales tax increase does not sunset (by contrast, the Measure R sales tax increase approved by voters here is scheduled to expire in July 2039). However, a substantial portion of that revenue source will be tied up in paying for FrontLines 2015.

But what if there were a way to borrow cheaply against those future revenues, so that those crucial projects could move forward right away? So that Utahans can immediately begin to reap the benefits of a clean and convenient transit system serving the all reaches of the Salt Lake metro area.

 

Light rail in the Salt Lake City basin. Photo by Nancy White, via Flickr.

That’s basically the essence of Los Angeles County’s 30/10 Program and its national counterpart, America Fast Forward: reward those cities that have taxed themselves by giving them expanded access to federal loan programs. Such loans make it possible for local areas to get the money they need to build now — before construction costs increase — and then use the sales tax revenues to pay off the loans over time.

Already, Salt Lake and Utah County residents are leading the way on local transportation investment, literally remaking a metro area that like many others in the Western U.S. has seen dramatic growth — but growth tied to the automobile. As Congress considers ways to finance the next six-year surface transportation bill that could make America Fast Forward possible, here’s hoping that legislators get inspired by the innovative solutions that local governments are spearheading.

Previously in this series: Denver’s efforts to rapidly add light rail, commuter rail and busways.

Transportation headlines, Wednesday, March 16

Here is a look at some of the transportation headlines gathered by us and the Metro Library. The full list of headlines is posted on the library’s blog.

Bus Riders Union alleges that service changes will harm minorities and low-income riders (L.A. Times)

The group has filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration that the proposed bus service changes by Metro would discriminate against minorities. In response, the FTA has sent a letter to the BRU saying that it will inquire about the complaint as part of a previously planned compliance review of Metro later this year. The proposed changes are scheduled to be voted on by the Board of Directors at their March 24 meeting and take effect in June.

Kerry, Hutchison Propose National Infrastructure Bank (Infrastructurist)

U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Kay Baley Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) are introducing a bill that would finally establish the long-discussed infrastructure bank. Their bill would kick start the bank with $10 billion in seed money from the federal government — less than the $30 billion that President Obama had initially proposed. Once established, the bank would be an independent and self-sustaining entity, free to loan money to projects based on merit and able to help leverage private sector funding. The 30/10 Initiative and America Fast Forward have both proposed an infrastructure bank as a means to increase financing for transportation projects.

End of the dirt highway (San Bernardino Sun)

Yes. Until this week, there was still a dirt road in the California State Highway system, Highway 173 near Lake Arrowhead. But it wasn’t all pastoral fun. The road has only one lane — perched on the side of a steep hillside — and Caltrans was having to spend up to $40,000 each year to keep the dirt smooth enough to pass. Local residents aren’t happy with the closing, however. They argue that 173 provided an important link to the high desert, although there are alternatives in highways. Going forward, a locked gate will restrict access to the public, but will allow the U.S. Forrest Service and emergency personnel to use it.


America Fast Forward plan gets Time's attention

In recent weeks, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has taken to calling the 30/10 Initiative by a new name: America Fast Forward. The idea is to drive home the point to Congress that the plan to expand federal loans and financing for transit projects is something that can help regions throughout the U.S. — not just Los Angeles County.

Mayor Villaraigosa — who serves on the Metro Board of Directors along with three of his appointees — has been making the media rounds  promote the plan as Congress is set to possibly tackle a new transportation spending bill later this year. As part of that, America Fast Forward is featured in this video from Time.

Transportation headlines, Wednesday, March 9

Here is a look at some of the transportation headlines gathered by us and the Metro Library. The full list of headlines is posted on the library’s blog.

Build America Bonds for transportation (National Journal)

The latest installment of the National Journal’s “Expert Blogs” asks a panel of Washington insiders whether they think the Build America Bonds program should be revived for transportation investments, as has been proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The program, which expired last year, was started by the Obama Administration to help localities pay for building critical infrastructure. In the past, Metro took advantage of the program to raise over $500 million, and an extended B.A.B. program could help finance parts of 30/10.

Study: Los Angeles traffic congestion is number one in U.S. (again) (L.A. Weekly)

Several studies have already pointed out that L.A. has some of the worst traffic, but this one — from a firm that offers traffic navigation services — ranks some of the most congested freeways in the nation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, parts of the 405, 10, and 5 freeways are all in the top 10. If there’s good news it’s this — Metro is involved in road or transit projects on all these corridors. Steve will post about that a little later this morning.

Could Farmers Field reshape L.A.’s thinking about public transit? (Neon Tommy)

The first blue ribbon committee on the proposed downtown L.A. stadium convened yesterday with traffic on the mind. One of the advantages of the downtown location is the high density of transit service in the area. But officials want to know that would-be stadium builder AEG is going to have a good plan in place for handling large crowds. At the hearing, Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic executive director Hilary Norton posited that you just need to get someone to try transit once and they’ll appreciate the benefits.

Second round of community meetings for Westside Subway Final EIR Planned in March

Metro will be holding its second round of community update meetings for the Westside Subway Extension Project Final EIR March 21 through 29.  Among the updates will be a report on current geotechnical work and the status of the Century City Station. Here’s the news release with meeting dates:

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is holding community update meetings March 21 through 29 for the Westside Subway Extension Project currently going through its Final Environmental Impact Statement/Report (EIS/EIR) planning phase.

Metro will provide feedback from its January community meetings, updates on the project’s ongoing geotechnical investigations, status of Station Area Advisory Groups, as well as project cost estimates and the status of the Century City station.

All the meetings begin at 6 p.m. and will include a presentation followed by an opportunity for public input.  The content for all three meetings will be identical.  Members of the public are invited to participate in the meeting that is most convenient for them:

  • Monday, March 21, 6-8 p.m., LACMA West – Terrace Room, 5th Floor, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036.  Served by Metro Lines 20, 720, 217 & 780. Validated vehicle parking is available in the museum’s 6th Street underground garage.  Enter from 6th and Ogden.  Spanish & Korean translation will be provided.  For added convenience, Metro will offer a live webcast of this meeting that can be viewed from any computer by visiting metro.net/westside. Continue reading

Could the 30/10 Initiative work for the Denver area and other regions?

The FasTracks program would create 119 miles of rail connecting Denver and its surrounding communities.

As many of you already know, Metro is pursuing federal legislation to speed up construction of Measure R projects. The plan as originally conceived was called the 30/10 Initiative — meaning it seeks to build 30 years of Measure R projects in 10 years with the use of federal loans and other financing.

Some members of Congress have shown an interest in such a plan. So have many groups around the country, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That’s the reason that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has lately taken to calling the plan “America Fast Forward.”

The national interest is because 30/10 is not just a plan to help Los Angeles County. It could help transit agencies around the country that have raised local funds but need help getting enough money to actually begin construction of projects.

A light rail stop in downtown Denver. Photo by writRHET, via Flickr.

With that in mind, this is the first in a series of posts about other regions that are trying — much like Metro — to expand their transit systems. We’re going to start in Colorado, where there are some striking similarities to efforts to fully realize Measure R here.

On Election Day in November 2004, Denver-area voters approved a $4.7-billion investment in their mobility and future called FasTracks.

At the time, the metropolitan area was sprawling along the Front Range of the Rockies and freeways were becoming increasingly congested. Air pollution was getting worse too, fouling the very reason so many have chosen to live in Colorado. In 1995, a new airport opened on the prairie 25 miles east of the city center, requiring a long drive to reach for residents and visitors alike.

FasTracks was an attempt to dramatically revamp how the region got around. The plan — at the time the largest in America — was to add 119 miles of light rail, commuter rail and busways by 2017 to link otherwise disconnected suburbs to one another and to downtown Denver. And do it in 12 years.

Continue reading

Metro Sets the Record Straight on Westside Subway, Alternate Station Site

Last week, Metro announced on The Source that planners for the Westside Subway Extension were evaluating an alternative location for the Century City station along Santa Monica Boulevard as part of the project’s final environmental review process.

Just to be clear, there are still only two options under study for the Century City station.  But this new location is an alternate site for the Santa Monica Boulevard Station option that shifts the station approximately 900 feet to the east in efforts to evaluate whether the new location would avoid the Santa Monica fault line.

News of the so-called “Century Park East” station alternative was reported on several online media sources, including, among others, L.A. StreetsBlog and Curbed L.A.

Metro, however, felt compelled to respond to the February 18 Beverly Hills Courier front page story in particular, which it contends contains several factual errors about the alternate station location and the overall process required for evaluating and making decisions about the subway itself.  Read the article yourself here.

Regardless of your views on where the Century City station should or should not be located, Metro wanted to clarify with facts some of the statements made in this story.  So, for the record, here’s Metro’s response:

  • The location announced last week as being along Santa Monica Boulevard with a portal likely at Century Park East is an alternative to the location already being studied along Santa Monica Boulevard with a portal at Avenue of the Stars.  Metro staff must and will continue to study both alternatives for the Santa Monica station location in Century City along with continuing to study the Constellation station location option.
  • If the initial location along Santa Monica Boulevard cannot or should not be built due to the location of the Santa Monica Fault, this alternative location may allow for a Century City station on Santa Monica Boulevard that is outside of the fault zone.
  • An analysis of all options for subway station locations and all other aspects of the subway is required both by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
  • No new decisions about the subway have been made since the Metro Board’s last meeting on October 2010. When the subway is again considered by the Board, they will be asked to make the decisions about the project, including the location of the Century City station.
  • The project team has been contacted and had conversations with many people about the Century City station location. This includes officials, residents, and others both inside and outside of Beverly Hills.  These conversations are both consistent with the process and similar to the conversations planning staff has on an ongoing basis with interested parties near other stations and along the entire alignment for the Westside Subway Extension.
  • Despite whatever City of Los Angeles files may indicate, rail planning in Los Angeles County is the purview of Metro.  Had the Courier reviewed Metro files about the current subway analysis, it would have found several pertinent documents including the Early Scoping Report from the Alternatives Analysis Study (AA), which documents the input received during the October/November 2007 early scoping period. This report indicated public requests to evaluate a station more in the heart of Century City.  The Alternatives Analysis study itself and the staff report to the Metro Board in January 2009 indicate that continued study of a Santa Monica and Constellation Boulevard location is warranted for the Century City Station.  Material that followed from the Draft EIS/EIR as early as April 2009 also showed both station locations for the Century City station.  All of this material and more is readily accessible on the project web site.
  • Much of the discussion about the location of the Century City station has caused some to question statements made about the Santa Monica Fault, what was known about it at different stages of subway planning, and what this could mean for other development projects planned in the area.  When the Alternatives Analysis for the Westside Subway Extension began in 2007, the best information available about the Santa Monica Fault in the vicinity of Century City came from a 2005 study using a method known as “surface topography” which gathers information based on visual examination. More detailed tests conducted during 2009 and 2010 have provided more information about the fault.  More information on this is available in the project’s Frequently Asked Questions document.  See question #13.