Sepulveda Pass tunnel would connect Jewish L.A. — if it ever gets built

Since the Jewish population began to emigrate from its old East Los Angeles haunts, large communities began to settle on either side of the Santa Monica Mountains in the West Valley and West Los Angeles — and never the twain shall meet.
October 20, 2016

Since the Jewish population began to emigrate from its old East Los Angeles haunts, large communities began to settle on either side of the Santa Monica Mountains in the West Valley and West Los Angeles — and never the twain shall meet.

But if county voters approve a sales tax on the November ballot, those two populations could be connected by a train underneath the congested Sepulveda Pass within 20 years.

At an estimated cost of $10 billion, the Sepulveda Pass project is the grandest and most expensive of the items promised by Measure M, the ballot initiative hoping to revolutionize public transportation in L.A. 

Some critics roll their eyes when the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) touts proposals of such grand scale, pointing to years of mothballed plans. Yet the prospect of changing L.A.’s Jewish geography has some community members riled up in support — particularly at Leo Baeck Temple, an iconic Reform synagogue nestled in the pass.

For Rabbi Ken Chasen, the congregation’s senior rabbi, Measure M is not just about making it easier to get to the shul, though the tunnel would do that. Instead, it’s about bringing L.A.’s Jews into close quarters with the other communities that share the city with them.

“Our whole motive with this is about those doors opening up … and all of L.A. actually encountering each other on a human level,” he said. “As a Jewish principle, it’s like a huge fundamental.”

The shul’s slogan for its Measure M efforts is telling: “Connect people face to face and not bumper to bumper.”

The grand plan

Until recently, even the mention of a train under the Sepulveda Pass met with guffaws. In May, when candidates at a state senate debate for a district that includes parts of the West Valley were asked about the idea, Steve Fazio, the Republican candidate, compared it to the idea of offering jetpacks to commuters.

“We’ll strap it on, fly it around,” he said. “It’ll have an airbag on it — you’ll love it.”

Yet Metro is dead serious about the idea.

Measure M offers a “comprehensive plan” to update L.A.’s transportation system, of which the Sepulveda Pass project is “a very real component,” said Pauletta Tonilas, chief communications officer for Metro.

In a phone interview, Tonilas described a three-phase plan to connect the North Valley to Los Angeles International Airport. 

First, express lanes would be added to the I-405. Next, rail would be laid under the pass to connect the Van Nuys Orange Line station with the planned Purple Line station at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards. Finally, rail would be built out to 96th Street in Westchester. (A separate project, called the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor, would connect the Van Nuys station to Pacoima with a rapid transit bus or rail line.)

Metro expects to run trains from the Valley to the city by 2033 and to finish the project entirely by 2057, according to the expenditure plan that accompanies the ballot measure.

The Sepulveda Pass is just one item proposed in Measure M. Other projects would accelerate the Purple Line subway extension under Wilshire Boulevard, extend the under-construction Crenshaw Line north through West Hollywood and build the Gold Line out to Claremont, to name a few.

All that, though, is contingent on passing the November ballot measure with a 67 percent vote, adding a half-cent onto the county’s sales tax and pushing it above 10 percent in some cities, and to 9.5 percent in the city of Los Angeles. In addition, the measure would remove the expiration date on a previous half-cent tax passed in 2008, extending it in perpetuity.

If Measure M passes, 2 cents of every dollar spent in L.A. County would go into Metro coffers for the foreseeable future. In 2018, the first year it would be in effect, the tax would pull in some $860 million, Metro estimates. And the agency has made clear, at least in the short run: No tax, no tunnel.

Besides linking two vibrant Jewish communities, the proposed tunnel would change the character of a mountain pass that, in itself, is home to many of L.A.’s most prominent Jewish institutions. 

Flanking the 7 miles of freeway between Westwood and Sherman Oaks are American Jewish University, Milken Community Schools, Stephen Wise Temple, the Skirball Cultural Center and Leo Baeck.

These institutions represent a midcentury push to “centralize the diverse and dispersed Jewish communities in one place,” said Erik Greenberg, director of education and visitor engagement at the Autry Museum of the American West.

In an online exhibition called “The Jewish Pass,” part of UCLA’s Mapping Jewish L.A. project, Greenberg charted the history of the route and its significance to the larger community. 

The institutions that rose on its banks, he wrote, offer “a glimpse into the beliefs and ideals that helped shape American Jewish observance and culture over the past fifty years.” In a phone interview, he doubted if institutions of such breadth and size were likely to arise again.

Mixed messages

In April, Metro CEO Phil Washington addressed a crowd of faith communities allied in supporting the measure who had gathered at Leo Baeck Temple.

Leo Baeck congregants had been working for months, meeting with city and county officials to ensure that the Sepulveda Pass was given consideration on any proposed ballot measure, and Washington was ready to project an air of near-certainty.

“We are looking to accelerate the Sepulveda Pass,” he said to applause. “I believe we will. People who want to build this rail line are already discussing it. The big challenge is being successful in November.” 

But as Metro projects have inched themselves, mile by mile, into court battles and construction delays, many across the county have lost faith.

“We’ve been promised all sorts of stuff and never gotten it,” said Bob Anderson, a board member for the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, who wrote an op-ed opposing the measure in the local politics blog CityWatch.

With Measure R, a similar half-cent county sales tax passed in 2008, voters were promised a “Subway to the Sea.” That project soon became a subway toward the sea as costs rose and budgets dwindled. The Purple Line is now expected to reach the Veterans Affairs complex in Westwood, some 5 miles short of the beach.

Anderson said the Sepulveda Pass project could suffer a similar fate to the Purple Line extension because the measure doesn’t specifically lay out a plan for its completion.

“The Sepulveda Pass project is fantastic,” he said. “We need it. But we need to make sure it’s done right and we really have input into it.”

Meanwhile, some Metro critics say that behind closed doors, the county agency is less certain about the Sepulveda Pass plan than it lets on in public.

Measure M opponents like Torrance Mayor Pat Furey say Metro’s plan gives short shrift to South Bay communities like his and that, to placate critics such as him, Metro officials have implied the Sepulveda Pass project could be delayed and money redirected to South Bay projects. Washington and his deputies said as much in an Oct. 10 meeting at the Torrance mayor’s office, Furey told the Journal.

“One of the things they laid out was that the Sepulveda Pass was so intricate and so environmentally involved that the environmental process, they expect, will take perhaps decades,” Furey said in a phone interview. “And based upon that, it was their belief that that would free up money for the other processes.”

The mayor said he believes Washington was using the idea of repurposing Sepulveda Pass funds as a “carrot for us to sort of buy into” Measure M.

Norwalk Mayor Mike Mendez said Metro officials — though he couldn’t recall exactly which ones — spun a similar story during a meeting of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, which represents a string of Los Angeles communities bordering Orange County. Those officials, he said, “made some comments that this might not even happen,” referring to the tunnel. 

Mendez made it clear that he doesn’t oppose the idea of a tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass, but rather opposes Measure M on the grounds that it’s not fair and equitable to cities like his. He said he sees Metro’s campaign tactics as deceptive.

Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch, a longtime Metro opponent, agreed that the issue is problematic. 

“[Metro] is trying to get people to support the tax by promising things they think will appeal to various parts of the county,” he said during an interview in his office. “They’re throwing transit scraps and crumbs.”

Mirisch has led his city in multiple legal battle against the agency, which he sees as bloated and in dire need of reform. Of the Sepulveda Pass tunnel, he said, “this is the big bone they’re throwing to the Valley.”

Tonilas, of Metro, was adamant that the agency would not raid Sepulveda Pass funds to pay for projects elsewhere. “That is absolutely not going to happen,” she said.

It’s possible that Sepulveda Pass funds could go toward other projects — but only if the valley-to-city tunnel were accelerated by a public-private partnership, she said, and not at the cost of delaying the tunnel.

“Maybe some folks misunderstood that, but we have every bit of the intention of delivering what is in that plan,” Tonilas said. “And Sepulveda Pass is absolutely part of the plan.”

Cost concerns

Few say improving L.A.’s transportation infrastructure is a bad idea. Yet in selling the Sepulveda Pass project, even supporters note that the daunting price tag poses a challenge. Of the $10 billion cost, Measure M would raise only about $2.9 billion — leaving the rest up to funding from federal, state and other sources. 

“The response we got, even from people who were sympathetic, was, ‘Yeah, it’s a great idea, but that’s too much money — it’ll never happen,’” said Eric Stockel, Leo Baeck’s vice president of social justice.

Those objections failed to dampen the congregation’s enthusiasm. During the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral race, Stockel’s community-organizing team pressed the four leading contenders for commitments to a Sepulveda Pass improvement project during a candidate forum at Leo Baeck.

Now, organizers from Leo Baeck are phone-banking for Measure M and encouraging congregants to vote for it, Chasen said.

Most agree that public transportation would go a long way toward stitching together L.A.’s Frankenstein monster of far-flung neighborhoods. But come November, the county’s voters will have to decide whether Metro can pull it off.

“The public is our No. 1 boss,” Tonilas said. “The public is who we work for. … The people will decide on Nov. 8 if this is something we should move forward with.”

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