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Metro Estimates West Santa Ana Branch Surface Heavy Rail Could Cost More Per Mile Than Purple Line Subway

For the West Santa Ana Branch, Metro staff is recommending three two-billion dollar tunnels, and ignoring a higher capacity surface heavy rail alternative. Map via Metro

Late last week, Metro released reports dismissing heavy rail as an option for its planned West Santa Ana Branch line. According to the Metro staff report, surface heavy rail on the WSAB would cost between $12.3 and $18.4 billion. The project is currently funded to the tune $4 billion, so, if Metro's cost estimates were grounded in reality, surface heavy rail would be prohibitively expensive.

For a full background, see Streetsblog's earlier editorial recommending Metro look at heavy rail.

Metro's WSAB heavy rail estimates show a cost of $0.67 billion to $1 billion per mile. That means, on a per-mile basis, Metro is estimating that WSAB surface heavy rail could cost Metro more than it currently costs to tunnel heavy rail subway below Wilshire Boulevard.

That's just not credible. Building a train on an existing ROW does not cost more than a whole new tunnel and tracks through downtown.

One problem appears to be that Metro's estimate is, according to the staff report, "based on recent Metro projects" which sounds like Metro is doing a surface rail estimate based on heavy-rail subway project costs, because Metro has not built surface heavy rail. Surface heavy rail - on an existing right-of-way - costs orders of magnitude less than Metro's upper project bound. Rail project costs vary around the U.S. and no two sites are exactly the same, which is why Metro should do some real math on this one, instead of blowing it off with bogus math. Metro's low-end estimate would mean that the WSAB would cost more than double per mile than any surface heavy rail project built in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Metro staff is recommending three light-rail subway alignments through downtown estimated to cost $5.4-$5.8 billion, with the caveat that "Cost estimates are expected to increase, resulting from further defining the project during the environmental review and public, stakeholder and partner engagement processes."

Each of Metro's three recommended routes include at least two miles of tunneling under downtown Los Angeles. The cost for the two-mile tunnel would likely be a bit more than the cost-overrun-plagued long Regional Connector subway, a 1.9-mile long LRT subway currently, halfway built, with a total project cost of $1.75 billion.

The reason Streetsblog suggested a heavy rail alternative on the line is it can use the existing subway tunnel from the southern part of the Arts District to get into downtown--so no new tunnels are required.

The WSAB item will be on this week's meetings of Metro's Planning and Programming Committee and Construction Committee.

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