Growing Pains Along the Gold Line

Times Staff Writer

Construction is pushing ahead on the eastern extension of the Metro Gold Line, bringing months -- if not years -- of traffic snarls on the Eastside including the closure this weekend of the 101 Freeway though a portion of downtown Los Angeles.

Southbound lanes of the freeway will be affected throughout the weekend, and shut completely Sunday morning, as workers build a 1,500-foot bridge for the rail line above traffic. Some of the fire-red pilings to support the bridge are already being constructed near Union Station.

The $900-million rail extension will connect Union Station with Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles on a six-mile route that includes stops in Little Tokyo and Mariachi Plaza. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects the light rail line to open in 2009 and attract about 23,000 riders a day.

While many Eastside residents are excited about the prospect of the Metro Rail coming to their community, there has also been some grumbling from merchants about lost business as 1st Street, a main drag in Boyle Heights, is torn up.

When Rolando Quintero, 24, looks out from House of Trophies & Awards onto 1st Street, he sees a high gold-colored wall sheltering cranes and other machines, clouds of dust rolling into the store, and what used to be parking spaces by the curb that have been turned into another lane of traffic.

Since construction began, the store has lost about a third of its customers.

"Once it's built, we'll hopefully have more business," Quintero said. "That's a while away, but we have to bear with it."

The Gold Line has been two decades in the works, but signs that the light rail is finally making its way to East Los Angeles are popping up along the Eastside. A portion of the line from Boyle Avenue to Lorena Street will run underground.

"Construction is going pretty good, very smooth so far," said MTA spokesman Jose Ubaldo. "I don't want to jinx it."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has been working on the project for 15 years, said that when she sees the pilings by the Hollywood Freeway and the construction work on 1st Street, she thinks, "Finally, we're starting."

Molina said she hopes the line will help the lives of residents in the working-class, largely Latino neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, where many rely on public transportation.

"It's been a difficult birth," she said. "At the end of the day, we have some of the most transit-dependent people where the Gold Line goes. It's going to be an unbelievable amount of relief."

The next major phase involves boring side-by-side tunnels eastward along 1st Street from Boyle Avenue to Lorena Street.

At Mariachi Plaza, where Quintero's store is located, major work got underway in March, when crews began digging a huge hole to create the underground train station and provide a platform for the tunneling machines.

On Thursday, a constant, low rumble, punctuated by the beeping of trucks moving in reverse, filled the air. Orange cones blocked off some lanes. Restricted parking signs were taped to poles.

Behind the plaza, workers were collecting the parts for the huge tunneling machines, which arrived on-site in large, white cylinders. A 100-foot crane was lowering steel rebar into the hole to reinforce the concrete. Surveyors also set up inclinometers to monitor ground settlement around the excavation.

Rail construction has caused headaches for merchants in other parts of Los Angeles in the '90s. Along Wilshire Boulevard, some businesses didn't survive subway construction through the mid-Wilshire area. Subway work on Hollywood Boulevard was also disruptive, even damaging part of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The MTA said it has done its best to try to be sensitive to the needs of the businesses and residents of the area by listening to comments from the Community Review Advisory Committee, adding angled parking spaces along Pennsylvania Avenue to compensate for the loss of parking along 1st Street, and setting up sandwich boards to remind drivers that the hair salons, restaurants and other businesses are still open.

But these actions didn't make Jose Morfin, 43, feel any better.

On Thursday morning, he held out his arms to talk about the size of cracks in the Boyle Hotel, where he lives, across the street from the Mariachi Plaza.

"This construction is a lot of noise," he said. "I have a family and my kids can't go to sleep at night."

He said that after the MTA dug the cavern under 1st Street, he could feel his building shake every time a heavy truck rolled by.

Morfin said he doesn't plan to use the Gold Line. "I got a car," he said.

Juana Argueta, 36, was angry because her Honda Civic, she said, broke an axle Wednesday on one of the metal plates that are part of the construction on 1st Street.

Argueta, who just moved from Boyle Heights to the northern edge of Chinatown, drives back to the area about once a week to see her mother. She visits more often by bus to drop her 10-year-old son off at Second Street Elementary School.

Although she was frustrated by the construction, Argueta said she could see herself using the Gold Line to explore Los Angeles and especially to visit the bustling market at 1st and Lorena streets.

"I could go to my mom's house then go to the Mercadito," she said. "They have cream cheese and masa and red beans from El Salvador, which taste way different" from American varieties.

Magdalena Garcia, 31, doesn't have any hesitation about supporting the project. The South Pasadena resident was eating potatoes and eggs with her husband at the Homegirl Cafe on 1st Street. They drive to Boyle Heights about once a month to eat at restaurants.

"Actually, we do need better transportation," she said. "We're tired of driving."

Garcia and her husband said they would probably come down to Boyle Heights every weekend if they could ride there in the comfort of a train.

Quintero, the trophy store employee, said he is annoyed by the noise, the trucks parked in the street with their hazard lights on, the construction workers holding up traffic with stop signs. The construction has forced him to improvise detours around 1st Street when he drives to work from his home in El Sereno.

But Quintero could see using the new Gold Line if gas prices keep going up. He said the train could give him a chance to explore downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and Pasadena.

He is optimistic the rail line will inspire the same among people who don't frequent Boyle Heights.

"Maybe this will make more people willing to come down and look around," he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Gold Line construction

Construction on the new Gold Line Eastside extension will close some lanes and ramps on the southbound 101 Freeway in downtown during certain hours this weekend and Monday.

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Closures

- Southbound 101 between 110 Freeway and Mission Road: up to three lanes closed until 1 a.m. Sunday; all lanes closed 1-8 a.m. Sunday; up to three lanes closed 8 a.m. Sunday through 6 a.m. Monday.

- Southbound offramps at Broadway and Alameda Street and southbound onramps at Temple, Vignes and Los Angeles streets: closed until 5 a.m. Monday.

- North- and southbound connectors from 110 to southbound 101 closed until 6 a.m. Monday.

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Sources: Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Caltrans

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