CA: Downtown L.A. Streetcar Line Cost Estimate is Shaved by $55M

Sept. 03--Building a streetcar line in downtown Los Angeles may cost about $55 million less than officials had previously said -- an estimate that has buoyed the spirits of the project's boosters, including City Councilman Jose Huizar.

But the lower price tag of about $270 million could still complicate the city's bid for a $75-million construction grant, a crucial portion of the streetcar funding plan. Projects that cost more than $250 million must compete for federal dollars alongside the nation's most expensive and sophisticated transit proposals, including subway lines.

Last fall, the initial cost for the transit loop more than doubled to $327 million. Consulting firm URS Corp., hired by the city to draw up a new estimate, says the four-mile route could be built for about $270 million, according to a final draft of the analysis obtained by The Times.

Sources familiar with the cost-estimate process who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it's unlikely that the numbers will change significantly before the Los Angeles City Council receives a formal report.

A spokesman for the city's Transportation Department said it would be "inappropriate to comment on a draft document." Officials will have a final cost estimate in two to three weeks, said James Lefton, the department's executive officer of transit services.

The streetcar line still faces a significant funding gap: A tax district approved two years ago by downtown voters would raise as much as $85 million. If the Federal Transit Administration gives the project the full $75-million grant it seeks, that would still leave a funding gap of more than $100 million. To make up the difference, Huizar spokesman Rick Coca said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the city plans to arrange a public-private partnership.

The new cost estimate is "excellent news," Coca said. He added that he expects expenses to fall as engineers begin their work.

The downtown trolley has been publicly discussed for nearly a decade, since L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency began pushing for a partial rebirth of the streetcar network that once crisscrossed Southern California. Streetcar supporters, including Huizar, hoped tracks in the ground could accelerate what was, at that point, downtown's nascent renaissance.

The route approved by local officials would start on 1st Street and run south on Broadway, west on 11th Street, north on Figueroa Street, east on 7th Street and north on Hill Street. Then the tracks would proceed north to Grand Avenue, turning around near the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The Grand Avenue segment will probably be put on hold, Coca said, cutting about $15 million from the immediate project cost. Deferring construction could reduce ridership and add to the city's long-term costs, analysts wrote, because more environmental study might be needed later on.

Buying land for a maintenance facility for the streetcars could cost $28 million, analysts said in the draft report. Coca said the city is considering a joint development on that property to offset some costs. "The city is highly unlikely to purchase a piece of prime real estate in the middle of downtown and do nothing with it except build our maintenance facility," Coca said. The contingency budget of 30% will probably shrink, he said.

The city could also save nearly $19 million by running the streetcar along 9th Street, rather than 7th Street, because utility lines are sparser there and relocating them would cost less, the report said. But analysts say moving tracks away from 7th Street's restaurant row and the nearby subway stop could reduce trolley ridership.

In federal filings, city officials said the streetcar line's environmental review documents will be finished next spring, a year later than expected. They hope the $75-million grant will be awarded in the summer of 2016.

The draft report says the project could start service by the end of 2019.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Follow @laura_nelson for more news about transportation.

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