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In car-loving L.A., 22 miles of rail may be boon for mass transit

Los Angeles, better known for convertibles and sweeping concrete freeways, is now getting ready to build its first trolley line since 1961. After a disappointing year for southern California rail projects, Los Angeles gave final approval last week to a 22-mile light-rail segment between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Planners still hope this will be the beginning leg of an extensive web of rails across the region -- largely duplicating the Pacific Electric trolley system that faded from the scene in the late 1950s. The centerpiece of the plan, Metro Rail, this city's first subway system in waiting, has hit a major political snag. And one dramatic proposal, a privately owned bullet train connecting San Diego and Los Angeles, was scrapped last fall for lack of investors.

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The White House is budgeting no money for new mass-transit systems anywhere in the country. Since the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) is counting on federal funds for 56 percent of the cost of Metro Rail's central facilities and first four miles of track and tunnel, the project has been stymied.

Southern California's return to trains is inspired by storm clouds on the traffic horizon. Traffic in this far-flung, car-bound city flows generally smoother than that of any other large American metropolis. But skyscrapers and commercial complexes are filling the downtown skyline so fast that visions of gridlock loom large in the city's future. Urban density is also growing along Wilshire Boulevard, the city's main thoroughfare. Nearly everyone agrees that something in the traffic picture will have to give.

Trains, especially Metro Rail, remain controversial. Debate centers on how to ease traffic efficiently and inexpensively, and on what kind of a city Los Angeles wants to be. Should the city follow its historic tendency to spread at the edges, relying on cars and freeways, or encourage the recent trend toward higher-density centers using mass transit? Already the city is surprisingly dependent on mass transit. There are 200,000 bus boardings a day down the Wilshire corridor, according to RTD figures.

But Los Angeles doesn't want to look like Manhattan and doesn't need expensive rail projects to ease traffic congestion, insists Peter Gordon, an urban planner at the University of Southern California. The Long Beach/Los Angeles rail ``will be a ghost train,'' he says.

The freeways are full, he notes, ``but the freeways are full of empty cars.'' Measures like cutting back the parking subsidies by downtown employers could help fill those cars, he says.

But Roger Riga, assistant director of transportation planning at the Southern California Association of Governments, says that's not enough. ``We're going to need all the facilities we're talking about, and all the incentives we're talking about, and we're still going to have a problem.''

Construction will begin later this year on the $595 million rail to Long Beach, all paid out of local taxes, if one remaining dispute is settled with the city of Compton, which wants sunken tracks along its portion of the route.

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