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Los Angeles fits another piece of transit puzzle; $1.4B project will connect trains downtown

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attends a signing ceremony for a federal grant for the

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attends a signing ceremony for a federal grant for the "regional connector transit corridor" in Los Angeles Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. The light rail public transit system in Los Angeles is getting $670 million to solve one of its most vexing design deficiencies: Train riders who want to travel from one side of downtown and out the other must transfer twice. The "regional connector," as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority calls it, will tie together three existing light rail lines with a new tunnel and three new stations. Major construction should begin later this year, with an estimated cost of $1.4 billion. It will be opened in 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Los Angeles is finally getting around to fixing a major flaw in its public transit system: Light rail riders can't travel from one side of downtown and out the other without waiting at platforms to transfer twice. And paying two extra fares.

It's the kind of problem that has helped keep many commuters in their cars, despite the region's notoriously clogged highways.

Transit planners had a solution long ago — and now they have the money to start building.

On Thursday, local and national transportation officials gathered to sign a grant agreement directing $670 million of federal money over several years toward a $1.4 billion project that will let light rail passengers travel beneath downtown without leaving their seats.

The regional connector — as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority calls it — will tie together three existing light rail lines with a new tunnel and three new stations.

With federal money secured, major construction should begin later this year. If all goes well, the project would open in 2020. The funding not promised under the federal grant will come from U.S. Department of Transportation loans, state money and — critically — local sales tax receipts.

The region's longstanding ambivalence toward public transit has started to change in recent years. A single subway line of 4 miles debuted in 1993, but enthusiasm — and money — for a world-class transit network was limited. By adding new light rail lines piecemeal, the system ended up with the disjointed connections that the regional connector is designed to smooth out.

"Back in the day, when this was still the capital of cars in the world, the idea of putting a subway underground was a really tough sell," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "People were willing to dip their toes in, but nobody ever jumped into the water — before traffic got so bad a decade ago that we really started with more comprehensive plans. There's a market for this now."

In 2008, Los Angeles County voters agreed to tax themselves in exchange for significant investments in the subway and light rail (and, yes, greater freeway capacity).

Part of the successful pitch for that tax was the regional connector. Currently, a rider going from West Los Angeles to Pasadena, northeast of downtown, must take a light rail train, transfer on the west edge of downtown to a subway, then transfer to a different light rail line on the other side of downtown. The new project should lop off about 20 minutes from that trip.

"Los Angeles, to its credit, had to build a vision for transit. The city was not designed around a transit network," said Therese McMillan, the deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration who formally announced the grant Thursday.

McMillan should know — she grew up here, and while she said she took buses in the 1970s during her high school years, rail was not an option. The once-extensive street cars had been ripped out a few decades before.

To have a rail rebirth, she noted, local politicians and transit officials needed to generate momentum slowly. "In those cases, you have to build it in pieces," McMillan said. "Funding is always a challenge."

Local transit officials hope they'll see McMillan again soon — with an announcement that the federal government will help fund the extension of the subway through Beverly Hills to the west side of Los Angeles. LA Metro has requested $1.25 billion of federal funds for that project.

A decision on that grant request likely will come later this year.

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Contact Justin Pritchard at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman

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