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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Business Group Seeks to Get the Valley on Track

The Valley Industry & Commerce Association is leading a new effort to greatly expand light rail in the Valley – and catch up with other parts of the city where lines are being built. The Sherman Oaks business advocacy group has identified three rail projects it wants to see built and has formed a new coalition to address long-term mass transit needs. The group, Valley on Track, is still in the early stages, with VICA leadership reaching out to elected officials, residents and business and neighborhood groups to line up support. “We will get this done,” VICA President Stuart Waldman said. “We are going to change the face of the Valley over the next 20 years.” The rail projects will carry a hefty price tag and would take, in some cases, decades to build. The projects are replacing the Orange Line busway with rail; putting a light rail system on Van Nuys Boulevard to connect the Sylmar Metrolink station with Ventura Boulevard; and connecting the Valley with the Westside by burrowing a train tunnel through the Santa Monica Mountains and down the Sepulveda Pass. Altogether, the price tag could reach into the $10 billion range. VICA has a lot of work ahead of it, including overcoming skepticism of the projects from public transit advocates and opposition from homeowners who may not want rail lines in their neighborhoods. It also must build political coalitions outside the Valley and, perhaps most importantly, ensure its proposals are considered for funding in a new county transportation bond measure planned for 2016. But it’s not all pie in the sky. Metro is already backing two of VICA’S projects: the East Valley corridor between Sherman Oaks and Sylmar, and the Sepulveda Pass corridor. It has allocated $170 million from Measure R, the half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008 to fund transportation projects throughout the county. But that’s only been enough to start the planning process, which includes a lengthy environmental review. The conversion of the Orange Line bus way to light rail – seemingly the most achievable project – is not on the agency’s long-range plan. Richard Katz, a former state lawmaker who has served on the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, said the Valley has its work cut out for it. “(But) it is good to identify (projects) early so they have a list to bring to the table,” Katz said. Building coalition In getting Valley on Track started, VICA initially looked at 10 transit projects that it then whittled down to the three it felt would get the most support, Waldman said. The next step is lining up supporters. The Valley on Track website listed as of June 18 just five other members, including Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, whose district includes Valley neighborhoods the Orange Line crosses, and Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra, D-Pacoima. VICA is contacting chambers of commerce, neighborhood councils, business groups such as Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed. Waldman said that at a later time the coalition will broaden to organizations elsewhere in the city. “We want to build a coalition larger than the Valley where we support other transportation projects outside the Valley and they will support ours,” Waldman said. A key objective is ensuring the Valley is not excluded in the planned 2016 bond measure. (See sidebar.) The Valley was not on the receiving end of much near-term funding in Measure R, which promised $40 billion in new transit funding over 30 years. But at least this time, two of the projects are on the sketch board. Metro started three years ago on planning for the 11-mile East Valley corridor along Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Road between Sherman Oaks and Sylmar. It’s a route that would connect with the Orange Line and two Metrolink stations. A report to the agency’s board in 2013 included a light rail option along the route estimated to cost $1.8 billion to $2.3 billion and a less expensive Rapid bus system of $250 million to $520 million. A draft environmental impact report that studied both options is expected to be issued this summer. Valley on Track, however, is completely against a Rapid bus option, despite a lower cost and quicker implementation. “It is time for the Valley to step up and say we are not going to get a busway again,” Waldman said. Indeed, the success of the 18-mile Orange Line busway between North Hollywood and Chatsworth has been a surprise that has bolstered the position of bus advocates that rail is unnecessary. The busway has proven to be one of Metro’s most heavily used routes since opening in October 2005. It averaged 16,360 weekday boardings its first month. This May, the line had 29,759 average weekday boardings, including on an extension that opened in 2012 connecting the Metrolink station in Chatsworth with Canoga Park. Converting the line into rail would boost ridership even more, accommodate more passengers and speed service, according to the coalition. The current ride from one end of the line to the other takes about 45 minutes. Nancy Hoffman Vanyek at the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce in Van Nuys said no busway can compete with a dedicated rail line. “When I am on the Red Line I think, ‘This is just great. I can hop in and get anywhere pretty quick,’” she added. Next steps With a conversion of the Orange Line into light rail not on Metro’s horizon, VICA and other business groups are taking their own action to move the idea forward. They have worked with Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, D-Van Nuys, who has sponsored a bill, AB 577, to repeal 1991 legislation that banned light rail construction in the Valley. The bill has been approved by the Assembly and awaits a vote by the Senate. Even officials from the agricultural heavy Central Valley seemed amiable to the bill, Hoffman Vanyek said. “We have not found anyone who opposes repealing the (legislation) to allow the Valley something that is more economically efficient,” she said. Converting the busway – built on a former railroad right-of-way – for light rail brings a challenge other than just lack of funding. Bart Reed, executive director of the non-profit Transit Coalition in San Fernando, which advocates for improved public transportation in Southern California, pointed out the project could result in loss of riders as the tracks are installed. “The Orange Line would be down or they have to re-route buses temporarily,” Reed said. There is also the issue, of course, of laying track down across the intersections and bridges where the current busway passes through. Dave Sotero, a spokesman for Metro, said the agency has not considered the proposal, nor put it into its long range plan. “There would be some board decision to do that,” Sotero said. Katz agreed there would be real technical challenges converting the busway to a rail line but he said the ridership numbers are there to justify converting the Orange Line. The same, he said, cannot be said for an East Valley route connecting Sherman Oaks and Sylmar. Metro projects 37,500 average weekday boardings in 2035 on the route if it is done as light rail. By contrast, it estimates 33,600 if the route uses Rapid buses. Katz said rail is most appropriate when large numbers of people need to be moved, adding: “It is important to match the appropriate technology with the community.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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