LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS: Cal State Northridge left behind in Valley rail transit plans

Summit is hosted by Sen. Bob Hertzberg

October 26, 2015

By Dana Bartholomew

NORTHRIDGE >> Five days a week, Cal State Northridge freshman Brayan Ramirez heads out before dawn for a three-hour bus-and-rail commute from South Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley.

It’s a twice-a-day journey along two bus routes, one rail line and a jog along the Orange Line busway — a trip filled with business and finance studies, Pandora tunes or reading “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.”

“It is a hassle,” said Ramirez, 18, standing at the on-campus bus stop Friday about to repeat the crooked sojourn after a one-hour morning class. “It drains a lot of your energy. A rail stop would save a lot more energy and time.”

Saving time and energy through building railways throughout the Valley will be the subject of today’s so-called Transportation Summit, a roundtable discussion by mostly Valley leaders over how best to spend a proposed 1-cent transportation sales tax.

The public summit, hosted by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and the Valley Economic Alliance, will run from 8:30-10:30 a.m. at the Jean and David Fleming Education Center at Valley Presbyterian Hospital, 15107 Vanowen St., Van Nuys. Registration begins at 8 a.m.

One issue will be how to better connect a record 42,000 students, plus 4,200 faculty and staff, at Cal State Northridge with speedy public transportation. That’s the daily equivalent of more than a packed house at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

Local leaders have recommended that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority spend its potential sales tax proceeds on a Sepulveda rail tunnel, an Orange Line railway and a light rail line from Van Nuys to Sylmar.

Leaving out CSUN

But that would leave the Valley’s most populous institution — and a large swath of the west Valley — miles from the proposed U-shaped rail loop.

“That’s the piece in between that’s not part of the discussion — there’s the doughnut hole,” said Colin Donahue, CSUN vice president of administration and finance, who will participate in today’s summit. “And CSUN is smack in the middle of it.

“To really move the needle for us, as far as mass transit, we need convenience, speed, time and service. Students and teachers cannot spend hours on the bus.”

Such unmet transportation needs will be hashed out at the Valley’s transit summit in relation to a proposed extension of the Measure R tax, as well as a tandem tax proposal known as Measure R2.

If both half-cent sales taxes make the November 2016 ballot, they could inject $121 billion for new people-moving projects across Los Angeles County for decades.

Given the green light, Measure R2 could generate $75 billion for transit fixes over the course of 40 years. A renewal of the Measure R tax, in addition, could add another $46 billion in transit dollars.

Half the combined $121 billion would be distributed to the region’s 88 cities for local transportation needs. The other half would be dealt out to nine subregions, including the Valley, based on a winnowed down list of rail and other transit priorities.

Approval of the 1-cent tax would signal the fourth sales tax since 1980 meant to help ease gridlock on L.A. County’s logjammed streets and freeways. A similar Measure J half-cent sales tax just failed to pass a required 67 percent majority in 2012.

Valley’s share

At issue for Valley elected officials and business leaders has been the unfair return on Metro rail lines in the Valley compared to money spent. Of its $52.4 billion in current Measure R budgeted projects, according to the transit agency, the Valley share was $2.5 billion, or 5 percent, while Valley residents make up 15 percent of the county’s population and an estimated 23 percent of its tax base.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a Valley Industry and Commerce Association lunch this month that support for Measure R/R2 was polling close to 65 percent, not enough to pass. A Metro poll of likely voters last March found that 70 percent would initially vote for it.

Last month, the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments, working with a VICA Valley on Track committee, submitted three major transportation proposals: a light rail system to replace a slow and crowded Orange Line busway; a light rail system up Van Nuys Boulevard along a so-called East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor, and a light rail tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass.

This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow Metro to place a 1-cent transit tax on the November 2016 ballot.

Coby King, chair of VICA, said each recommended project is either close to being undertaken under the current tax measure or the most likely to be favored under a new one.

“We would love to see a rail connection to CSUN,” King said. “(But) ultimately, a good transit connection to one of the most important job generators and economic institutions in the San Fernando Valley will require more study and time.”

Public transit popular

About half of faculty, staff and students — and nearly three-quarters of those who drive alone to campus — were willing to use public transit under the right circumstances, according to a CSUN Institute for Sustainability report. Among those who wouldn’t take a bus to school, half blamed an inefficient public transit system, with transit schedules that were often slow and somewhat unreliable.

For any comprehensive Valley transit plan to work, Hertzberg said, it must somehow meet the needs of 42,000 Cal State Northridge students, many of whom don’t have cars.

“CSUN has more classes that end after bus service — that’s not acceptable,” he said after a recent town hall meeting.

Whether or not Cal State Northridge gets a dedicated rail line, officials say that short-term progress is being made to better move its giant student population, of which an estimated 10,000 students live within a 5-mile radius, and another 20,000 live within a 10-mile circle.

Two years ago, the school built a transit station with funds from Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, allowing a Metro Rapid Bus line to roll right onto campus. A CSUN shuttle also makes round trips to a nearby Metrolink station.

But some nearby bus routes still don’t reach the campus, CSUN officials say. And a significant number of northeast San Fernando, Antelope and Santa Clarita valley students aren’t being served.

“We’re watching R2, and we’re at the table,” said Francesca M. Vega, director of CSUN government and community relations. “But we’re also working at what we can do right now. Numbers are everything. And we have to make the case for CSUN.”

Improvements eyed

To ferry even more students, staff and faculty to school, Metro and Los Angeles transportation officials are considering the following improvements:

• A Rapid bus connection to the Sylmar Metrolink station, bringing in students from the northeast Valley and beyond.

• A city DASH bus that would come on campus after circling around the Northridge Fashion Center mall, allowing students with erratic schedules to get to Metrolink.

• A Metrolink station moved close to Reseda Boulevard near the campus.

“We’ve been meeting regularly and working toward solutions, bringing some bus routes into the CSUN transit station,” said Councilman Mitch Englander, whose district includes CSUN and who sits on a campus transportation working group. “It’s the first-mile, last-mile theory, which will allow for direct access to campus and close the gap.”

Each day she attends classes, Jessica, an 18-year-old freshman majoring in liberal studies, must slog an hour and 30 minutes from her home in North Hollywood. The trip requires two buses and the Orange Line busway. She’d rather drive, but there’s no time in her schedule to work to pay for it.

“It’s difficult,” said Jessica, who declined to give her last name. “Because you don’t get enough sleep. And if you don’t get enough sleep, your energy is gone.

“I’d love to go straight from home, on one bus.”

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