MTA Board Selects Connector Rail Route through Little Tokyo: Construction for the two-mile fully-underground project could begin in 2014 and be completed in 2019

LOS ANGELES — An underground railroad route through Little Tokyo moved one step closer to reality when the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) board of directors on Oct. 28 approved the Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Report (EIS/R) for the Regional Connector project, clearing the way for the project to enter final environmental review and preliminary engineering.

In approving the environmental draft, the board approved Metro staff recommendations for the Locally Preferred Alternatives (LPA) — which is the fully-underground route through Little Tokyo and the entire two-mile alignment downtown, Dave Sotero, senior public information officer for Metro, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“The Little Tokyo/Arts Community wanted the fully underground alternative, so we inserted it into the draft document as a result of their input because they were concerned about the negative impact in the Little Tokyo district,” Sotero stated. “Initially, the alignment was going to go at street level across First and Alameda streets, but community members were concerned that it would divide the Little Tokyo area having a train running at street level. So the plans were revised to go underneath Little Tokyo.”

The Regional Connector project, a $1.245 billion project (in 2009 dollars), will connect the Metro Gold Line, Metro Blue Line, and future Expo Line in downtown Los Angeles.

“It ties all the light rail lines through downtown L.A.,” the MTA spokesperson said. “Right now, riders have to transfer from one line to another and it takes additional time to make those transfers … When this project is done, it will be a one-seat, one-ticket ride through downtown L.A. that will save money for the riders. And, this will save about 20 minutes by eliminating line transfers.”

According to Sotero, the project hasn’t been fully funded yet, but it has partial funding from the 2008 voter-approved Measure R, which makes possible a half-cent sales tax. “We are currently seeking federal funding for the project. If that funding is secured, we could begin construction for a regional connector in 2014 and have it completed in 2019.”

The project’s final environmental review and preliminary engineering means agency planners will further analyze environmental issues for route and station options that were carried forward from the draft. At the end of the approximately one-year final environmental review process, the Metro board will decide the project that will ultimately be built utilizing local Measure R transportation sales tax monies.

The project is estimated to provide access to 90,000 passengers daily, including 17,000 new transit riders by 2035, Sotero pointed out, making it one of the most cost-competitive projects in the United States.

Sen. Inouye’s Influence

“The only reason there’s a fully-underground option today is because of Sen. Dan Inouye,” declared Chris Komai, public information officer for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). “Metro is afraid if we said we don’t want anything, then Sen. Inouye could cut off the funding. That was sort of the club we were using on MTA to get them to change in a major way … We were scared the Democrats would lose control of the Senate, because if they lost, Inouye would no longer have been head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But he’s still there.”

JANM is “pleased that the MTA board changed from its original two ideas — the at-grade and the partial underground options” and instead approved a fully-underground route plus a station in Little Tokyo, Komai stated. “There was a huge uproar when people found out that they were going to have trains running at street level through Little Tokyo, because of all the traffic problems, safety considerations, and frankly, they were going to have the trains running right next to the museum and there were going to have 24 trains an hour.”

The Museum and the community wanted a Little Tokyo station, “because the original plan had most of the trains coming through Little Tokyo but not stopping,” Komai said. “So we would’ve gotten no benefit out of that.”

What still needs to be addressed is how to solve the problems created during a four-to-five-year construction period, the JANM spokesperson stressed. “That concerns us and that concerns all the businesses here … The Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) has been calling for some kind of fund to help the local businesses survive.”

The small business owners on Second Street are “terrified that they’re going to go under, and people won’t come to Little Tokyo,” Komai exclaimed. “I don’t blame them … That’s the next fight here, whether or not we can extract something from Metro, where they feel they’ll have to do something or there’ll be a problem.”

Museum officials are “scared to death” that people will stop coming because “they’ll see that the street is under construction and there’s no place to park,” he added. “A lot of those businesses on the Office Depot block (at Second and Central) where Metro will build the Little Tokyo station will probably be kicked out, but at least they’ll get compensation. It’s the businesses across the street — Japanese Village Plaza and Honda Plaza, and all the others on Second Street — who aren’t going to get anything. They’re the ones who’ll suffer.”

Compensation Needed

Mickey Seki, proprietor of a watch repair and jewelry shop in Little Tokyo who relocated his business last year to First Street from Honda Plaza at Second Street and Central Avenue, commented, “I think most people want to have the rail underground, but they are worried about losing business because of no traffic.”

The tunnel will be the most serious problem because Metro will dig underground from Second Street through downtown to Broadway, he said. “When they do that, they block all these streets, and they block the entrances to Honda Plaza. The Second Street businesses are going to suffer because there will be no traffic through here.”

Good public transportation here is very important in the long run for Little Tokyo, Seki conceded. “But MTA should try to do something to accommodate these Second Street business people that will be hurt by the construction. I feel sorry for them. They need some kind of compensation.”

In reply to queries about whether MTA was considering a compensation program for Little Tokyo businesses, especially those on Second Street, negatively impacted by the underground railway construction, MTA’s Sotero said, “That was some of the input that we received as part of the public hearing process … There will be answers to those questions as part of the final environmental document. I don’t have that answer because that’s what they’re dealing with now. We won’t know what will be possible until they conclude the final environmental review process. That will be in about a year.”

Mitigating the Impact

Chris Aihara, former president of the Little Tokyo Community Council, reported that the group wanted the fully-underground option because they felt it would have the least amount of negative impact during construction.

“As I understand it, once they go underground, the traffic is still able to go through Second Street,” Aihara said. “It’s not the same as when they’re digging up the streets and all the roads are closed. It also has to do with where you start the underground tunnel boring. There’s always more impact where you begin … Our preference is not to start in Little Tokyo. We want them to start on the other end, so that as it’s coming through, the impact is supposed to be less because once they start boring, they’re going underground. I think where we will see more disruption is where the station is, maybe not all of Second Street.”

The next step would be to organize and talk to people representing the churches, temples and nonprofit organizations and come up with “specific ways in which some of the disruptions can be softened or mitigated by Metro,” she pointed out, adding that “LTCC is going to look at some kind of compensation for those businesses on Second Street directly impacted by the construction.”

Another concern for LTCC is the design of the underground station, and possibly what community uses are to be part of that, whether there will be construction on top or landscaping, Aihara reported. “How can this station development be designed in a way that has benefits to the community. And also that it’s reflective of what we would like to see in Little Tokyo.”

Public transportation can be very positive for Little Tokyo because that will mean more accessibility to the area, Aihara agreed.

“But in the short term, we really want to make sure that the small businesses are not so impacted that they can’t ride through the construction. Hopefully, when it’s done, it will be — with the parking situation and traffic — much more welcoming for people to come into town. So that’s why transit seems more appealing. People will ride in and they won’t have to worry about parking.”

Westside Subway Extension

During that Oct. 28 meeting, the board also approved the (EIS/R) for the Westside Subway Extension. For the Westside Subway Project, the recommended route is a subway extension running between the Wilshire/Western Metro Purple Line Terminus (in the Koreatown area) to Westwood/VA Hospital (near UCLA), a distance of approximately nine miles.

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