DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In 2008, when he launched his Bringing Back Broadway initiative, 14th District City Councilman José Huizar said that he would like to see a Downtown streetcar up and running by 2014

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Five years later, his ambitious vision has not gone quite as planned. 

Although development has sprouted along Broadway, with restaurants and stores flocking to the historic street, the streetcar has hit a series of bumps. The ever-ballooning cost is one issue: A city analysis released in September showed that the project could cost from $232.3 million to $327.8 million, drastically more than the $125 million price tag Huizar had offered as recently as last year. Then there are the delays in obtaining federal funds, hiring key personnel to push the project forward and diving into environmental and engineering reviews. 

Huizar and the project’s nonprofit Los Angeles Streetcar, Inc. hosted a community meeting on Monday, Nov. 4, at the Police Administration Building to address the concerns and champion the economic benefits of the project. Huizar expressed confidence that the project will come to life, and said it could ultimately spur $1.1 billion in new development in Downtown Los Angeles.

However, officials were unable to give a timeframe for the 3.8 mile-long project that would run from South Park to the Civic Center with a main spine on Broadway. Questions also remain as to where additional money will come from. 

Huizar on Monday said building the streetcar will now cost “from $125 million to anywhere between $150 and $165 million.” That does not include the price of relocating utilities under the street, which according to the city estimate could range from $79.3 million to $165.8 million.

Huizar downplayed the high end of the city analysis.

“That’s a worst-case scenario,” Huizar told the attendees. “If you were to look at any new [transportation] project right now… you would have worst-case scenarios for them as well. They would be sky-high, too. You don’t know what you’re going to run into.

“If you ask me, ‘Is this going to cost $300 million?’ I would say, well, we don’t know yet. But if we find something that’s going to cost that much, we’ll have to reassess. I don’t think it will cost that much.” 

Shiraz Tangri, who serves as general counsel to LASI, also said the potential costs of utility relocation are based not on streetcar standards, but rather on light rail standards as defined by the California Public Utilities Commission. Streetcar construction is far less intrusive and dramatic than light rail, he said. He also said that one option is not moving the underground utilities, but rather temporarily shutting down the streetcar in the future if crews need to get below street level. 

Money Matters

The questions concerning price come after a public vote on funding. Last December, in a mail-in ballot, people who live in the vicinity of the proposed route approved taxing area property owners up to $85 million for the streetcar. Those who would be assessed did not get to vote unless they also lived in the area. 

Streetcar officials on Monday indicated that they won’t need the full $85 million, as the presentation showed an expected public contribution of $62.5 million. That money will be augmented by $10 million already secured from the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency and $1 million in Measure R transportation funds.

Huizar’s team has long said that the local money would be complemented by a federal allocation, and streetcar team members repeatedly stated that they intended to apply for up to $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s “Small Starts” grant program.

However, streetcar officials missed a Sept. 30 application deadline for the project to be included in the president’s federal budget. That deadline was skipped because the project is not far along enough in its environmental review, said Terry Nash, a representative from the project’s consulting firm HDR. 

The streetcar has faced problems in obtaining federal funds in the past. The streetcar lost out on a $25 million Urban Circulators grant in 2010; Huizar told Downtown News at the time that the grants went to six other cities because those projects were further along than the Downtown streetcar. 

Cost Concerns

Even if the $75 million in federal funds is secured and used along with local commitments, that adds up only to a maximum of $171 million. That figure is below the low end of the city’s September analysis of $232.3 million. 

The City Council on Sept. 17 approved a recommendation to leave out any further contributions from city coffers, meaning Huizar and his team will have to turn to other, as-yet-unidentified sources of funding to make up the gap. The top choice mentioned at Monday’s event was a public-private sector partnership, with potential corporate sponsors lured through advertising on the streetcars or other incentives. 

Other issues must be addressed as well. An independent project manager, who will be responsible for completing a final cost estimate and a financial plan, among other things, has not yet been hired. Tangri stated that the city hopes to hire a project manager in the first quarter of 2014. He also asserted that despite missing the Sept. 30 deadline, the city is on track to obtain federal funds. 

“The FTA is very used to projects figuring out the pieces as it goes along,” he said. “That said, we’ve locked in some of our financing beyond what other cities had by the time they got to this stage of the process.”

But according to a City Council file memo, Department of Transportation staff told the council that the FTA requires a “detailed funding plan” that covers the cost of the project. It is unclear when that will be completed. 

Huizar said the city will know the cost of utility relocation by the spring. The environmental and engineering review process lies beyond that; Tangri said that an environmental impact review team has not yet been assembled, but will be on the street next year. 

Nobody involved in the project was able to provide an overall timeline. It remains unknown when it would break ground, or when Downtowners might be able to board a streetcar.  

eddie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013

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