After nearly two decades of failed attempts and delays, the first light rail line to L.A.'s Westside what had been considered a pipe dream just months ago could begin construction this fall.


Stepped-up plans for the $680 million Exposition line from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City are the result of an unexpected infusion of state funds some of it coming from a $1.3 billion pool of Proposition 42 gas tax money going towards transportation improvements. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had wanted to use that money to shore up the state budget deficit, but he reversed course last month.


The 9.6-mile line would start in the Financial District, head south around the University of Southern California and west along the abandoned Exposition Boulevard rail line through the Mid-City area to the heart of Culver City. It would include the upgrade of three stations downtown and have eight new stations.


Preliminary construction, including the relocation of utilities, could begin as early as this fall. The main construction is slated to start in mid-2006 and be completed in 2010.


The second part of the line heading west from Culver City to downtown Santa Monica is still in the pipe-dream phase, with little funding available. There's also concern that mounting pressure to eventually extend the Red Line along Wilshire Boulevard to the ocean would divert funds from this phase of the Exposition line.


"People on the Westside have been fighting for years to get this line built," said Dana Gabbard, executive director of Southern California Transit Advocates. "They've looked with envy as first Long Beach, then Hollywood, then the Valley and Pasadena got their rail lines."


Cobbling a package
Gabbard said that bus lines on the Westside are among the most crowded in the region, so a large pool of transit riders is ready-made for the Exposition line. And officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority believe that the line will also draw traffic off the often-congested Santa Monica (10) Freeway.


Seeing these trends, MTA officials moved in the late 1980s to acquire the right of way along Exposition Boulevard, which had been home to an abandoned freight rail line.


But for more than a decade, cutbacks in transportation funding at the state and federal level meant less money available for local projects. MTA officials placed the Gold Line to Pasadena, the Eastside light rail line and the Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley ahead on the priority list.


It was only recently that the MTA cobbled together a $640 million funding package, relying on $335 million in federal congestion relief funds, $230 million in county sales tax dollars, $11 million in state congestion relief funds and a smattering of funding from several other sources. The University of Southern California is paying much of the cost of the station closest to its campus.


Some hurdles still remain before construction can begin.


First, a dispute over route alignment in the downtown area must be resolved. Originally, planners aimed to save money by sharing a track with the Blue Line as it heads south towards Long Beach. But sharing the track means that trains would have to go more slowly.


Laying new track along Flower Street parallel to the Blue Line would add about $20 million to the project cost, but would also shave about five minutes off the original 30-minute commute time to Culver City.


"One of the reasons the Gold Line to Pasadena is not getting the ridership that some had hoped for is that it's very slow," said Rick Thorpe, MTA's executive officer for project management. Thorpe, who was previously executive director of the Metro Gold Line Construction Authority, said speed restrictions keep trains running below 10 miles per hour for much of the time.


Mixed-use ideas
MTA officials have a different problem at the other end of the line, at Venice and Robertson boulevards in Culver City. For years, city officials have been pushing the agency to build the line above street level, saying that the intersection was too dangerous to have trains going through it. But that would cost another $40 million. Thorpe told a group of Expo Line boosters recently that the MTA was trying to round up the extra funds for this.


Meanwhile, Culver City officials are looking to capitalize on the rail line by pushing ahead with a mixed-use development at nearby Washington and National boulevards. The one-acre site is currently occupied by light manufacturing operations and a motel.


"We want the project to interact with train passengers as well as the local neighborhood," said Alicia Weintraub, development management analyst for Culver City.


There continues to be some opposition, much of it from residents on Culver City's east side who live within 100 yards of the proposed rail line and are concerned about noise from the trains and from the warning bells at intersections. Thorpe said the agency plans to mitigate the noise on this line by focusing the sound from the warning bells towards the ground.


Also, some residents are concerned about the potential for deadly accidents, primarily when motorists try to get around the crossing gates. There is also some concern about traffic delays as trains cross busy streets.


The biggest concern is that not enough funds will be found to continue the Exposition line out to Santa Monica. Indeed, Santa Monica and other Westside elected officials lobbied hard for the MTA board to keep the second phase in all the environmental documentation.


L.A. City Councilman-elect Bill Rosendahl said he has just met with Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa to ensure continued funding for the line. Upon taking office as mayor, Villaraigosa will also become chair of the MTA board. "I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure this line goes all the way to the ocean," Rosendahl said.


But MTA officials say that even if that phase of the project were to be fully funded, it wouldn't be completed until 2015, at the earliest.

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