State won’t release documents on battle for rail funds, keeping process hidden

Despite a request for documents, the answers to why some Southern California rail projects got funded from a surplus administered by the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), and why others were shut out, remain shrouded in secrecy.

In response to a Feb. 14 public records request to CalSTA from The Los Angeles Daily News seeking documents that explained the process, the agency cited exemptions in the state public records law and did not provide information about the rail funding process.

The request asked for documents explaining why 16 transit projects in the state were awarded $2.5 billion in grants for construction, while other applications submitted with high hopes were not funded.

In Los Angeles County, the two non-recipients were the L (formerly Gold) Line 3.2-mile extension from Pomona into Montclair in San Bernardino County (which sought $798 million) and the West Santa Ana Branch (WSAB) light-rail from Artesia to downtown Los Angeles (which sought $500 million).

Rendering of the West Santa Ana Branch train project from. (Courtesy LA Metro)

The LA Metro Board of Directors approved the route of the West Santa Ana Branch light-rail line on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. They chose Alternative 3, which only goes to the Slauson Station of the A Line. But the board voted to study and pursue planning and design for a second phase that would go to Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. (image from LA Metro)

Crews construct walls for future Pomona station platform of the L (formerly Gold) Line on Feb. 8, 2023. The Azusa to Pomona project will be completed in early 2025. But the full extension — to Claremont and Montclair — did not receive funding from the state on Jan. 31, 2023 and is in jeopardy. Efforts to learn why have not been fruitful. LA Metro is considering alternate funding. (photo courtesy of the Metro Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority)

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“There’s no question there is compelling public interest here,” said David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, a group that advocates for open government and the public’s rights.

A subsequent request by this newspaper to Caltrans for a report from the Caltrans Department of Rail and Mass Transportation (DRMT), which reportedly helped make decisions on which projects got funding, also came up empty. “The department does not have any meeting minutes, video, etc., related to your request,” wrote Caltrans senior media officer Edward Barrera in an emailed response.

At first, CalSTA did not provide relevant materials. One requested item was a rating sheet to see how the agency viewed each project’s worthiness. When pressed, CalSTA released a 2018 document that showed a group rating for five projects submitted by LA Metro that included the WSAB and the Gold Line to Montclair, plus three others: East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor (ESFVTC), Green Line Extension to Torrance and the North Hollywood to Pasadena rapid bus line.

These projects received $1.1 billion in total, spread out over many years. The CalSTA group rating showed “high” marks for these projects, related to reducing greenhouse gases, increasing mass transit ridership, community benefits, coordination with other agencies and leveraging funding sources. The projects received “medium-high” marks for service integration and improving safety.

No ratings sheet was prepared for the Jan. 31, 2023 awards, said Marty Greenstein, CalSTA spokesman. However, the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor received $600 million in the recent cycle of state awards, the only one of three LA Metro projects that was funded.

The 2018 high marks for the five LA Metro projects, which received state funds four years ago, seemed to indicate that the projects, including the two rejected recently, were highly regarded by the state agency and that meeting some pre-set criteria for additional funding may not have been a factor.

In fact, proponents for both recently rejected projects will go back to the LA Metro Board of Directors on March 23 to ask for at least partial funding to keep the projects afloat. LA Metro will propose alternate funding.

Metro Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority CEO Habib Balian said his agency had not been told the reason why the project was not funded.

The Claremont/Montclair extension, part of the ongoing L Line project being built to Pomona, was planned for 24 years but ran out of money. If built out, it would make history by being the first light-rail line to reach from Los Angeles into San Bernardino County, to serve Inland Empire commuters who work in Los Angeles.

Some reasons hinted at by CalSTA, to explain the lack of funding for some projects in L.A. County, included an effort to “geographically balance” the awards across seven Southern California counties.

“You can’t give all the awards to one county. We wanted to spread out the awards as much as possible,” Greenstein said.

The other L.A. County project that got funded was the Inglewood Transit Connector at $407.4 million, a 1.6-mile people mover connecting the Metro K Line to nearby sports and entertainment venues including the Kia Forum, SoFi Stadium, Intuit Dome (the Clippers future home), and residential and commercial centers.

Many experts said the project’s appeal for use during the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics could have tipped funding its way.

Balian said he concluded that another factor was CalSTA’s preference to give money to projects supported by federal dollars. An emphasis on federally funded projects took precedence over those, such as the L Line extension, that were mostly funded by the 2% LA Metro sales taxes in the county.

Balian and Metro are asking the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments for cash. One way is to defer local transportation projects and move that funding to the L Line extension. Balian has reduced the amount needed to complete the extension to $758 million by using $40 million leftover from the Pomona project, he said.

Reasons cited by CalSTA’s general counsel Bret Ladine for not providing documents that explain its grant-awarding decisions included the following Public Records Act exemptions:

– Correspondence to and from the governor or the governor’s office;

– Documents that would violate attorney-client privilege; and

– Release of information would put a chill on the “deliberative process,” in this case the agency’s discussions about grant awards. The statute says any government agency must review whether releasing documents explaining how it came to a decision would be detrimental to future discussions or help the public’s right to know how government works.

Citing the deliberative process as a reason for withholding documents “is a balancing test,” Loy said. “It is always in the eyes of the beholder.”

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