Next week the PUC plans to consider whether Expo Line planners have taken adequate steps to protect students at two campuses along the route.
By Steve Hymon | From the Los Angeles Times
November 28, 2008 - A state authority is set to decide next week whether transportation planners have done enough to make the Expo Line safe as it passes two South Los Angeles schools.
Some residents and school officials want the rail line to either be put underground or on a bridge near one or both schools.
Builders of the $862-million line say that would unnecessarily drive up costs and probably delay a transit system that could open by 2010 and provide an alternative to the Westside's traffic congestion.
The rail line follows a long-dormant right-of-way along Exposition Boulevard and will eventually connect downtown Los Angeles, USC, South Los Angeles, Culver City -- and one day Santa Monica.
But the tracks are slated to run next to the Foshay Learning Center and Dorsey High School.
The Exposition Line Construction Authority, the agency created to build the project, wants to set up rail crossings at street level outside the schools. Community activists and the Los Angeles Unified School District contend that children will be at risk of being run over or killed if the street level crossings are allowed.
On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to take up the matter. The five-member commission has two decisions to make: whether to allow the tracks to cross Farmdale Avenue outside Dorsey and whether to allow the tracks to cross atop an existing pedestrian tunnel next to Foshay.
Last month, a commission-appointed judge suggested an alternative. Judge Kenneth L. Koss recommended that pedestrian bridges be built over the tracks next to both schools and that Farmdale Avenue be closed to vehicle traffic at the tracks. The commission now has the final say.
All sides have expressed concern with the pedestrian bridges, saying that it's not wise to put that many students in such a small space. Transit officials still want to build the street-level rail crossings -- contending that they're safe.
"They're going to end up with a project that hits people," said Damien Goodmon, who is leading the community effort on behalf of the Fix Expo Campaign.
Goodmon said that building trains at street level is not only dangerous, but also ties up traffic and forces officials to run trains so slowly that people won't want to take them.
Many proponents of the train say Goodmon and others have exaggerated the street-crossing dangers and created a "folklore" in South Los Angeles about the Expo Line.
"They're saying we're going to build something that kills kids," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a member of the construction authority's board. "It's not something in the realm of possibility. They don't have the substance to carry their own arguments."
Expo Line officials say they will take pains to make the train safe. Construction authority chief Rick Thorpe said the agency would slow trains from 55 mph to 10 mph outside Dorsey immediately before and after school hours and also post security guards on both sides of the crossing gates to keep students from ducking under and dashing across the tracks before trains pass.
That's not enough, say safety consultants for the school district and residents. The problem, in short: Children will be children.
"Kids' risk perception at different age brackets is different than adults'," said Najmedin Meshkati, a USC professor of civil engineering who studies causes of transportation accidents. "They are more prone to risk."
School officials put it this way in a legal brief to the Public Utilities Commission: "Under crowded conditions, as would be expected at the at-grade crossing, students frequently misbehave, pushing other students and inciting fights."
School officials and advocates point to the fact that the Expo Line already plans to have four major bridges and a tunnel separating the tracks from streets along its route. The area near Dorsey and Foshay -- made up predominantly of Latinos and African Americans -- deserves the same safety features that are being built in other parts of South Los Angeles and in Culver City, they say.
Over the last two years the cost for the Expo Line has risen from $640 million to $862 million. Goodmon and school officials say that the line has been able to cope with rising costs, proving that more money can be found when needed.
Thorpe said that bridges and the tunnel were built to mitigate traffic concerns on the largest streets along the Expo Line route. Environmental study of the pedestrian bridges, rail bridges or tunnels and rerouting traffic off Farmdale could mean that the rest of the line would sit completed while a year or more is spent replanning the sections of track near the schools.
Light rail lines that run at street level have become increasingly popular in the United States because they are cheaper to build than subways. Trains operating down the middle of streets are found in parts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver and Portland.
Although most operate without incident, light rail lines in the United States killed 60 people in collisions between 2002 and 2006, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
Critics of the Expo Line plan also say safety problems along the Blue Line light rail between Los Angeles and Long Beach suggest they have reason to be concerned about street-grade trains.
The Blue Line has killed 26 people in vehicles and 65 pedestrians since opening in 1990, and there have been more pedestrian deaths in the last five years than in the Blue Line's first five years. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say that 20 of the pedestrian deaths were suicides.
MTA officials say that safety features have been added over the years, and they're working to install more equipment to keep people off the tracks. They also say that only one pedestrian death has occurred on the Gold Line, which was built to higher safety standards than the Blue Line, since its 2003 debut. They say that death was a suicide.
"If everybody listens to what we tell them to do, you won't have one fatality anywhere," said Abdul Zohbi, the system safety manager for the MTA. "Any system is as safe as users make it."
No matter how the PUC rules, legal action may follow. Even the planned second phase of the Expo Line, from Culver City to Santa Monica, has generated controversy.
A Westside group called Neighbors for Smart Rail has helped South Los Angeles residents with the Dorsey and Foshay issues.
The goal, members say, is to set a precedent should the second phase of the Expo Line be routed on an existing rail right-of-way near the Westside Pavilion.
If so, they want the train to go over or under busy streets for traffic and safety reasons. Another group, Light Rail for Cheviot, suggests that the other group doesn't want the train going through its neighborhood and is trying to drive up the costs.
Officials suggest that the real problem with the Expo Line is unrealistic expectations.
"Transportation is always a complex and difficult thing to do, and money always comes in fits and starts," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, a member of the Construction Authority Board. "It's easy to talk about the perfect approach. But that will not happen."