LA Metro Has Updated Its Sepulveda Pass Rail Plan. Expect Some Sticker Shock

Metro's monorail transit option would run a surface-level or elevated track (shown here) along the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

Remember when the 405 Freeway was widened several years ago and traffic trouble through the famously congested Sepulveda Pass was defeated forever? Neither do we. It didn't fix traffic (nothing we've done so far can, as we've explained before).

But the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority has been studying another option for commuters: ditching their cars and the freeway for a rail line that could take them from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside in under 20 minutes.

This week, Metro officials unveiled their latest projections for travel time, ridership, and construction costs for the Sepulveda Transit Corridor Project. They also released new renderings of what it might look like cruising above the soul-sucking 405. The proposed route would run from Van Nuys, down through the Sepulveda Pass, to the Expo Line.

The update comes as Metro prepares for a third round of public meetings (more on those later) and looks to get going on an environmental study for the multibillion-dollar project.

Here's what we know so far.

HEAVY RAIL OR MONORAIL?

The two modes Metro is exploring for the corridor are heavy rail — like the subway cars currently operated on the Red and Purple lines — and a monorail, which would be a first for the transit agency. Metro staff previously eliminated light rail from consideration after determining it couldn't handle the high ridership demand expected on the route.

Metro is studying four options for a rail line to take riders from the Valley to the Westside. HRT indicates heavy rail transit options and MRT is short for monorail transit. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

Three route options for subway and one for monorail are being studied. The first two subway route options would be completely underground. The third subway option would run on an elevated track through the Valley, then underground through the Sepulveda Pass.

The cheapest projected option is the monorail system, which would require far less tunneling than the subway options. Plus, Metro staff would look to operate it as a driverless system.

Monorail might be the least expensive path, but it would also have the slowest commute time — about 26 minutes from end to end — compared to the three subway options, currently estimated at 16 to 19 minutes.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?

A concept rendering of what a heavy rail station might look like on Sepulveda Boulevard at Greenleaf Street in Sherman Oaks. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Metro project managers said the new estimated price tag to build the rail line through the Sepulveda Pass was anywhere from $9.4 to $13.8 billion. The final cost depends on which route and mode-of-travel option is eventually decided on.

Metro's initial cost estimate for the Valley-to-Westside line allocated $5.7 billion in Measure M and Measure R funding, so there's a considerable gap the transit agency will be looking to fill.

One big reason those cost estimates rose: the line will extend further north into the Valley than originally planned, meaning more track — and potentially more tunneling. According to project managers Cory Zelmer and Peter Carter, that's because the ridership demand for the line would overburden Metro's Valley light rail project, which is planned to run from the Orange Line station in Van Nuys to the Sylmar/San Fernando Metrolink station.

Once built, the Valley-to-Westside line could cost up to $137 million to operate each year, according to officials.

(Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

WHEN IS THIS PROJECT SUPPOSED TO BE COMPLETED?

Despite an objective from Metro's board to have the Valley-to-Westside project completed in time for the 2028 Olympics, project staff currently expect it wouldn't be completed until 2033.

But Metro staff isn't ready to call the 2028 goal impossible yet. One potential way to accelerate the project, project manager Carter explained, is partnering with the private sector — and doing so "earlier than other Metro projects to date." For that to happen, the transit agency could decide to bring outside contractors on through pre-development agreements.

"It basically allows the private sector to bring their ideas for optimizing the project to us while that project is still being defined," he said. "We don't yet know what ideas they want to bring to the table [and] what innovation they can bring that possibly accelerates the product schedule. So we need to let that process play out more before we have a better understanding of how achievable is the 2028 date."

A concept rendering of what a heavy rail station might look like on Sepulveda Boulevard at Greenleaf Street in Sherman Oaks. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

But involving private enterprise wouldn't necessarily stop at just design and construction. The transit line could be operated by a private company, Zelmer said — possibly for more than 30 years.

Giving companies in the private sector more say in the design, construction and operation could also mean less of an initial financial burden for Metro, Zelmer explained, though he noted it wouldn't be "free money."

"They're obviously a business. They're in every arrangement to ultimately make money," he said. "But our objective... is to help share some of the risks of the project."

Metro has also set its sights beyond the Westside, planning to eventually extend the line to LAX. That could mean the ability to get from the Valley to the airport in as little as 30 minutes, according to estimates provided by project managers.

But pace your excitement: that wouldn't happen until 2057, according to Metro staff. No cost estimates have been provided for that segment of the project.

(Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

WHAT ABOUT RIDERSHIP?

By 2042, Metro is projecting 122,000 to 137,000 people will take the Valley-to-Westside line daily on weekdays (again, that estimate fluctuates based on the option the agency's directors end up choosing).

The highest ridership is projected for the third subway option, which would run on an elevated track through the Valley before going underground through the Sepulveda Pass. That option is also projected to attract the most new transit trips and low-income riders of the four alternatives.

A planned station on UCLA's campus is expected to serve up to 18,000 riders per day, Carter told reporters Tuesday, which would make it "the busiest non-transfer station in the entire Metro system."

(Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

More meetings and more studying. Metro staff is holding four community meetings in the next couple weeks, beginning this evening, to update residents and receive their feedback:

  • Wednesday, July 24, 6 - 8 p.m.
    Proud Bird Restaurant
    11022 Aviation Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90045
  • Saturday, July 27, 10 a.m. - 12 p.m.
    Veterans Memorial Building
    4117 Overland Ave.
    Culver City, CA 90230
  • Tuesday, July 30, 6 - 8 p.m.
    St. Paul the Apostle Church
    10750 Ohio Ave.
    Los Angeles, CA 90024
  • Saturday, Aug. 3, 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. (Bilingual meeting with light lunch)
    English presentation at 10:30 a.m.; Spanish presentation at 11:45 a.m.
    Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center
    6262 Van Nuys Blvd.
    Van Nuys, CA 91401

Metro is also conducting an online community survey for the project, available in both English and Spanish.

Following the meetings, Metro staff will put together a report to present to board members. They'll likely make that presentation in November or December. Any agreements with private contractors are also expected to be finalized during that time, with the project then moving into the environmental study phase.

To stay up to date on the Sepulveda Transit Corridor plan, you can visit Metro's project website.