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LA gets Purple Line transit money, but will Angelenos leave their cars?

Rep.  Napolitano signs the ceremonial transportation grant agreement giving LA County $1.25 billion for extension of the Purple Line
Rep. Napolitano signs the ceremonial transportation grant agreement giving LA County $1.25 billion for extension of the Purple Line
Kitty Felde/KPCC

It’s official: LA is getting $1.25 billion from the federal government to extend the Purple Line west to La Cienega. But skeptics in DC – including California’s senior senator – doubt whether Angelenos are ready to give up their automobiles. 

The grant from the Federal Transit Administration will fund nearly four miles of subway under Wilshire Blvd. That, plus $856 million in low-interest federal loans, represent the single biggest federal transportation investment in the history of LA County. The project is projected to create 25,000 construction jobs.

On hand for the ceremonial signing ceremony on Capitol Hill were Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky, and several members of Congress, including both of California’s Senators. Barbara Boxer, head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, credited former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for creative financing for transit projects, lobbying to beef up an obscure federal loan program, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The TIFIA loans will be repaid from the half cent sales tax increase approved by LA County voters. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx congratulated the "good people of Los Angeles" who were "smart to pass Measure R" because they knew that growth in the region would be "substantial" in the future.

But California’s senior Senator, who hails from San Francisco, where the Bay Area Rapid Transit is a big success, doubted that southern Californians would embrace the transit system the way northern Californians have embraced BART. “I’ll believe that when I see it,” she said. Feinstein described Angenelos love affair with the automobile as a “kind of glue connected to a car and the bottoms of Angelenos.”

LA politicos protested that things are changing. LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky explained, to "those who don't know,"if you live in LA today, your life revolves around traffic. "That's all we think about," he said, "how long will it take us to get from point A to point B. And if it's too long, we won't go."  Mayor Garcetti said a million riders a month already ride Metro. He added that the LA rite of passage of getting a drivers license is a thing of the past and the next generation was “looking for a new way of getting around” by mass transit or biking. 

That north/south rivalry has hindered past efforts to bring federal dollars to California. Democratic Congresswoman Grace Napolitano of El Monte, the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said when it comes to tax dollars, California is still a donor state. She said if we want to bring those dollars back to the Golden State, we have to “be more persistent in getting the rest of the California folks to work together as one.” She said sometimes she has to remind her colleagues that “Southern California is part of California.”

Transit construction is booming across LA County. By years’ end, there will be a record five rail lines under construction, funded in part by $3.5 billion in federal grants and loans.

The competition for future federal dollars to finish those projects will be tougher. LA got one in ten TIFIA loan dollars over the past two years. Measure R gave the region a head start, but now states and local communities across the nation are also competing for the loans. In fact, attending the Wednesday press conference was a public radio reporter from Alaska who says her state wants a shot at TIFIA money for a major bridge project.

Senator Feinstein says there’s another “boogeyman” out there that could prevent LA from getting future funding: sequestration. If Congress returns to its cost-cutting solution that mandates across the board cuts, funding for future transportation projects – including extension of the Purple Line to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood – will be in jeopardy.

The Purple Line is scheduled to reach La Cienega Blvd. by 2023. It won't reach the VA until 2035. The project is projected to cost $2.8 billion.