David Allen: Gold Line train plans are derailed – Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

The following column originally appeared on the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin website on June 29, 2013.

David Allen: Gold Line train plans are derailed

David Allendailybulletin.com |  Posted:   06/29/2013

Is the Gold Line extension to Claremont stopped in its tracks? Looks that way.

The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority did the deed at its Thursday meeting. They came up with a 30-year list of projects for Measure R sales-tax funding. The Gold Line didn’t make the cut. So much for hopes the line would be built by 2023.

“We’re not even on the list,” Habib Balian, executive director of the Gold Line Construction Authority, lamented right after the vote.

What’s the impact of not making the list?

“After 2060, we can talk about getting funds,” Balian told me. “We won’t be guaranteed funds, but we can talk about getting them.”

He added: “I’ll be 106.”

He’d better take his vitamins.

With Thursday’s meeting being billed as the latest in a string of make-or-break moments for the Gold Line, I showed up to watch its fate.

I’d been to two previous MTA meetings when the Gold Line was on the agenda. They’re fascinating for a country mouse used to our small-scale government bodies.

At the MTA, board members are at a remove from everyone, they arrive late and they drift in and out of the meeting through back doors. Out here, speakers get upset if a council member’s attention wanders. During Thursday’s lengthy public hearing on a $2 billion rail line through Crenshaw, many board members broke for lunch.

Do you know about the Gold Line? It’s a light-rail train that runs from Union Station to Pasadena. A $810 million segment to Azusa is under construction and is set to debut in fall 2015. Getting the MTA board to approve that segment was like pulling teeth, but it happened.

There are some official documents, including a ballot argument for Measure R in 2008, that show the Gold Line going to Claremont, although it’s not for me to say if they’re legally binding.

In any event, cities along the route have been planning for stations in Glendora, San Dimas, La Verne, Pomona, Claremont and Montclair. Cost would be $956 million.

The MTA has declined to identify any funds for the project or to put it on a list where it would become eligible for federal grants.

To get to the meeting, with no Gold Line, I boarded Metrolink in Claremont and rode to Union Station. The MTA headquarters is steps away.

The Gold Line came up twice during the meeting. The first time, Board Chairman Mike Antonovich, who represents much of the San Gabriel Valley, tried to get $100 million set aside for the Gold Line out of money from Proposition C, a half-cent sales tax from 1990. During the discussion, Claremont was mentioned a half-dozen times. It was the tiny city’s moment in the sun.

The money would amount to recognition that the Azusa-to-Claremont segment “is still on the table,” said board member John Fasana, who is from Duarte.

Board member Richard Katz, however, said “virtually every project we have on the books” is under-funded, and his colleague Zev Yaroslavsky termed the Gold Line extension “aspirational.”

Facing defeat, the motion was pulled by Fasana. Instead, MTA staff will return in September with reports on all under-funded projects, of which the Gold Line is probably the least significant.

Later came the true test. Antonovich tried to get the Measure R expenditure plan updated with the Gold Line’s end point of Claremont and $956 million price tag included. Claremont Councilman Sam Pedroza and Glendora Councilman Doug Tessitor lobbied for it, as did aides to San Gabriel Valley state and federal representatives.

The motion failed resoundingly, with only four of 13 members in favor.

A substitute motion by Katz boosted a plan to borrow against future Measure R funds and attempt to build 30 years’ worth of rail projects in the next 10 years. That’s the list that did not contain the Gold Line.

His motion passed resoundingly, opposed only by the four Gold Line-favoring members.

It was the last meeting for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his three board appointees, Katz among them. Big day for them, important for them to cement Villaraigosa’s plan to accelerate transit projects and nice of them to kick us in the teeth on their way out.

Not everyone in our area thinks the Gold Line is necessary. Claremont reader Erik Griswold, a transit advocate, told me ridership projections of 9,000 passengers per day are too low to justify the expense. If there’s a loose $1 billion, he said, it would be better spent dramatically expanding the popular Metrolink service.

Griswold further noted that in the past two decades, the 909 has gained two Metrolink lines, the 210 Freeway and Foothill Transit’s Silver Streak bus line between Montclair and L.A., making our pity-us cries less credible.

I’d like to see the Gold Line at least come out to Pomona, where it would meet up with a Metrolink stop. From there, paralleling the Metrolink line to Montclair, and later to Upland, and then extending the line to LA/Ontario International Airport are all nice thoughts, but they’ve never struck me as a great use of money.

But is the Gold Line really dead?

Probably not. It’s all political, and circumstances and leaders change. Sometimes sure things never happen, and long-shots do. I doubt Thursday’s action truly set transit plans for the next 47 years.

“It’s going to be hard for them to stop the project,” Balian told me. “We own the right of way, we have environmental clearance, we have a track record, we have local support and it’s voter-mandated.”

And with that, I went to lunch, and then rode Metrolink home.

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