Long On A Collison Course, Leon & Wapner Headed Toward Showdown Over Goldline To Ontario Airport

The long-running and thinly-veiled enmity between Ontario Mayor Paul Leon and Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner is in the process of bursting to the surface, prompted by the catalyst of the sharply intensifying differences between Los Angeles County transportation officials and San Bernardino County transportation officials over the most efficient means of moving travelers into and away from Ontario International Airport when they are on the ground.
For over a decade there had been a consensus, or seemingly so, that the Gold Line, a light rail commuter system that originates at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and which has so far been extended to Azusa and is on course to reach Pomona, offered the best eventual option for bypassing freeway gridlock and linking the communities in Los Angeles County with those in San Bernardino County.  Indeed, San Bernardino County’s transportation agency, once known by the acronym SANBAG for San Bernardino Associated Governments but now known by the more direct moniker of the San Benardino County Transportation Authority, was in lockstep with the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority Board in Los Angeles County over the plan to proceed with the progressive expansion of the light rail line across the Los Angeles County border between Claremont and Montclair and then all the way to Ontario Airport at least, and perhaps further east once that milestone was reached.
But with the rise of land prices for the project’s right-of-way as well as that of steel for the rails and other inflationary factors, San Bernardino County transportation officials, led by Ray Wolfe, the executive director of the San Bernardino County Transportation Rail Authority, have rethought that support and concluded that the cost of building the system on the eastern side of the Los Angeles County/San Benrdino County divide, entailing, just as in Los Angeles County, two rail lines, one east bound and one west bound, is prohibitively expensive. In September, Wolfe suggested that the authority “throw in the towel” on the Gold Line extension into San Bernardino County and instead utilize the existing rail line already used for passenger and freight trains to provide rail service from the county line to the airport. He asserted that alternative would cost far less and would be achievable on a way faster timeline, in the relatively near term, as much as a decade or even a decade-and a-half sooner than the Gold Line would reach Ontario Airport. Wolfe’s change of plan was adopted by a vote of the authority’s 11-member transit committee in October, with all eight of those members of that committee hailing from east of Ontario voting to kill the concept of the Gold Line reaching the airport, and support for the light rail line manifesting only among the three members of the committee from the cities of Chino Hills, Montclair and Ontario at the west end of the county.
Supporters of the Gold Line see the San Benrardino County Transportation Authority’s action as penny-wise and pound-foolish. They point out that the already existing commuting line using the traditional freight/passenger line running from Los Angeles County through San Bernardino County, the MetroLink system, suffers from multiple interrelated drawbacks which include relatively poor ridership growing out of its inconvenient schedule. While MetroLink features departures roughly every 30 to 35 minutes during peak traveling hours and every hour during portions of the day when there is lesser demand, the Gold Line runs with significantly greater frequency, with departures and arrivals every five to seven minutes during peak commuting hours and every 12 to 15 minutes during off-peak hours. The Gold Line features fares that are one-quarter to one-third the cost of riding MetroLink, which invites greater ridership as well. Advocates point out that the Gold Line cars are brimming with passengers because commuters have learned of the light rail system’s reliability and convenience, while commuters are shunning MetroLink, leaving its passenger compartments one third to two-thirds empty with every run. Gold Line supporters concede that the cost of completing the line to Ontario Airport is escalating, but they insist that is a reason to proceed at once, for doing so now will curtail the ever greater expense that moving ahead with the project will entail in the coming decades if officials don’t bite the bullet and do it now.
In January, Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-41st District), dismayed at what he perceives to be wrongheaded intransigence to regional cooperation intended to provide the foundation of what is to become the commuting methodology of the future, introduced Assembly Bill 2011, which would create the West San Bernardino County Rail Construction Authority, an entity to be dedicated to designing and building the six-mile span of track linking Montclair to Ontario Airport.
That temporarily gave Wolfe and the controlling majority of the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency pause, as they considered the prospect of the state moving in to commandeer control over the formulation of a part of local transportation policy, and there was some thought that the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency might relent and avail itself of funding the state might be willing to provide to push the Gold Line through to the airport. But after a period of consideration, the majority of the authority’s members hardened into a position of resistance, fueled by their resentment toward Holden, who represents a district in which only one-fifth of his constituents are in San Bernardino County as opposed to 80 percent residing in Los Angeles County, seeking to impose the will of Los Angeles County transportation officials on them. Last last month, State Senator Anthony J. Portantino, whose 25th District like Holden’s straddles both Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties,  introduced Senate Bill 1390, which also called for creating the Montclair-to-Ontario Airport Gold Line Construction Authority. Some perceived Portantino’s bill to be a refinement of Holden’s proposed legislation, one which would be more likely to achieve passage in the full legislature. The rail line extension authority Portantino proposes would have full autonomy over the effort, with the power to award and oversee all design and construction contracts for completion of the extension of the Metro Gold Line light rail project from the Montclair/Claremont border right up to Ontario International Airport.
For well over a decade, Mayor Leon and Councilman Wapner have had an intense dislike of each other. They eye each other warily, and have each found a way to politely and politicly deal with one another in public such as at council meetings, but in truth despise one another. The hostility between them has not been apparent, indeed has been masked by the consideration that the electoral cycle for the council position Wapner holds corresponds to that of mayor in Ontario. Consequently, every four years, both campaign making identical assertions that the City of Ontario has been in good hands over the last four years – tantamount to an endorsement of each other – and that the voters should stay the course and maintain the municipality’s incumbents in office. That, however, belies the actuality, which is that each wishes he did not have to deal with the other.
While there are a host of routine items with regard to the city’s operation which both Leon and Wapner uniformly support, they have differences over certain things. One has been the Gold Line. Leon has been a consistent advocate of the ultimate Gold Line extension to Ontario Airport, ever since the concept materialized more than a dozen years ago. Indeed, Leon is more enthusiastically outspoken about the Gold Line than the Gold Line’s Los Angeles County-based politicians and supporters. Leon earnestly considers the Gold Line to be a key feature in what will make Ontario International Airport achieve its potential by mid-century. Though Wapner ostensibly has been a Gold Line supporter and is a designee to the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority Board, true Gold Line extension supporters have detected for some time that Wapner is a lukewarm extension supporter at best, and was even perhaps a Trojan horse on the board, one who was secretly militating against the project extension. Los Angeles officials had noted that Wapner lacked passion with regard to the extension, and certainly had none of the enthusiasm that Leon evinced. There had long been a suspicion that elements within what was then San Bernardino Associated Governments and now the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency were looking for the maturation of circumstance to create an opportunity for San Bernardino County to defect from the rail line extension cooperative. That suspicion was vindicated when Wolfe made his “throw in the towel” remark in September, followed up by the authority’s transit committee vote in October. This week, at the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority Board meeting on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, Wapner’s true attitude with regard to the extension was thrown into stark relief.
It is widely assumed that the board members are each in favor of what the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority is chartered to do, which is to build the Gold Line and extend it as far as it is logically and practically apt to go. So at Wednesday’s meeting when the subject of the pending legislation to create the Montclair-to-Ontario Airport Gold Line Extension Authority came up, the grounds for the discussion were which version of the legislation – Holden’s Assembly Bill 2011 or Portantino’s Senate Bill 1390 – offered the best route for achieving everyone’s shared goal. There was no suggestion afoot, or so everyone assumed, that the goal both of those pieces of legislation shared was not worth pursuing. As it would turn out, however, Wapner was not on the same page as everyone else in the room. Portantino’s bill would require the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency to transfer all the money it had earlier committed or obtained for the project to the new agency including a percentage of the future money it is to receive through Measure I sales tax proceeds. Measure I is a half-cent sales tax override to pay for transportation improvments first approved by San Bernardino County’s voters in 1989. Portantino’s bill would further transfer any property the authority has accumulated toward right-of-way for the line extension to the new agency. That, Wapner suggested, was an usurpation of the San Bernardino Transportation Authority’s autonomy, and a blow to San Bernardino County’s right to self determination. He said he was strongly opposed to Portantino’s bill. Previously, to assist in funding the extension, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority had obtained a $41 million State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant. Wolfe had suggested that the authority simply relinquish that grant when he recommended that the extension of the Gold Line to the airport not be pursued. Wapner said that pursuing the Gold Line extension was simply too expensive, even if money such as the State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant or federal funding subsidies could be obtained. The price tag of the extension from Montclair to the Ontario International Airport would run to at least $1 billion, Wapner said, and perhaps as much as $1.5 billion, which by all reckoning is beyond San Bernardino County’s means. Pursuing the project would tie up funds that were needed for projects elsewhere in San Bernardino County, the Ontario Councilman said.
“From a policy perspective, it will cause the bankruptcy of SBCTA [the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency]. We just don’t have that kind of money,” Wapner said.
Though Wapner is provided a position on the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority Board, his is a non-voting position. Leon, however, has voting rights and a full board position. By his remarks, the Ontario mayor made clear he is at a 180-degree variance from Wapner. He was less than charitable in assessing the intellectual integrity of Wapner’s opposition to the extension. “This is a no-brainer,” Leon said of the decision to push the Gold Line all the way to the airport. He said he has had enough shilly-shallying around by obstructionists such as Wapner.
“I’m tired of talking,” Leon said. “Let’s just get it done. I say we get it down now.”
Leon and Wapner yet have to live with one another back in Ontario. With Wapner having demonstrated his true colors when it comes to the Gold Line extension and Leon having thrown down the gauntlet, it will be interesting to see if Ontario is a big enough town for the both of them.
-Mark Gutglueck

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