Board gives nod to long-range plan; Foothill Extension could open earlier

A long-range plan that includes about $300 billion in road and transit projects and other Metro programs was unanimously approved Thursday afternoon by the agency’s Board of Directors.

The plan is supposed to guide Metro for the next three decades. Many of the projects included in the plan were part of the Measure R sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters last year. The real significance of the plan, said Metro officials, was that it sends a clear signal to Sacramento and Washington lawmakers that county officials have actually agreed on something — a precursor to prying money from both the state and federal governments.

The plan has been in the works for more than 18 months and for all the talk about it and the delays in adopting it, there were only two significant changes made by the Board on Thursday: an amendment by Board Members Mike Antonovich, John Fasana and Mark Ridley-Thomas directed Metro to begin operating the Foothill Gold Line Extension from Pasadena to Azusa as soon as the project is complete and not in 2017, as the plan originally stated.

In addition, the amendment also requires the agency to expand the number of places it’s looking for money to speed up the building of the Foothill Extension to Montclair, the Crenshaw Corridor line (which is expected to be a light rail line) and the Westside extension of the subway.

Habib Balian, CEO of the Metro Gold Line Foothill Construction Authority, said the move should allow the line to open in 2013. While Measure R provides the line more than $700 million in funding, it doesn’t all come at once — so the challenge for the line is to find money to allow construction to begin sooner rather than three or four years from now.

“We’ve figured out a plan to get it done earlier,” Balian said.  “Our plan to build against revenue holds water.”

The construction authority wants to borrow money from the contractor hired to build the line and then repay the contractor later. “The plan was put out to contractors and they liked it,” Balian added.

The selection process of a contractor will now begin, Balian said, and he would like to break ground in June 2010. The line runs for 11.5 miles from the end of the Gold Line at Sierra Madre Villa to Azusa. Balian said that money left over from the project would be applied to the second phase, taking the line all the way to Montclair.

Ridley-Thomas was very pleased with the plan, too. One of his primary concerns is the Crenshaw Corridor project, which will primarily run down Crenshaw Boulevard and connect to LAX. The budget for the project currently is $1.7 billion, but Ridley-Thomas wants it increased to $2.1 billion so that the project could go underground in some places to avoid busy intersections.

“We have to go underground, otherwise we’re going to end up like the Expo Line at Dorsey and Foshay,” Ridley-Thomas said, referring to safety issues that have delayed construction of the Expo Line near Dorsey High School and the Foshay Learning Center.

His amendment calls for Metro to pursue a variety of funding, including federal climate change funds, benefit assessment districts (a type of tax usually levied against businesses near a transit line), parking revenues and public-private partnerships.

In the past few days, 14 members of Congress and eight state legislators wrote the Board and asked them to expand the number of projects seeking federal funds. The Board unanimously voted last month to pursue federal funds for the subway and the regional connector and — not surprisingly — did not consider changing that request on Thursday.

Other than the Foothill Gold Line, the other opening dates for projects in the long-range plan remained intact. That includes the 2036 date for the subway extension reaching Westwood, although Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said repeatedly that he plans to seek federal money to get the line to Westwood in 10 years.

“Today we worked together to build consensus for our regional transportation roadmap,” Villaraigosa said after the meeting. “The plan represents our shared vision, and we are now ready to get these projects rolling.  The transit projects including the Westside Subway, Regional Connector, Gold Line Foothill Extension, Crenshaw Line, will create much needed jobs, improve our environment and get people where they are going faster.”

Here’s the link to the Metro news release on adoption of the plan.

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