Dorsey High School is the focal point of an increasingly heated fight between transit officials determined to build a light-rail line from downtown Los Angeles to the Westside, and Crenshaw District residents who fear that fast-moving trains will threaten the safety of students crossing the tracks.
The first leg of the rail line, scheduled to open in 2010, will run near the 2,000-student high school where at 3:08 p.m. most weekdays, chaos reigns.
After school, hundreds of students flood across the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Farmdale Avenue, walking home or awaiting pickup. Ice cream trucks beckon. Cars wait six-deep in all directions, sometimes blocking traffic when they pull up to and away from the curb. Students walk or run past the scene or loiter under the mature pepper trees in the boulevard’s grassy median -- an old railroad right-of-way that soon will become the path for trains carrying commuters between downtown L.A. and Culver City.
Critics insist that running trains at 35 mph across the intersection is unsafe. To avoid potential collisions between trains, students and motorists, they want the tracks built above or below ground, but not at street level. To do anything less, in their view, is environmental racism.
“This project is unfair to this community and the students who live here,” said Beverly Manuel, Dorsey’s dean of students, as she helped police the mass exodus Thursday. “If this were anyplace else, changing this design would not be an issue.”
Opponents of the design note that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board last month approved spending an extra $23.3 million to add a station at USC/Exposition Park and to pay for safety improvements at several points along the Expo Line route.
But transit officials say they only have the money to pay for a street-level crossing at Dorsey. To elevate the rail line across the intersection would cost at least an extra $25 million, further straining the Expo Line project’s $663.3-million budget.
Richard Thorpe, chief executive of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, said the intersection will be much safer than it is now with the installation of traffic lights, wider sidewalks, warning lights, bells and barriers to prevent people and cars from crossing the twin tracks when a train is approaching.
Thorpe points to an excellent safety record on MTA’s Gold Line, which runs near schools between downtown L.A. and Pasadena.
The bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District, belatedly, is joining the public debate. After several years of restrained analyses, district officials have been stirred to action by community activists who have appealed to school administrators, visited school board members and taken over a local neighborhood council.
The construction authority cannot lay tracks across intersections along the rail line without the approval of the state Public Utilities Commission, which has jurisdiction over safety at railroad crossings.
After touring the route and reviewing the record, Timothy Alan Simon, a commissioner on the public utilities board, last week rejected community protests and gave preliminary approval for running trains across nine intersections along Exposition Boulevard. The lone exception was the Dorsey crossing.
Simon, a San Francisco attorney and former appointments secretary to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he wanted to hear the Crenshaw community’s concerns.
“The speed of the trains through the crossing is a safety issue,” he said.
Simon has scheduled a public hearing Nov. 5 at Dorsey. The following day in Culver City, the commissioner and an administrative law judge will hold a formal evidentiary hearing on whether or not to allow the construction authority to proceed with the street-level crossing.
The Dorsey crossing is the last on an 8.6-mile route that is still awaiting state regulatory approval, even though activists also have filed formal objections to the street-level design elsewhere. The tracks will lie within 100 feet of five schools and close to nine others.
Construction of the rail line and other transit projects has become a major goal of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other elected officials in the area. But the Expo Line now entails political as well as potential safety risks.
Resistance to the project’s design is deepening, especially in the minority neighborhoods that surround Dorsey, one of a handful of Los Angeles high schools that remain predominantly black.
All those elements came to the fore Wednesday night at a community forum that drew more than 100 people to the school’s auditorium.
Damien Goodmon, a community activist who has spearheaded opposition to the Expo Line’s design, told the crowd that “Dorsey is the poster child for all that is wrong with this project.”
Goodmon noted that the rail line will run in a fenced-off trench for several blocks near USC and that Culver City officials have demanded an above-ground station in their community. He also accused construction authority officials of having a double standard about safety.
L.A. Unified board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte likened the dispute to a latter-day civil rights struggle.
“Nothing will happen that you don’t want to happen in our community if you stand together,” she said.
LaMotte vowed to oppose the Expo Line project unless changes were made to protect the safety of Dorsey students.
Steve J. Bagby Sr., president of the Dorsey High Alumni Assn., urged the crowd to get involved but also emphasized that critics were not opposed to the transit project.
“Everybody is for the Expo Line. We just want it to be safe,” he said.
A stream of speakers joined the critics.
“Environmental racism is alive and well,” said Michelle Colbert, a member of a local neighborhood council. She challenged City Councilman Herb Wesson, who was the only public official who has a say in the Expo Line matter to attend the forum.
“Councilman Wesson, you’ve got to do something. You have to stand up for the people,” Colbert said.
A sometimes-flustered Wesson pointed out that USC did not get all its requested concessions.
Wesson is a voting member and vice chairman of the Exposition Construction Authority’s board of directors, which approved the street-level design.
The councilman, who once held the powerful post of state Assembly speaker, upset many in the crowd when he said that even if he became the one vote on the seven-member Exposition board to oppose the current design, it would not accomplish anything.
The construction authority’s board members include City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, county Supervisors Yvonne B. Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky, and other elected officials.
Parks, Burke and Yaroslavsky also sit on the board of the MTA, which has ultimate authority over spending for the Expo Line and will operate the trains. None of them attended the community forum, but all voted last month for safety enhancements near USC and Los Angeles Trade Tech College.
Villaraigosa, another key player, missed the vote on the USC alterations. The mayor controls four seats on the 13-member MTA board.
“Obviously, the health and safety of the people living along the Expo Line are important and a top priority for me and the MTA,” he said Friday.
Last spring, Burke asked Thorpe to present options for dealing with safety concerns at Dorsey.
Thorpe told reporters that three options were considered: the street-level crossing; a pedestrian bridge over the tracks that would cost $5 million; and running the trains over the intersection on an aerial structure. The last option would cost at least an extra $25 million, he said.
Thorpe said the added USC/Exposition Park station addressed concerns about how to handle crowds from a major event, such as a football game at the nearby Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Thorpe said the MTA had agreed to slow the trains from 55 mph to 35 mph at Dorsey before and after school. Barriers would lower to block off the tracks for passing trains, which won’t stop at the intersection.
Retired Teamsters union official Jimmy Smith countered: “A train at 55 mph or 35 mph will kill you just as dead.”
Critics cited the recent collision of a Gold Line train traveling at 20 mph and an SUV that ran through a closed crossing gate in Highland Park as evidence of the potential danger of the Dorsey crossing. Community activist Goodmon said the SUV “crumpled like a potato chip bag.”
Back at the intersection of Exposition and Farmdale, a fight broke out at 3:15 p.m. Thursday between two girls. A van screeched to a halt to avoid hitting a police officer who dashed over to break things up. Some students ran over to watch. Others lined up at the ice cream trucks. Younger students, from an elementary school north of Exposition, crossed unsupervised. An older boy skateboarded down the middle of Farmdale. Another student, riding a bike without a helmet, shot through the intersection, ignoring stop signs.
“Kids are kids,” said Manuel, Dorsey’s dean of students. “You will have students who will try to beat the train. Someone is going to end up being killed right here on this spot.”