The Metro Board of Directors voted Thursday to add an underground station in the heart of Leimert Park Village as part of the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line — but on one big condition. The station would only be built if funds, estimated at about $131 million, can be secured.
The money could potentially come from a variety of sources, the most likely being lowered construction costs. In essence, the Board agreed that the project must stay within a budget of $1.715 billion with or without a Leimert Park Village station at Vernon Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard.
The 9 to 3 vote for an amendment by Board Member Richard Katz ended a five-hour debate on an issue prompted originally by a motion by County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas — a member of the Metro Board — that sought the new station.
Ironically, Ridley-Thomas ended up voting against the motion, saying he wanted stronger language to ensure the station gets built. “We know what we need to do to move forward to ensure we have a credible project at the end of the day,” an obviously disappointed Ridley-Thomas told the audience after the votes. Board Members Mike Antonovich and John Fasana also voted against the motion.
In particular, the Board asked that the station be included when construction firms bid to build the project. The hope is that the winning bid can find a way to get the station done within the project’s budget — or, at the very least, an underground box where a station can be added at a later date.
If neither is possible, the motion recommends that a street level station be built at 48th Street — two blocks south of Vernon — and that non-Metro funding be found to build it.
In a separate vote, the Board voted 10 to 3 not to build the train underground through Park Mesa Heights. Ridley-Thomas was seeking to have that segment put underground to increase safety and the speed of the line and minimize traffic conflicts. The three dissenting votes came from Ridley-Thomas, Antonovich and Gloria Molina.
As part of his efforts, Ridley-Thomas submitted a petition to Metro with more than 5,000 signatures from community members supporting his motion.
The Crenshaw/LAX Line is one of a dozen transit projects to be funded in part by the Measure R half-penny sales tax increase approved by 68 percent of Los Angeles County voters in Nov. 2008. The 8.5-mile light rail line would run from the intersection of Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards in the north through Inglewood to a junction with the Green Line.
The project is currently in its final environmental study phase. That document is expected to be finished this summer, allowing the project to move closer to construction. Under the Measure R timeline, the line is scheduled to open in 2018.
One big reason that the Leimert Park Village station has been an issue is that the train is planned to run underground through Leimert Park. That makes building an additional underground stations a much pricier proposition than adding stations to a street level line — such as been done with the Expo Line.
The obvious concern for many Board Members was money.
In a recent letter to Ridley-Thomas, Metro CEO Art Leahy said that the project is already more than $49 million to $100 million over the $1.715 billion budget defined by Measure R and the agency’s long-range plan.
The addition of a Leimert Park Village station would add an estimated $131 million to the project and a tunnel under Park Mesa Heights would cost $269 million, bringing the project cost to $2.2 billion. In total, that would leave a funding gap of about $500 million for the project, which has early ridership projections of about 20,000 by the year 2035.
Leahy and Metro staff have explained that one station was planned in the Leimert Park area at Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard because of community support for that location and projected higher ridership due to bus connections at Crenshaw and MLK Jr.
Much of the discussion among the Metro Board involved where to find the money for any upgrades to the Crenshaw/LAX Line. Metro staff told the Board that if money was taken from other projects, the likely victims would be renovation of Metrolink equipment as well as planned improvements that would allow more trains to be run on the Red and Purple line subways.
Leahy also said that Metro has a billion dollars of deferred maintenance that needs to be done sooner rather than later.
Thus, the challenge: finding money for any improvements to the Crenshaw/LAX Line.
In comments while introducing his motion, Ridley-Thomas said that the additions were not dependent on taking funds from other Measure R projects. He also said that Metro seems to find money when it needs money, citing the recent $75-million purchase by the agency of Union Station.
Many community leaders also spoke in favor of both the station and the underground segment. Their message was similar: Leimert Park Village is known around the world as the center of African American culture and business in Los Angeles.
“I just don’t see where the money is coming from for this proposal,” said Board Member Ara Najarian, who is the mayor of Glendale. “If the money was there, I would support it wholeheartedly.”