Brian Taylor, our esteemed professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and transportation finance expert, and John Gahbauer, our favorite transit geek and UCLA colleague, along with Eugene Kim, co-authored a paper on the history of transportation planning in the Wilshire Corridor in Los Angeles. This is a review of their paper, which appears in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (requires subscription or library access). I believe you can also visit the Metro Library to view a copy.
Taylor begins by discussing the tendency of politicians to pursue large capital projects in favor of incremental operational improvements. The "monument" or "ribbon-cutting" effects of new capital projects have proven very attractive to politicians. It's difficult to hold a photo-op in front of increased bus frequency, but much easier in front of a subway station:
Most transit capital projects are subjected to cost-benefit analysis, but costs are often underestimated and benefits are almost universally overestimated.
These generalizations are present to varying degrees in the history of the Wilshire Subway. Planning on what will eventually become the Wilshire Subway began in the 1970s, but encountered many hurdles along the way. A giant hurdle was the 1980s prohibition of the use of federal funds to tunnel under Henry Waxman's district in Beverly Hills, which came after a methane deposit under a Ross store exploded and burned for several days. Out of the political negotiations surrounding this ban came the present day Purple line stub at Wilshire & Western. In order to circumvent this ban, planners proposed less cost-effective routes. Taylor shows how these alternate routes, which were never seriously studied, were inferior to the proposed Wilshire route.
Proposed Southern route
Taylor argues that the Wilshire Route, along the "linear downtown," is one of the most transit-friendly corridors in the West. With over 100,000 bus riders per day, traffic congestion, expensive parking, high residential density, high peak hour volumes, Wilshire Boulevard is likely the most cost-effective subway corridor in Southern California. There are 7x more workers on the Wilshire foute than the southern alternative along San Vicente & Pico. Later on, Taylor points out that just 3 of nearly a dozen lines which travel on Wilshire (18, 20, and 720) have a combined ridership of 90,033 per day, 1/3 more than the Gold, Green, and Orange lines combined (66,871 per day).
In 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was elected. A strong proponent of the subway, he negotiated with Waxman to lift the ban on tunneling, and took implicit responsibility for any incidents that may arise from tunneling under Wilshire. Villaraigosa and other politicians pushed for Measure R, the voter approved 1/2 cent sales tax which will provide the funding for the first two segments of the subway. Federal loans and grants could build more subway quicker.
The proposed 2009 route isn't much different from the 1979 route.
Taylor, Gahbauer, and Kim offer a great overview of the history of the Wilshire Subway in Los Angeles. I learned a lot about the political tumult in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the power of one man, Waxman, to impact the urban form of a city for so many years.
Side Note: Monorails have been proposed along Wilshire for well over 100 years. They've never been taken seriously, as aerial structures would severely disrupt the nature of the neighborhood.