1st of two Eastside rail tunnels is finished

Times Staff Writer

A giant boring machine, nicknamed Lola, pushed through the dirt beneath Boyle Heights on Thursday, marking the completion of a subway tunnel that will eventually connect downtown to East Los Angeles.

"This is a huge breakthrough, literally and figuratively, for this community," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who grew up near the Boyle Heights construction site at 1st and Lorena streets.

The twin 1.7-mile tunnels are part of the $900-million Eastside extension of the Gold Line light-rail route through the Little Tokyo/Arts District, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, ending at Atlantic and Pomona boulevards.

A second tunnel -- being excavated by a similar boring machine, dubbed Vicki -- still has about 1,000 feet to go before being completed within the next few weeks.

"We are moving forward," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who chairs the MTA board, pledging "to connect all of these communities by public transportation."

The six-mile extension will have eight stops, including two underground in Boyle Heights, and is slated to open in late 2009.

The trip from East Los Angeles to Union Station will take 17 minutes.

When the extension is completed, passengers will be able to travel from East Los Angeles to Pasadena without changing trains.

Plans are being discussed to eventually extend the rail line through the San Gabriel Valley to Ontario International Airport.

The Eastside tunnels were built about 60 feet below ground because the streets are too narrow for the light-rail trains.

The boring machines, which weigh more than 2 million pounds each and are 344 feet long and 22 feet in diameter, excavate, then line the tunnel with 1-foot-thick pre-cast concrete walls.

On average, the machines dig 50 feet of tunnel a day. In all, enough dirt has been removed to fill a football field 15 stories high.

The same tunneling technology was used on the Red Line subway and is proposed for connecting the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena with the Long Beach Freeway in Alhambra.

Boyle Heights resident Art Herrera has been working to get a commuter train through East Los Angeles since 1992, when plans to build a subway there were derailed.

Herrera, 70, envisions a light-rail system that not only eases the commute for area residents but also creates a bustling retail center, like the one in Hollywood, that attracts new visitors.

"It's going to bring a new dimension to the community," he said.

jean.guccione@latimes.com

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