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Cost of building Expo line rises 23%

Times Staff Writers

Transit officials said Thursday that they will need an additional $145 million to build the Exposition light rail line from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City, once again underscoring the huge financial stakes involved in constructing a rail system to the Westside.

Rapid increases in construction costs have ballooned the project’s original $640-million budget to $785 million, officials said, and threaten to shorten the line before it reaches Culver City. The project broke ground in August.

Faced with the nearly 23% increase in costs, members of the Exposition Construction Authority voted Thursday to ask the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to provide the extra money. The MTA will operate the rail system.

Despite evidence that construction costs were rising in recent years, project officials seriously underestimated the rate of inflation for labor and materials when they developed the Expo Line’s budget in 2005.

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In a written report, Richard Thorpe, chief executive of the Expo authority and the MTA’s top construction official, said the budget assumed that the price of labor and construction materials would increase 3.5% annually. But construction costs actually rose an average of more than 11% a year, Thorpe said.

Based on recently negotiated contracts, he wrote that the 8.6-mile first stage of the line “cannot be completed as originally planned” without the additional funding from the MTA. Without it, Thorpe said, the line will end short of Culver City, probably at the La Cienega station.

Before discussion of the cost overruns, Santa Monica Councilwoman Pam O’Connor, who chairs the MTA board, abruptly left the Expo board meeting. As she raced to her car outside the county Hall of Administration, O’Connor said she had a prior engagement out of town and had to get to the airport.

Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry, who chairs the construction authority, left right after the overrun discussion and said she had to get to another event.

In an interview later she said that all members of the Expo board had been briefed on the budget problems and were aware that the project faced a substantial deficit.

“We knew,” she said

After the meeting, Thorpe defended the projections used to develop the $640-million budget, saying no one could have foreseen such a rapid rise in construction costs.

His comments echoed those of MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble, who said the cost of steel, concrete and other materials has increased dramatically in recent years.

If the MTA provides the additional money to the Expo Line, Snoble acknowledged, it will come at the expense of future rail projects the agency is considering. The MTA board could take up the issue at its meeting late this month.

The public disclosure of the cost increases comes at a critical time for the Expo project. The construction authority cannot lay tracks across intersections along the route without approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC has scheduled back-to-back hearings next week on whether the design of the line is safe, particularly where it would pass Dorsey High School.

Community activists say the trains cannot be operated safely at street level through the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Farmdale Avenue, where students would have to cross the tracks. Expo authority officials have insisted at community meetings and in legal papers filed with the PUC that running the trains by the school at street level is safe. They are expected to defend that position at a PUC hearing Tuesday in Culver City.

Bowing to mounting community concern, the Expo board voted Thursday to ask Thorpe to come back next month with an analysis of the cost of building a pedestrian crossing over the tracks, constructing a pedestrian tunnel under them or elevating them as they pass Dorsey. The new price tag does not include the cost of any of those options. Current plans call for the line to begin rising just west of Dorsey to reach an elevated station at La Brea Avenue.

Opponents of the present design for the Farmdale/Exposition intersection got a boost Thursday when Los Angeles school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte introduced a motion opposing “any at-grade design of the Expo Light Rail Line along streets in close proximity to school sites.”

The school district’s safety committee took no stand on the motion, which is expected to go before the full board at its next meeting, Nov. 13.

Although the epicenter of the dispute is the crossing near Dorsey, the line would also pass within 100 feet of four other schools.

Until recent weeks, the Expo authority assumed L.A. Unified would go along with its plans. For the most part, mid-level school safety managers had presumed that street-level train crossings were inevitable. They had focused instead on working out smaller measures to enhance safety.

LaMotte said she wasn’t aware of the potential risk until she attended a public meeting last month at Dorsey.

She reassured Expo Line critics Thursday: “I can talk pretty strongly and pretty loudly and you have my support. And I don’t intend to back off.”

jeffrey.rabin@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com


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