Monday, October 19, 2009

Fight looms over LA Gold Line extension

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San Gabriel Valley leaders are preparing for a fight Oct. 22, when they'll try to persuade the county transit authority to include funding for the Gold Line Foothill Extension as a priority in its long-range transportation plan, the Whittier, Calif., Daily News reports.

After months of delays in coming to an agreement, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has an established draft for the long-range plan, which will be voted on by the MTA's board Oct. 19. Local officials are not happy with the long-range plan's expected completion date for the first phase of the Gold Line extension to the Azusa/Glendora border. They also object because the plan commits no funds for extending the line any farther. There is also no completion date for the second segment.

"All through the document, the implication is that they aren't planning to build the second part of the extension," said Habib Balian, CEO of the Gold Line Foothill Extension Authority, which is tasked with building the line.

MTA officials have suggested as recently as last year that rather than extending the line to Claremont, the county should consider building a Metrolink train line from Claremont to meet up with the Gold Line in Azusa, a notion that local authorities have flatly rejected.

Local officials have always argued that the Gold Line should go all the way to the Ontario Airport.

Carol Inge, an MTA planning officer, said the county is committed to the second segment of the extension and that the Metrolink train plan is not a consideration at this point.

"I don't think anyone has been considering that for a long time," said Inge.

Disagreement between local officials and the MTA over the completion of the Gold Line is nothing new. The MTA has long told the Foothill Authority that it will not receive funds to complete the first phase of the line before 2017. The authority is pushing to get it built by 2013.

This time, however, the Foothill Authority is facing a new challenge: It has been looking for a contractor to act as a financier by starting construction without MTA funds, then getting reimbursed as the money begins to come in. The problem, said Balian, is if the authority succeeds at this strategy, the Long Range Transportation Plan does not commit the MTA to paying the day-to-day operation costs of the line before 2017. If they were to build it early, said Balian, the MTA might not pay to keep it running

"I can fix a funding gap through financing for building it, but I can't fix a lack of commitment to operating the line," said Balian.

MTA officials, meanwhile, say that just because the plan doesn't include a guarantee to fund the line before 2017 doesn't mean it isn't a possibility.

"I don't think we need that explicit commitment at this time," said Inge. "If they are able to accelerate the project, then it's something we can look at."

Two of the Gold Line's proponents at the MTA board, county Supervisor Michael Antonovich and Duarte Councilman John Fasana, say they will attempt to get the plan altered at to ensure the line can be built by 2013.

"This is a very important meeting, and I've asked San Gabriel Valley officials to attend," said Antonovich. "We need to have this support if we are going to overcome the Los Angeles members of the board."

While the commitment to the Gold Line - both in terms of its completion date and to fully funding the entire project - has not changed throughout the process of drafting the long-range plan, two other projects have gained new commitments.

A downtown connector project that would link several existing rail lines had its completion date moved up in the draft of the plan - from 2025 to 2019. The MTA submitted that project and the Westside Subway Extension to federal transportation authorities for federal funding.

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