L.A. subway faces bumpy ride from drawing board to reality

Los Angeles's first subway system and the key link in the mass-transit network southern California is beginning to piece together is having a rough ride leaving the drawing boards.

The prospect that Metro Rail will survive the trip has grown more precarious during the long first half of 1984. Yet some of the recent bumps in the proposed subway's track have bounced it in the right direction.

As it was conceived, the 18.6-mile subway from downtown through Hollywood and into the San Fernando Valley would be the state's most expensive public-works project in years. It is planned as the major line of what could multiply into a full-fledged rail system for Los Angeles.

The Metro Rail planners, however, may have been too ambitious along the way.

Last summer, when Congress appropriated $117 million for the first year of the project, it looked like a sure thing. The money to build the subway - from the federal government, California, Los Angeles County and City, and special property taxes around subway stops - was 95 percent assured, according to transit officials here.

But the federal money is still caught on a snag. Before the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) can begin Metro Rail construction, it needs a ''letter of intent'' from a federal agency, the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA), that it will supply 62 percent of Metro Rail's total projected $3.3 billion cost.

Early this spring it became clear that UMTA simply did not have the money. With a virtual renaissance of urban rail systems under way across the country, Los Angeles first requested the lion's share of this year's UMTA spending money - $336 million of $400 million available.

The SCRTD cut its request to a more humble $234 million. ''As it turns out, we got half of that,'' says a spokesperson. With this kind of money, SCRTD is talking of building a starter segment only four miles long. But a bill by California Congressman Glenn Anderson (D) which passed the United States House of Representatives last week added another $400 million to UMTA's budget. If this bill survives, Metro Rail planners are hoping for enough money in 1985 to start on 5.5 miles.

Meanwhile, trouble developed at the other end of the financial equation. The SCRTD had strong control over the project, even the power to levy taxes in areas around subway stations. Some neighborhoods stood to be altered or displaced if the subway was built.

So the city of Los Angeles began agitating for better control of the project's impact. ''I think we can insulate people from today's impact of building the system,'' says City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who was the most outspoken agitator. ''The RTD needs to be serious about these obligations, and not just interested in the biggest development project ever.''

It had homeowners excluded from the property tax to be levied around Metro Rail stations, a tax scaled to the financial benefit the station brings. The state Senate passed this provision last week. It is scheduled for the Assembly floor next week.

The SCRTD is also expecting its first $105 million from the UMTA next week, part of the money Congress allotted Metro Rail last summer.

The US will move more quickly when it sees the local funds in place, according to SCRTD officials. But a Los Angeles County Transportation Commission spokesperson says the county is waiting for UMTA to make its move.

''We're gunning for anything we can get,'' says the Metro Rail spokesperson, Suzanne Rothlisberger.

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