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A Subway to the Sea or Not? Looking at the Realities of the Westside Subway

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New data for Metro's Westside Subway Extension detailing costs, ridership numbers and the chances of garnering federal funding for five proposed routes was released this week. Those five alternatives run the gamut from the touted "Subway to the Sea" vision that would take riders under Wilshire Boulevard to near the beaches of Santa Monica to alternatives that stops short of that, either at UCLA or just West of the 405 Freeway, serving the Veterans Administration. Two of the alternatives add a line connecting Wilshire and Hollywood via a line through West Hollywood.

Daily, 300,000 people commute into Metro's westside study area, which includes Santa Monica, UCLA, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, portions of Hollywood and communities along Wilshire from Koreatown and westward. Adding to that traffic, 102,000 people make trips that begin and end within the area and 123,000 begin their commute to leave the area. By 2035, those numbers are estimated to increase by around 25%. All that has Metro calling the Westside L.A.'s "second downtown" and a reason to finish subway plans that were squashed in the 80s.

Ridership estimates basically show that the bigger the project, the more riders it will gain. A subway that goes down Wilshire and stops at UCLA (Alt 1) will have 72,200 trips a day. By adding one more stop West of the 405 (Alt 2) it adds another 8,000 trips to the extension. Pushing further West to "the sea" (Alt 3) would mean a total of 105,000 trips a day. By adding a West Hollywood spur (Alt 5), trips would increase to 120,000, but adding a West Hollywood spur to a system that only stops after the 405 (Alt 4) lowers trips significantly to 93,000 a day, which indicates that "to the sea" portion makes a difference.

But more trips do not necessarily compute to a better project when it comes to federal funding, which partially emphasizes cost effectiveness. The three Wilshire-only Alternatives are all close to falling within federal guidelines while the two West Hollywood ones could threaten the funding.

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That funding is especially important because Metro's long range plan sets aside $4.2 billion, which part of it assumes money from the federal "New Starts" grant program.

Two of the alternatives -- Wilshire to UCLA or just West of the 405 -- cost below $4.2 billion, while taking Wilshire to the Sea or adding a West Hollywood spur shoots the prices up between $5.7 and $8.4 billion.

The voter-approved Measure R sales tax will also help fund the project, which if was a Wilshire-only subway to UCLA, would open in phases: Fairfax by 2019, Century City by 2026 and UCLA by 2036. However, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's 30/10 initiative -- get federal money upfront and pay it back over 30 years with Measure R taxes -- the subway would take 10 years.

As it stands right now, Metro staff are working on a required environmental study and report that will make recommendations on the alternatives. Once approved by the board and engineering work is done, ground breaking could begin as early as late 2011.