For the second time in as many years, legislation to create a construction authority for a Westside light rail line has failed to gain the necessary support in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 1722 became a casualty of the ongoing budget crisis in Sacramento on May 31st after the Senate Appropriations Committee chose not to recommend it for passage. Senate Pro Tem Don Perata said that only the most urgent bills would be moved forward.

The fate of SB 1722 was forecasted by rail advocates when it was placed “on suspense” May 5th by the Senate Appropriations Committee. All bills that are deemed to cost at least $50,000 are held over for later consideration, sometimes until the state budget is passed.

The bill, which was sponsored by State Senator Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), whose district includes Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey and Venice, would have paved the way for the creation of a joint powers authority to oversee construction of the expansion of the light rail line to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Advocates of an extension of the current Metro Green Line, which travels from Norwalk to Redondo Beach with a stop near LAX, were dismayed to learn that the possibility for establishing such an entity had been tabled.

“I’m deeply disappointed in the profound indifference and poor planning on the part of the political leadership in Sacramento,” said Ken Alpern, a Mar Vista resident who is the co-chair of Friends of the Green Line, a grassroots light rail advocacy group.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who also backed the Green Line legislation, realized that the Legislature is wary of spending money on new endeavors like a joint powers authority, but expressed optimism that the bill could be resurrected at some point again next year.

“This year, we have the largest deficit in the state’s history,” he pointed out. “But I’m convinced that we’ll be able to fine-tune a bill that will garner the support that we need in the very near future.”

Oropeza has also not given up on seeing a light rail extension to the airport, according to Ray Sotero, the senator’s communications director.

“Sen. Oropeza has not decided on what strategy to pursue in 2009 regarding a light rail bill,” said Sotero.

Last year, Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who represents Westchester, sponsored a similar bill, Assembly Bill 889, that suffered the same fate at the Senate committee level after sailing through various Assembly committees. It too became a victim of a budget crisis that extended into September, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers were locked in a partisan battle over how to close the budget gap. Like SB 1722, AB 889 died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Proponents of the light rail extension to the airport were encouraged when Fourth District Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Marina del Rey, submitted a motion in April to the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors requesting that the board change its earlier opposition to the creation of a joint powers authority for the Green Line extension. The motion was adopted despite the fact that county transit authorities had lobbied against the bill in Sacramento.

Although the proposed legislation had the backing of most local legislators, including Congresswoman Jane Harman (D- Venice), Metro officials had previously stated on numerous occasions that while stretching the rail line to LAX was under consideration, there are other projects that have a higher priority, such as the Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Line, which is slated to run from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

“The Green Line is a part of our strategic long-range plan, but currently there is no funding for a Green Line,” Michael Turner of Metro’s government relations department told The Argonaut. “Due to budget shortfalls on the state and federal levels, we are severely limited in our ability to fund new projects.”

Like Alpern, Bart Reed, the executive director of The Transit Coalition, a nonprofit organization that is heavily involved in promoting responsible light rail projects, was disheartened that state legislators look to transportation when they are forced to make cuts in the budget.

“(Transportation) is the last of the low-hanging fruit,” Reed asserted. “It’s disturbing that every year they take money away from transportation.”

Last year, in an effort to reduce the state deficit, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature took $1.3 billion in gasoline tax revenue that had been appropriated for transit-related projects. This year, nearly $800 million in gas tax funds will likely be used, again depriving counties and cities from beginning new rail projects that many lawmakers feel are crucial to reducing gridlock around Southern California.

“Ted Lieu and Jenny Oropeza really fought hard for this bill, as did Bill Rosendahl,” said Alpern. Like Rosendahl, he is hopeful that an extension to LAX will get more support in Sacramento next year.

“Next year, I hope that the politicians in Sacramento can get this no-brainer of a project through (the Legislature), and transportation will no longer be the big piggy bank that everyone wants to crack open when there’s an emergency,” Alpern said.

AB 1722’s supporters are counting on acquiring federal funding to help offset the costs of the extension, either from the revenue raised from bonds for the modernization of LAX or from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Any financial participation would be subject to (FAA) review and approval,” said Nancy Castles, public relations director at LAX.

“For me, it’s a matter of timing,” said Rosendahl, whose council district includes Westchester. “With the planned modernization of the airport on the way, the time is now to get an extension of the Green Line to the airport.

“My job is going to be to convince the Metro board that this bill is the best way to plug in to LAX,” Rosendahl continued. “From a strategic and architectural standpoint, the time to act is now.”

Airport officials have indicated that they could back an expansion to LAX.

“As proposed by SB 1722, Los Angeles World Airports is willing to cooperate with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other governmental agencies to explore the possible extension of the Metro Green Line,” Castles stated.

Advocates of the Green Line extension are hoping that a change in the Senate and the Assembly leaderships could play a large role in having their project greenlighted next year.

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