Saturday, August 16, 2008

STATE ORDERS TALKS ON SOUTH L.A. RAIL: As foes of street-level crossing charge environmental racism, Public Utilities Commission intervenes in Expo Line controversy.

By BETTY PLEASANT, Contributing Editor LA Wave Newspapers

Aug 15, 2008 - LOS ANGELES — Community and school board forces fighting against what they call “environmental racism” scored a major victory Monday when the state Public Utilities Commission rejected plans for a street-level “holding pen” crossing of the proposed MTA Expo Light Rail Line and ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority into mediation over the type of crossing the commission could approve.

The scheduled two-day PUC hearing into the controversy surrounding the type of street crossings MTA proposes to construct on the South Los Angeles portion of the Expo Line came to an abrupt end Monday when Judge Kenneth Koss issued his ruling and ordered all parties into mediation on Tuesday.

Even though the MTA had steadfastly insisted for two years that street-level crossings along the 4.5-mile South L.A. stretch of the Expo Line would be safe, Koss took issue with that assertion with respect to the Farmdale Avenue crossing near Dorsey High School and ordered all parties to meet and devise a method of crossing the busy rail line that would not be at street level.

Having rejected the “holding pen” street-level crossing at Farmdale, Koss left only three options open for consideration: An underground crossing, such as what the MTA plans for USC; an overpass crossing, as slated for Culver City, or a street closure with a pedestrian bridge.

The MTA responded to community concerns about the danger to Dorsey students crossing the line at Farmdale by creating what the agency initially called a “holding pen,” into which students were supposed to be channeled where they were to wait for up to 80 seconds for a train to pass by every two to two-and-a-half minutes.

“Obviously we found the ‘holding pen’ completely offensive to our community,” said Damien Goodmon, chair of the Fix the Expo Campaign. “To suggest our kids could be herded into a pen like cattle or inmates is beyond explanation. We don’t understand how this ever got off the drawing board.”

An administrative law judge conducted a five-hour mediation session in the PUC’s downtown office Tuesday, that pitted Goodmon and two Fix Expo Campaign attorneys, representatives of the Neighbors for Smart Rail, four Los Angeles Unified School District attorneys and one LAUSD engineer against Rick Thorpe, the CEO of the MTA’s Expo Line Construction Authority, Eric Olson, also of MTA and assorted representatives of the PUC.

“Our purpose was to see if a settlement could be reached, but I am not at liberty to discuss what was said or done during the mediation,” Goodmon said. “All the parties will take that information back to our respective boards.”

Goodmon declined to state whether further mediation sessions are scheduled.

“I will say this, however: We’re happy to see the PUC has taken MTA’s unconscionable ‘holding pen’ and street-level crossing at Dorsey off the table,” Goodmon said. “That was an historic tragedy waiting to happen. We obviously preferred of the three options underground crossing, but we will take back to the community the other two options, as well.”

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