Mayor Garcetti’s news release on $200 million in federal funding in next year’s budget for Metro projects

Here’s a news release from the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on the good news in President Obama’s recently-announced budget for the next fiscal year:

GARCETTI ANNOUNCES FEDERAL FUNDING IN PRESIDENT’S BUDGET; URGES CONGRESS TO PASS MULTI-YEAR FEDERAL TRANSPORTATION BILL

LOS ANGELES–Mayor Eric Garcetti announced today that President Obama’s FY 14-15 budget contains $200 million for critical Los Angeles transportation projects — $100 million each for the Regional Connector and the Westside Subway Extension. He also urged Congress to take immediate action to pass a multi-year Federal surface transportation bill.

“Especially in these tough economic times, you have to prove to Washington that you’re going to deliver real results,” Mayor Garcetti said. “This funding represents the White House’s recognition that our transit program will spend money wisely, create thousands of jobs, and make a real difference for L.A. commuters. Now, it’s time for Congress to act and pass a multi-year Federal surface transportation bill.”

The President’s proposed budget funding follows Los Angeles’ recent win of a $670 million Federal New Starts Full Funding Agreement Grant for the Downtown Regional Connector, which brings together the city’s various rail lines to make transfers convenient, dramatically improving the rider experience.

The Westside Subway Extension project will extend the subway from the current Wilshire and Western station terminus 3.9 miles to Wilshire and La Cienega. The subway project will create 25,000 jobs.

 

The funding in the budget is from the federal New Starts program, which helps local transit agencies pay for expensive transit projects. The deal for Regional Connector funding from New Starts was finalized last month and the agreement for the Purple Line Extension should be soon completed. New Starts money is awarded by the government over several years, thus the $100 million in next year’s budget for each of the projects.

Transportation headlines, Thursday, March 13

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Looming train shortage at Metro (ZevWeb) 

Metro is in a race against time. Literally. The big question tackled by this story on Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s website: will there be enough rail cars to operate enough train service on two projects under construction — Expo Line Phase 2 and the Gold Line Foothill Extension — and more than halfway complete?

Excerpt:

So, with a likely initial shortfall of about 50 train cars, the issue presents some tough decisions for Metro, all of which are likely to be unpopular with the traveling public. It could delay the new lines’ openings, operate them with shorter, more crowded trains, offer less frequent service, or redeploy cars from elsewhere in the system, thus spreading the pain more broadly.

The shortage is expected to be most severe in the first months of operation for the two new extensions, with steady improvements coming as new rail cars arrive throughout 2016. But even the prospect of a relatively short-lived disruption has been enough to strain the relationship between Metro, which will operate the lines, and the two construction authorities charged with successfully completing the projects.

Samantha Bricker, chief operating officer for the Exposition Light Rail Construction Authority, expects Expo Phase 2 to be ready for testing in the summer of 2015, which would make it possible for the line—running from Culver City to Santa Monica— to serve the public as early as December, 2015. But she’s worried that the train car shortage could impede that schedule and disappoint passengers looking forward to jumping aboard the westernmost phase of a light rail line that’s already attracting large numbers of riders.

“If these projects are done on time and there are no trains there, the public is going to go nuts,” Bricker predicted.

Metro’s Gold Line Foothill Extension, running from Pasadena to Azusa, is expected to open just two months later.  Habib Balian, chief executive officer of the Foothill Construction Authority, said he, too, is worried that his line’s opening will be delayed or marred by diminished service in the early months.

“It’s going to sit there and cobwebs are going to grow until Metro starts service, or they are going to put wimpy service on all the rail lines,” Balian said, referring to the possibility of importing rail cars from elsewhere in the system.

The problem dates back to November 2009 when negotiations between Metro and  rail car manufacturer AnsaldoBreda on a deal for new rail cars finally collapsed. Metro staff and some Metro Board members were never happy with the firm (including Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Mike Antonovich, perhaps most prominently) which had previously delivered flawed rail cars to Metro under an earlier contract. Despite this poor track record with Metro, the city of L.A. delegation of the Metro Board were hoping that the firm would build a manufacturing facility in downtown Los Angeles to provide much needed jobs during the Great Recession. That, of course, would have been a significant political victory.

The rail car contract then had to be re-bid and it wasn’t until April 2012 that the Metro Board — with great urging from Metro staff — finally approved a contract for 78 new rail cars with Kinkisharyo. That firm is presently building an assembly facility for the rail cars in Palmdale and company officials say that it will be very difficult to accelerate delivery of the vehicles.

In the meantime, Metro is sending a delegation to the company’s headquarters in Japan later this month to see if there is any way to get more vehicles quicker. Deliveries are currently scheduled to begin in September 2015 and continue through 2017. As for the Expo Line Phase 2 and the Gold Line Foothill Extension, Metro has been forecasting that both will open in early 2016. The projects together add 17 miles of track to the Metro system, meaning more trains are needed to cover that turf and maintain existing schedules.

Bottom line: this is really a story about politics and the awarding of big contracts.

UPDATE: Metro officials say they do not believe that the agency will be 50 rail cars short assuming the projects open on time — which, of course, remains to be seen. Officials also say they may be able to shift maintenance schedules around so that more rail cars will be available to operate at any given time.

Southern California Transit Advocates takes position on fare increases (SO.CA.TA website) 

The group isn’t large but they do pay close attention to transit in our region and, in particular, serve as watchdogs over Metro and other agencies. The group says it generally supports the fare increases proposed by Metro but would like to see some changes.

In particular, SO.CA.TA wants to see the free transfer period extended from 90 minutes to two hours and for TAP cards to be sold for single rides on buses for the same price as they’re sold from ticket machines at rail stations ($1). The group also declined to support the second option for fare increases that focuses on separate fares for peak and off-peak times. That, the group said, is a poor idea that would only make taking transit more confusing.

Fossils unearthed by Metro reveals L.A.’s watery past (KPCC)

A nice look at the reasons why that marine fossils are being found in the exploratory shaft for the Purple Line Extension project. The main reason: the beach wasn’t always located at its present location in L.A. :)

Becoming a biker in L.A.: buying a bike (KCRW)

A rookie cyclist dives into the world of bikes and bike gear to try to determine what she really needs. The gist of it: the proliferation of bike gear and fancy bikes has made things a lot more difficult than when Old Goats such as me bought bikes in decades past.

Transportation headlines, Wednesday, March 12

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Attorney convicted in stealing nearly $2 million in MTA money (L.A. Times) 

James Vincent Reiss defended Metro as a contract attorney in injury cases. Reiss had pleaded no contest to two felony counts of grand theft. Excerpt:

Karen Gorman, acting inspector general for Metro, said a State Bar of California investigation into problems with Reiss’ other clients in 2012 tipped off the agency to the potential for trouble, and officials immediately began auditing his cases.

“We aggressively began to investigate … and working with the district attorney’s office we were able to bring Mr. Reiss to justice for his crimes.”

According to a Metro lawsuit filed against Reiss’ law firm in January for suspected malpractice, forgery and negligence, Reiss cost the agency as much as $2.5 million.

In 2011, Reiss allegedly told the MTA that it had negotiated a $2.5-million jury award down to $1.765 million. But when the Metro board authorized the settlement and ordered that two checks totaling $1.765 million be written, Reiss kept the money, according to the suit.

 

Sentencing is scheduled for March 26. The Times reports that he is expected to receive 10 years in state prison.

Los Angeles to launch nation’s largest interactive trail network (Gizmodo) 

The app will help tie together the many walking paths and trails that criss-cross the city — and many of which are not commonly known to the masses. Even more interesting is that key content about the trails on the app (scheduled to debut next month) won’t be unlocked unless the user is actually on the trail. The app is being produced by the Interpretive Media Library, a collaboration between UCLA and California State Parks — and it’s novel enough to get the attention of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, who was in town yesterday for a media event.

What yesterday’s Supreme Court decision means for rails-trails (Streetsblog Network)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 on Tuesday that land granted the U.S. government granted to railroads doesn’t necessarily revert back to government property after railroads abandon their tracks. The ruling has implications toward rail-to-trail projects planned for government land — the problem being the land may instead belong to someone else. The post is an interesting interview with Kevin Mills, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s senior vice president of policy and trail development.

As he says, the ruling may have a deeper impact in the Western U.S., where railroad land grants were more common than in the east. Pretty interesting stuff. I personally want to see as many rail-trail projects as possible; on the other hand, the original government land grants dating back to the mid 1800s were often seen as blatant taxpayer giveaways to privately run railroads.

Wharf extension push surfaces as Central Subway crews dig on (San Francisco Chronicle) 

Transit advocates, neighborhood groups and others are starting to advocate for the Central Subway project in San Francisco to be extended to Fisherman’s Wharf. The project is extending the city’s light rail system (partially via a subway tunnel) from the Caltrain commuter rail station to the intersection of Stockton and Washington in Chinatown — about a mile shy of the popular and heavily visited Fisherman’s Wharf.

There are no plans on the books to extend the tracks any further — nor are there funds (at least not yet). I think it will be very interesting to see if there is any kind of similar push here on the Purple Line Extension project, which will eventually have a terminus in Westwood in front of the VA Hospital, just west of the 405 freeway (as far as Measure R funded the project). I imagine there will be some people in Brentwood and eastern Santa Monica who will want the subway closer to their homes, just as I expect there will be people in Brentwood and eastern Santa Monica who will not :)

Four designs to cleverly re-invent the suburban parking lot (Co.exist) 

With enough large lots on Long Island to cover an area the size of Central Park several times over, four architectural firms were asked to imagine a way to keep some parking but also make better uses of the land. Here’s one of the drawings:

3026727-slide-rsaudpg28

 

 

Photos of the exploratory shaft being dug in preparation of Purple Line Extension construction

Click on any photo to see larger.

My colleague Dave Sotero and I had a chance today to visit the exploratory shaft being dug as part of the Purple Line Extension subway project. If you’ve been to LACMA recently, you may have noticed the big wall covered with Metro posters across the street. That’s the exploratory shaft.

It’s quite a feat. The shaft is already 65 feet deep and is being dug to learn more about soil conditions in the area and validate what is already known. The work is an important step in preparing for station excavation and tunneling for the subway.

Quite a few fossils have already been found, including clams, sand dollars and parts of the cone and seeds for digger pine trees. While we were there, in fact, a rock was found that appears to have a sea lion skull within it that is perhaps two million years or more old. Metro is working with the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits to identify and preserve the fossils found.

We’ll post lots more about the shaft soon. In the meantime, Channel 7 should have a segment on the work being done as part of tonight’s newscast. See KABC 7’s story here. 

Photo by Dave Sotero/Metro.

Kim Scott, Director of Paleontology for Cogstone, a Metro project consultant, holds a rock that appears to contain the skull of a sea lion, perhaps two million years or more old. It was unearthed Tuesday afternoon during excavation of the exploratory shaft for the Purple Line Extension subway project. Photo by Dave Sotero/Metro.

Transportation headlines, Wednesday, March 5

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Obama’s budget is a populist wish list and an election blueprint (New York Times) 

The $3.9-trillion budget for fiscal year 2015 is designed to draw contrasts with Republicans and gets rid of comprises the President made last year, the Times reports. More than half the budget would go to mandatory spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the federal debt) and about $1.2 billion is spending directly controlled by the President and Congress. Excerpt:

Mr. Obama again proposed to overhaul the corporate tax code, by ending various business tax breaks and using the savings to reduce the maximum 35 percent tax rate for corporations. With about $150 billion in additional one-time revenues that businesses would pay in the transition from one tax system to another, Mr. Obama would finance half of a $302 billion, four-year plan for work on highway, bridge, rail and mass transit projects, as he first suggested last summer.

The budget, as we posted yesterday, also includes $100 million apiece in New Starts funding for the Purple Line Extension and the Regional Connector projects.

And some Twitter commentary from Yonah Freemark of the excellent Transport Politic blog:

Recent trends in bus and rail ridership (Transport Politic) 

Speaking of Yonah, here’s an interesting post about bus service and rail service — and which may contribute more to overall ridership gains by transit agencies around the country. As the post explains, there are limitations to the data, but some number-crunching indicates that rail seems to have a better chance of building ridership than does bus service. “Riders respond when they’re offered better service!,” writes Yonah, who also points out that we don’t know how bus rapid transit would attract more riders because there aren’t that many BRT projects in place.

I think there’s one other issue here: rail is pretty easy for new riders to figure out. Bus service in many metro areas — including ours — can be complicated with dozens of bus lines, each running on multiple streets, with different service frequencies and sometimes different fares and line names that seem to be random numbers. It’s not intuitive, yet overhauling bus service in many areas is a massive chore likely to upset as many riders as attract new ones.

Apple’s CarPlay: the smart car wars are getting serious (Washington Post)

Apple’s operating system will be running the mapping-texting-music playing systems in Volvos, Mercedes and Ferraris — and the hardware/software giant has agreements with other vehicle manufacturers. “Cars have long been pegged as the next major battleground for consumer tech companies looking to bring their smart technologies to more parts of consumers’ lives,” the Post says. Hmm. I remember the Days of Yore when I was excited to get a Subaru with a jack for my iPod.

Graphic: New Starts funding for Metro over the years — and finally on the rise again!

New Starts Appropriations Graph

The above graphic is certainly worth a look. It shows the amount of federal New Starts money received by Metro on an annual basis since 1993. New Starts is a federal program that helps local transit agencies pay for big, expensive projects and most of the money shown above went to the existing Red/Purple Line subway and the Eastside Gold Line.

The graphic is also missing a critical piece of good news. President Obama’s proposed transportation budget for fiscal year 2015 (which begins Oct. 1, 2014), which was announced today, includes $100 million for the Regional Connector and $100 million for the Purple Line Extension. If the budget is approved by Congress, the $200 million in New Starts money for Metro would be the most received in any given year.

The $100 million for the Regional Connector is part of the eventual $670 million in New Starts money that the project will receive. That was the big news a couple of weeks ago when Metro and the U.S. Department of Transportation finalized the New Starts deal. A similar deal for $1.25 billion in funding for the Purple Line Extension project should also be completed soon. Both projects are also drawing on funds from Measure R, the local sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008.

Stepping back, let’s look at the big picture. The Connector and Purple Line Extension also plan to use federally-backed TIFIA loans that will help Metro get lower interest rates than if they borrowed money for construction at market rates. That’s significant because it shows the degree to which the federal government under President Obama is getting involved in helping local areas build transit. It may not all be grant money — i.e. money Metro doesn’t have to pay back — but the loans still help Metro take on less debt and thus spend less on already pricey projects.

The loans are part of Metro’s America Fast Forward [AFF] proposal that has found its way into President Obama’s proposal for a multi-year transportation funding bill. AFF would expand the loan program and also create federally-subsidized bonds that local agencies could use when building projects. And that’s what I want readers to understand: the loans, the bonds, the New Starts money and Measure R combined — that’s the big kahuna here, folks. Those four things together give Metro the resources to build the expanded transit network many readers here want.

Finally, and on a very related note, I wanted to pass along a thank you from Metro officials to President Obama and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein for helping Metro secure the federal funds and advocating for expanded transit funding in Los Angeles and other cities across the nation.

Both parts of America Fast Forward initiative are in President Obama’s proposal for four-year transportation bill!

Earlier today in Minnesota, President Obama announced his proposal for a four-year transportation spending bill that would include both parts of Metro’s America Fast Forward initiative. If Congress was to vote the bill into law — and that’s a big ‘if’ — that could be a boon to Metro and other transit agencies around the nation that would have new financial tools to use when building big, pricey transportation projects.

Photo: Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Photo: Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

America Fast Forward includes two components. The first is a federally-backed loan program called TIFIA that is designed to give agencies access to loans with interest rates lower than can be found on the open market.

The second part is a bond program described in the graphic below. In a nutshell: those who invest in transportation bonds receive federal tax credits instead of interest, a good way for investors to lower their tax burden and a good way for transportation agencies to save on interest costs.

america-fast-forward-bonds

The hope at Metro is to potentially use a combination of TIFIA loans, America Fast Forward bonds, some federal New Starts money (New Starts is a grant program in which the federal government matches local funds to help build big projects) and Measure R tax revenues to accelerate transit projects — in particular the second- and third-decade Measure R projects. Some of those projects: an extension of the Eastside Gold Line, the Airport Metro Connector, the South Bay Green Line Extension and the second and third phases of the Purple Line Extension.

Of course, it should be noted that President Obama’s bill proposal is just that — a proposal.  Transportation bills are designed to guide spending over several years but they have been contentious in Congress in recent years. A four-year bill that expired in 2009 was temporarily extended more than 10 times before Congress in 2012 voted to approve a new two-year bill, which expires at the end of September.

So we’ll see — getting bills approved by Congress is never an easy task. Nonetheless, the fact that President Obama has included both parts of America Fast Forward into his proposal is good news for Metro and officials I spoke with here today expressed their extreme gratitude for the President’s recognition of the program.

Click here to see the entire bill proposal on the White House website.