Three years after an Eastside subway plan was killed, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board is expected next month to approve a less-ambitious rail system for the Eastside.

While MTA approval would not necessarily ensure construction of the $760 million project (some community opposition remains and required federal funding hasn't been secured), it would be a significant step forward.

"This was a project that for all practical purposes was dead," said Dana Gabbard, executive director for Southern California Transit Advocates. "It's a much-needed project all you have to do is look at the crammed buses in the area."

As outlined in a draft environmental impact report circulated earlier this month, the 6.2-mile route would go south from Union Station along Alameda Street to First Street and then head east over the L.A. River. It would then plunge underground through Boyle Heights, resurfacing again at First and Lorena streets. From there, it would cross over to Third Street and head east across the Long Beach (710) Freeway to its eastern terminus at Atlantic Boulevard.

The 1.8-mile underground portion alone would cost at least $300 million to build, MTA officials said. Because those funds would come from the federal government, the underground rail line would not violate the 1998 voter initiative that prohibits local sales tax dollars from being spent on subway construction.

MTA planners said that once the line is completed now scheduled for late 2006 the Eastside would for the first time be linked up with the regional rail network. Riders would not only be able to go downtown, but they could also catch the MTA's other rail lines to go to North Hollywood, the Mid-Wilshire District, Pasadena and Long Beach.

"We now have 60 miles in our Metro Rail system," said Steve Brye, project manager for the Eastside Corridor. "Add in the Pasadena line (now under construction) and this one, and in the next six years another 20 miles of rail will be coming on line."

But there is still a huge hurdle to clear before the four-year construction project can begin: securing $520 million in federal funds.

As soon as the MTA board signs off on the project, MTA officials plan to seek what's called a full funding grant agreement from the federal Department of Transportation. All that does is put a line item in the proposed budget that goes before Congress. Local officials would still have to lobby hard to get the actual appropriation.

"Unless there is a unified, concerted push, those (federal) funds may end up going elsewhere," Gabbard said.

The state has already kicked in $200 million, with local funding making up the rest.

Initial contract

About $21 million of that has already been awarded to a local engineering team to conduct preliminary design work. That work, however, is being held up as one of the two teams that lost out on the contract has filed an official protest of the contract award.

And there are additional stumbling blocks. The Bus Riders Union, which sued the MTA several years ago for failing to relieve overcrowding on MTA buses, has been staging a strident protest of the proposed Eastside rail project. As part of the settlement of that earlier lawsuit, the MTA agreed to abide by a consent decree to put 1,400 new buses on the streets of L.A.

Bus Riders Union spokesman Eric Mann said that aside from the huge construction price tag of the rail project the MTA would have to spend tens of millions of dollars each year to operate the rail line. That money, he said, would be diverted from much-needed bus operations.

"This is a city with 400,000 daily bus riders. Ask the average Eastside resident if they want to go to Union Station for nearly $1 billion and the answer would be a resounding 'No,'" Mann said.

The opposition is not limited to the Bus Riders Union, either. Some local merchants also are against the Eastside extension.

"If they start building here, we're going to lose our business," said Vicki Macias, who owns a nutrition store and money-wiring business at the corner of First and Indiana streets in Boyle Heights. "It's going to be very hard to recoup our clientele after four years of construction. We'll likely have to close up and move elsewhere."

Macias said that she remembers all too well the frequent media reports back in the mid-1990s about Hollywood businesses that were forced to close due to construction of the Metro Red Line.

Pedestrian risks

There are also safety concerns about the aboveground portion of the line.

"People around here are very concerned. You've got two schools and a church right next to the line and there is great fear that children will try to cross the tracks," said Joseph Coria, director of community relations for the White Memorial Medical Center. Coria also chairs the Regional Advisory Committee set up by the MTA as a community advisory body on the project.

In fact, Coria said, some community members want to see an additional two-thirds of a mile of track put underground, from First and Lorena streets to Third Street and Rowan Avenue. That would keep the tracks off of Indiana Street, which is very narrow along that stretch.

But extending the underground line even that short distance would cost an additional $135 million, the MTA's Brye said.

Nonetheless, that remains one of three options for that stretch of the line. The other two involve either removing parking spaces on Indiana St. or widening the street to make room for the tracks.

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