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End of the Line for L.A.’s Subway

May 31, 2000

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ It looks like the end of the line for Los Angeles’ dream of a world-class subway system.

On June 24, the latest, 6.3-mile leg of the Metro Rail subway will open, linking downtown with the crowded San Fernando Valley.

And there it ends, perhaps permanently. After decades of scandals, political squabbles, lawsuits, cost overruns and the cracking of the star-studded pavement on Hollywood Boulevard in 1995, Los Angeles County voters in 1998 banned further use of local tax money for subways.

State and federal transportation money usually require local matching funds. So for the foreseeable future, Los Angeles’ underground system will be just 17.4 miles long, or six miles shorter than originally planned.

At $4.5 billion, or about $259 million per mile, it will be perhaps the costliest subway system in U.S. history.

``This really was the last,″ said Laura Chick, a City Councilwoman representing portions of the San Fernando Valley. ``The most horrible part of all of this is we could have had so much more.″

The dream was for a 200-mile network of subway and rail lines to free Southern California drivers from freeway gridlock in the land where the car is king. Ridership was projected at nearly 300,000 people a day. Voters approved several tax increases to pay for it.

Today, however, the subway-and-rail system covers less than 60 miles. The final piece planned, a 13.7-mile stretch of rail, opens in 2003. And ridership is just 144,000 a day.

By comparison, the New York City subway system alone handles 4 million riders a day.

``The automobile culture is so much a part of Southern California. It’s ingrained in people’s psyche, even though traffic is increasing every year,″ said Gary Wosk, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the Metro Rail system.

``Maybe when cars come to a complete standstill on surface streets, they’ll give it a try,″ he said wistfully. ``I think there’ll be a clamor for more systems like this as traffic worsens.″

Critics consider the entire Metro Rail a wasteful combination of hubris and palm-greasing.

The Bus Riders Union, which sued the MTA to put more buses on the street, calls it a ``corporate welfare″ project that benefited construction unions but does little for the poor, inner-city people who rely mainly on buses.

``I wish we could have stopped it a lot sooner,″ said Martin Hernandez, an organizer for the ridership group. ``The politicians are all enamored with these sexy rail projects and building monuments to themselves.″

The subway itself is an engineering feat that dips 75 feet underground and bores through the Santa Monica Mountains. It is designed to withstand a magnitude-8.1 earthquake.

The stations are full of shining steel, gleaming tile and theme art. The North Hollywood terminus has kaleidoscopic murals, while the Hollywood Boulevard/Highland Avenue stop has pillars covered in handmade ceramic plaques and Mayan designs.

The line can speed commuters under the Cahuenga Pass, a freeway bottleneck, and southeast to downtown in less than 30 minutes. Tourists can jump off at Universal Studios and Hollywood Boulevard.

But the line stops at the eastern tip of the San Fernando Valley, a region of more than 200 square miles that includes the gang-plagued barrios of Pacoima, bedroom communities such as Van Nuys, and Studio City, a Hollywood outpost.

``The Valley is a black hole of public transit,″ said Jerry Ough, a radio producer who drives to or through downtown daily. The trip from his North Hollywood home can take an hour by freeway. ``Brutal. It’s the worst. After 6:30 in the morning, it’s bumper-to-bumper.″

He plans to use the subway.

``I can sit and read the paper. I don’t have to worry about parking when I get here,″ he said. ``It’ll save me time, it’ll save me aggravation.″

``I’ll use this line regularly,″ said Ed Begley Jr., the ``St. Elsewhere″ actor and environmentalist who lives in Studio City. ``Millions more people are going to be coming here. We’re going to need every tool in the toolchest to do the job of moving people around, and this is one very valuable tool.″

He added: ``With all the problems and sinkholes _ hey, we put up with all the lemons, let’s enjoy the lemonade.″


On the Net: Metropolitan Transportation Authority: http://www.mta.net

Bus Riders Union: http://www.igc.org/lctr/

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