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Metro, responding to critics, puts $104-million Northridge track build on hold

A $104-million proposal to add a second track to a key railroad line through Northridge has been stalled since summer because of opposition from nearby residents who fear the new rails will pass dangerously close to homes.

Reacting to concerns from a coalition of neighborhood groups called Citizens Against the Double Track, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority stopped work on the project in late August to reevaluate the proposal and address the public's criticism. The process is still underway, and further meetings are set for December and January.

"We're very pleased they halted the project," said Michael Rissi, co-chair of the coalition's steering committee. "Our ultimate goal is to have Metro take a very close look at this. If they do a full environmental impact report, they will find many negative things about the project — so many we think they should not proceed."

Plans call for the addition of a second track along 6.4 miles of railroad right-of-way from Woodley Avenue east of Van Nuys Airport to De Soto Avenue just north of Nordhoff Street in Chatsworth.

The route is used by Union Pacific freight trains, Amtrak and the Ventura County Line of the Metrolink commuter railroad. Union Pacific owns 60% of the right of way in the project area, and 40% belongs to Metro.

The work includes replacing and realigning the existing track as well as improvements to both the Northridge Metrolink station and nine railroad crossings.

Metro officials say the project will improve safety, reduce air pollution and speed the movement of freight and passengers by reducing the need to hold trains at one end to let another train pass on the single track.

The area along the rail line is largely industrial and commercial, except for roughly 1.5 miles of right of way that passes residential areas containing an estimated 700 homes. About 130 homes are immediately adjacent to the tracks.

Local residents — including 1,000 people who signed a petition against the project — say they are concerned about vibration, noise, potential derailments and shipments of hazardous cargo they contend might come within 10 feet of property lines.

"There have been three serious Metrolink accidents on this line — Burbank, Glendale and Chatsworth," said Rich Guardino who lives next to the tracks on White Oak Avenue with his wife, Briana, and their three children.

The couple's bedroom is about 60 feet from the right-of-way. The Guardinos fear that the project could bring the tracks within 30 feet, increasing the risk that their home could be hit if a train derailed nearby.

The couple and other critics say Metro's evaluation of the safety risks and other potential effects have been woefully inadequate and should be redone. They further claim that an environmental impact report is needed and that the authority mistakenly asserted early in the project that communities along the right of way backed the project.

When Metro sought a federal exemption in 2013 from doing an environmental impact report, it stated in public documents that "not one objection was raised at any of the meetings and that the public asked how they can contribute and support the project."

In June, attorney Clifford R. Weber, who was representing a property owner, wrote to Metro, Union Pacific and the California Department of Transportation's Rail Division, challenging the assertion. He said the community meetings were poorly publicized, and homeowners were not permitted to voice objections.

"The process was a sham, simply done to satisfy the requirements of the Federal Railroad Administration with no intent to truly address homeowner objections or concerns," Weber wrote.

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The outcry prompted Phillip A. Washington, Metro's new chief executive, to notify the Sherwood Forest Homeowners Assn., a coalition member, on Aug. 24 that the authority would reevaluate the proposal and reengage the community.

Washington noted that public outreach at the time was limited to local elected officials and neighborhood councils, clearly not enough. Finally, he apologized for any miscommunication regarding the project.

A day after Washington sent the notification, project officials met with residents, homeowners and community groups at Lorne Street Elementary School in Northridge. Those in attendance submitted more than 100 questions, which Metro has been answering.

The residents "do have a good reason to be angry," said Paul Gonzales, a Metro spokesman. "That is why Phillip Washington put the project on hold. We have to start again from scratch, and that is what we are doing. "

Though the project would move tracks closer to homes, Gonzales denied that they would come within 10 feet of property lines.

The opposition's concerns are shared by county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Assemblyman Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) and Councilman Mitchell Englander, whose district includes the rail line.

At a minimum, they want to see a full and transparent evaluation of the potential noise, vibration and safety effects before a final decision is made to proceed.

Englander said, however, that he would be against the second track unless Metro can alleviate all the residents' concerns. "There's no tremendous need for this project. It will only fill a small gap in the system," he added. "The adverse impacts seem to outweigh the benefits."

Englander said many people were not made aware of the project when it first got underway and that Metro did not communicate very well with local residents. "Now they are playing catch up, and there is still not a tremendous amount of outreach."

Sherman said Metro and Metrolink were considering a proposal that would accomplish the project's goals without double tracking the right of way through the residential areas.

"I am hopeful that their efforts to find a solution to the concerns of the affected community prove successful," Sherman said.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 28, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Rail project is halted - Metro puts on hold a plan to add a second track on a Northridge line amid residents' safety concerns." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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