Light-Rail Lines Violate Transit Law, Ward Claims

Times Staff Writer

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Baxter Ward, campaigning to regain his old post, accused county transportation officials Wednesday of violating a voter-approved law by building light-rail systems like the one proposed for the San Fernando Valley.

Ward, who provided a key vote to place Proposition A on the ballot in 1980, cited a section of the referendum's language that he insists requires a countywide heavy-rail system like the Metro Rail subway under construction in downtown Los Angeles.

With little discussion, the 11-member county Transportation Commission rejected Ward's argument, citing a 1981 legal opinion as the basis for continuing construction of the Los Angeles-Long Beach and Century Freeway light-rail lines.

Ward, a former longtime television broadcaster who lives in Tarzana, said in an interview that he plans to file a lawsuit soon to halt work on the two light-rail systems and to prevent further consideration of a Valley trolley.

1 Point on Target?

Several commissioners privately conceded that one point raised by the former supervisor--one of nine candidates running to unseat Supervisor Mike Antonovich in the June 7 primary--might be on target.

Ward noted that Proposition A, approved by 54% of the voters, raised the sales tax by half a cent and directed the county Transportation Commission to use the money to construct rail systems on an "exclusive right-of-way, or guideway. . . ."

The former supervisor said Wednesday that "exclusive means exclusive. There's no getting out from under it."

Light-rail systems sometimes use exclusive rights of way, but more often they travel on city streets at least part of the time.

Heavy-rail systems, which get their power through a third rail, can pose an extreme safety hazard to pedestrians. As a result, heavy-rail lines always use a restricted or exclusive right of way--either a tunnel, an elevated structure or a fenced area.

Southern California transit officials long have debated whether it is wiser to use available funds to build a countywide system with some heavy-rail lines and many light-rail lines or to build only heavy-rail lines in the most congested areas and avoid the lower-capacity, although cheaper, light-rail lines.

In the 1981 opinion cited Wednesday by commissioners, former County Counsel John H. Larson concluded that commissioners had wide latitude in determining the type of rail system to build.

The opinion, which did not directly address the referendum's use of the term "exclusive right-of-way," was based largely on the transcript of an Aug. 20, 1980, meeting at which the commission put the finishing touches on the referendum's language.

In the 1980 debate, Ward, then a supervisor, said: "I'm going to bow out if it is not heavy rail. . . ."

Despite that statement, which was quoted in the legal opinion, Larson concluded from the comments of other commissioners that "there was no clear commission consensus . . . as to what type of rail rapid transit system was to be offered the voters."

In addition to insisting that all trains must have exclusive right of way, Ward further argued on Wednesday that a light-rail system would violate Proposition A even if it were on a restricted right of way.

He said that a map given to voters as part of the official referendum materials showed the routes of the countywide system "but gave no indication or warning that some routes would get a first-class heavy-rail line and others would get a second-class light-rail system."

"Voters voted for a high-speed heavy-rail system like Metro Rail that interconnects throughout the county," Ward said, "and they are instead getting a hodgepodge."

Ward's threat of court action drew criticism from Antonovich's appointee on the commission, John La Follette, who asked in an interview: "If he thought this was illegal, why has he waited eight years to come forward?

"It has to be a political ploy for him to sound off at this time," La Follette said.

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