Los Angeles has few driving experiences more soul-crushing than sitting in your car as it crawls down Interstate 405 during rush hour. So commuters may have been understandably enthused when transit officials began exploring a public transit line across the Sepulveda Pass. 

But how the project is completed is now in contention: homeowners in Bel Air and Sherman Oaks are demanding a slower monorail project unlike other mass transit projects around the US and some students and progressive organizations are demanding a faster subway system that could accommodate more passengers. 

Despite the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Metro) stated goals of providing a reliable transit line, questions remain about the project’s timeline, its final price tag, and whether the rail line would run over or under the Santa Monica Mountains. The concept of a Valley-to-Westwide rail line has been around for decades. Transit officials in 1974 put forth a failed ballot measure to build a similar line with a northern terminus at Canoga Park. In 2008, Metro secured seed funding for this project through Measure R – a voter-approved sales tax. 

The current multi-billion dollar concept, called the Sepulveda Transit Corridor Project, would offer the first-ever rail line connecting San Fernando Valley to the Westside and could begin carrying passengers by 2035. This historic infrastructure project has the potential to not only cut down commute times for drivers but also to expand housing and employment opportunities for those without access to a vehicle. 

Rohan Abraham, a senior at the University of California-LA (UCLA), told LA Public Press the limited capacity and range of buses serving the campus narrows apartment rental options for students without vehicles who are left to contend with the rising cost of living in the area. 

“We don’t have [transit] links to elsewhere that would allow people to live farther from campus,” Abraham, who doesn’t own a car, said in an interview. “The burden of commuting between UCLA and the Valley is just too much because of the traffic and congestion on the 405, along with the cost of owning a vehicle.” 

Currently, driving from the Valley to the Westside on the 405 can take up to an hour and a half or more, depending on traffic. The LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), the agency developing the project, estimates a Sepulveda Pass line with subway cars could carry up to 137,000 riders daily and get them from Van Nuys to the Westside in under 20 minutes.

The route would have a northern terminus at the Van Nuys Metrolink/Amtrak station, offering connections with Metro’s G Line and the East San Fernando Valley Light Rail Transit Line, which is still in development. At the project’s southern hub, the line would connect to the E Line (formerly the Expo Line) and the D Line subway (formerly the Purple Line) extension which stretches from Koreatown into Westwood and is expected to open by 2027. 

A showdown between monorail and heavy rail transit

In 2021, Metro awarded contracts to two firms — Sepulveda Transit Corridor Partners and LA SkyRail Express — to develop six design “alternatives,” three with monorail cars and three with heavy rail subway cars. Light rail cars were not considered due to their limited rider capacity. 

A report published by Metro in 2022 found that, of more than 3000 public comments from residents and local officials, 93% of people who submitted comments preferred the heavy rail obtain. 

Monorail technology, uncommon in U.S. mass transit projects, is central to alternatives 1 to 3, which propose a roughly 15-mile train ride following existing right-of-way corridors in the Valley and riding along the median of the 405. 

A monorail project would cost less and could be built quicker, but has reduced ridership capacity (up to 86,000 riders daily) and longer travel times (Van Nuys to E Line in 32 minutes). 

A transit line based on heavy rail would require expensive tunneling but has both a higher ridership capacity (up to 137,000 commuters daily) and quicker travel times (Van Nuys to UCLA in 12 minutes), according to Metro. 

Heavy rail subway cars in alternatives 4 to 6 would run either fully below ground or at a mix of above and below. Alternative 6 would run a subway car on an elevated track in the Valley before dipping into a tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass. That option is projected to have the highest ridership as well as the most new and low-income commuters. 

David Levitus, executive director of the nonprofit LA Forward, said he supports heavy rail and that monorail ridership capacity is too low. 

“LA has run trains down the middle of freeways before and it’s not great,” Levitus said. “We need to do this with as much capacity as possible and do it in a way that if we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars that we’re not half-assing it.” 

Photo courtesy of Supelveda Mobility Partners.

Four of the six alternatives (one monorail and the three subway designs) include an on-campus UCLA station at Gateway Plaza.

The UCLA campus is, by one estimate, the third-largest public sector employer in LA County, providing over 108,000 jobs and contributing nearly $17 billion to the economy in 2018. 

Abraham, the UCLA student, said he agreed that having an on-campus station is critical. 

“It would make it easier to go anywhere, and would allow people to avoid commuting problems,” Abraham said. “I won’t be in the area to see it completed but my experience has informed my judgment.” 

Metro is currently writing the project’s environmental impact report (EIR), a mandated audit of development’s potential impacts on residents and the natural environment. The transit agency, which has final approval authority for the transit line, is expected to release the draft report in 2025. 

Once Metro board members and the public weigh in on the draft EIR, the board will either vote to proceed with a monorail option or a transit line with heavy rail. With a proposal selected, Metro would then prepare the final EIR that would need to be approved by the board before construction begins. 

The rail project has $5.7 billion (around $7.3 billion adjusted for inflation) allocated from Measure M, a half-cent sales tax approved by 71% of county voters in 2016 which is expected to raise $120 billion over 40 years for transportation projects. 

Metro would seek funding from other local, state, and federal sources for the project, which includes a second phase of construction that would eventually extend the Sepulveda line past the E Line to a station at LA International Airport, according to Metro, though no updated timeline for that project has been disclosed. 

Connected communities. Communities divided.

While the Sepulveda Pass project has no updated price tag, officials have previously put the estimate at around $14 billion. The final cost to open the line will be determined by the route and mode of transit selected by Metro. What is known is that once established, the line could cost upwards of $137 million annually to operate, according to Metro. 

Fred Rosen, a resident of Bel Air and member of the neighborhood association, said he fears, based on his conversations with Metro, that the project could cost double what the agency has budgeted. He bases his concern on the rising costs of Metro’s 9-mile D Line subway extension (connecting downtown LA to Westwood) which has a price tag of nearly $10 billion so far.

The group of Bel Air neighbors are worried subway tunneling could damage their homes. They want Metro to consider tunneling under the 405 or building a less expensive monorail along the highway instead. Rosen told LA Public Press the proposed routes for all six alternatives show that any tunneling would not go under his own home.

Metro has said its subway tunnel poses no risk of damage to above-ground structures.

Rosen, an ex-Ticketmaster CEO, said he’s shared his grievances with Metro staff but was displeased with their conversation. 

“It was like talking to the wall,” Rosen said. “This is about fiscal responsibility. Their goal is to intentionally mislead the public.”

Rosen and the Keep Bel Air Beautiful organization have threatened a lawsuit to challenge the project. Bob Anderson, a resident of Sherman Oaks and member of the neighborhood homeowners association, said he’d join Rosen’s lawsuit. 

In a statement to LA Public Press, Metro said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. 

Anderson said he’s concerned ridership demand won’t be at the level Metro projects for 2035 and that not enough is being done to prevent 405 traffic from getting worse in a decade. 

“This one project is not going to alleviate 405 traffic,” Anderson said. 

Elected officials representing the project area have been vocal about the proposed transit line, and residents have heavily lobbied to make sure they are speaking up. In a 2022 letter to Metro, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman – whose 32nd District includes Bel Air and parts of Santa Monica, said the project is critical for the region but that Metro should examine how a subway might be built without tunneling under neighborhoods like Sherman Oaks and Bel Air. 

In prior statements, Sherman expressed frustration with getting project details from Metro and also questioned whether a station on the UCLA campus was truly vital.

In a statement given to LA Public Press last week, Sherman said he’ll push for federal funding for a project he described as Metro’s most important to date.

“I look forward to the construction companies providing detailed proposals including, most importantly, the cost of each approach together with information about parking, convenience, any disruption caused by the construction process, operational costs, and a host of other factors,” the statement said. 

In a 2022 letter signed by LA City Councilmembers Paul Krekorian, Nithya Raman, Monica Rodriguez, and former councilmember Nury Martinez, officials said they support an on-campus station at UCLA, public restrooms at any new stations, and transit connections to a planned sports complex at Sepulveda Basin when the city hosts the 2028 Olympics.

Councilmembers also said Metro should consider the risks that development around new stations could displace residents and that the agency should be mindful of the legacy of environmental injustice in the Valley.

“Any alternative that calls for above-ground facilities in the San Fernando Valley but not for other segments of the project corridor, or that in any way disproportionately disadvantages the San Fernando Valley and its residents, is not based on fairness and therefore is not acceptable,” the letter said.

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, California’s 30th District representative, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Schiff, who recently advanced to November’s general election for California’s Senate seat, could play a crucial role in securing federal funding for the project if he wins the senate race.

Last week, Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins responded to a list of 20 concerns from Anderson’s group about issues like project cost and the public review period for the draft EIR. In a written response, Wiggans said Metro would consider extending the 60-day review period to 90 days and that a more accurate budget will be drawn up once the draft EIR evaluates the six design alternatives. 

Rosen said he doesn’t have a timeline for when he’d initiate the legal challenge but said he didn’t trust Metro to act in the best interest of commuters or his neighbors. 

“[Metro] showed up without asking and told us they were going to build a tunnel under our community,” Rosen said.“If you want to know what I think of Metro, I call them a bunch of bureaucratic bumblers.” 

Levitus, LA Forward’s executive director, said Metro shouldn’t explore monorail designs simply to appease wealthy residents and that wealthier residents’ lack of trust in Metro doesn’t justify their opposition to the project. 

“Too often the burden of infrastructure development has been placed on poor, working class communities of color precisely because wealthier interests have been able to get in their way,” Levitus said. “We shouldn’t repeat that pattern. The train should go where it’s going to serve people best.”

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