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Sepulveda Pass Transit – Is It Really Affordable?

LOS ANGELES

LA TRANSPO - This is the third article in a series examining whether Metro can be a trusted steward for the Sepulveda Pass Transit project.

In my October 28th letter to Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins, I asked 20 questions about the Sepulveda Pass Transit Project. The first two questions focused on project affordability. 

(1)   Why has Metro never explained at any public meeting that their STCP budget is only $8 billion and insufficient to build four of its six alternatives?

(2)   Why has Metro never publicly presented information on the capital and operations and maintenance cost estimates for its current six alternatives – and what are today’s capital and O&M cost estimates for each alternative?

A transit project should be affordable, within reason. If it isn’t, it might not be built, or it might be delayed for a decade or more. Longer construction increases project costs because construction inflation is twice consumer inflation. Lawsuits can keep projects in court for many years, also raising costs. No one wants the critical Sepulveda Pass Transit Project to become the “Train To Forever” – the dream house we always wanted but can never afford.

In 2016, voters approved the project’s official cost estimate and funding in LA County’s Measure M. Metro developed the original Measure M cost and funding estimates, and hindsight demonstrates they were unrealistically low. Every Measure M project is exceeding its original cost estimate – by a factor of two or three. The estimated cost of the Sepulveda Pass Transit project in 2016 was $5.7 billion, with $2.6 billion coming from Measure M sales tax revenues (less than half) and $3.1 billion from local, federal, state, and other funding. Today, this estimated cost is $8 billion.

Over the past seven years, Metro studied many concept alternatives, and ended up with six – one of which Metro will select to build. These alternatives and their best-guess cost estimates are shown in the table below, based on prior Metro estimates and other Metro projects. Only two of the monorail alternatives are close to being affordable with Metro’s $8 billion budget. Not a good place to be in the era of tight money and high inflation. How did this happen?

 

Monorails Along 405 Freeway Right of Way

Alternative 1

Alternative 2

Alternative 3

$8 to $9 billion

$9 to $10 billion

$11 to $14 billion

Heavy Rail Subways Under Sepulveda Pass

Alternative 4

Alternative 5

Alternative 6

$15 to $21 billion

$19 to $28 billion

$19 to $25 billion

Believe it or not, Metro does not consider affordability when it develops concepts. At a January 2023 public meeting, I asked a Metro spokesperson why they study unaffordable concepts. As shown in this 1:42-minute video clip (https://youtu.be/hb9FxfFlTHg), Metro said the environmental process requires them to study a range of concepts, and that may be true. But Metro also said it’s “too early to speculate on costs”. This is not believable. Metro has spent more than $100 million studying their six alternatives – and they want us to believe they don’t know how much they cost. If they don’t, shame on them. Sounds like they just don’t want to tell the public. What are they hiding?

If Metro doesn’t want to pay attention to affordability, that’s their mistake. But the public has the right to know the estimated costs, even if they aren’t yet perfect. Everyone understands that costs will become more refined over time – but they usually go up, not down. Metro forgets that the public is smart and can understand it may not be worth spending billions just to get marginally improved performance. Metro, please tell us the costs – because you’re spending our tax dollars.

(Bob Anderson is a nuclear engineer with 50 years engineering and business development expertise in the aerospace and high-technology sectors. He is VP and Transportation Committee Chair of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. Contact him at [email protected].)

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