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Expo Line project costs and delays are ballooning

The Expo Line, the first rail project into the traffic-clogged Westside, is $220 million over its original budget and more than a year behind schedule, with officials saying additional delays and costs are possible.

The line was supposed to open this summer, running from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City at a cost of $640 million.

But the price tag has risen to $862 million, and transit officials say their goal for next year is to open just a portion of the route -- only as far west as Crenshaw Boulevard.

It is unclear what the ridership for such a short line would be, but it probably would be considerably less than the full run to Culver City. Officials are unsure when the Expo Line will reach Culver City or how much the total cost will be upon completion.

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Richard Thorpe, chief executive of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, said that although he hopes $862.3 million will be the final price tag, the project possibly could need tens of millions of additional dollars.

The construction authority, which is building the line, receives its money through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and has contracted with a group of construction firms to perform the work.

The firms and the construction authority are at odds over which is responsible for some of the project’s delays. Depending on how that dispute is resolved, it could further raise the project’s cost, officials said.

The 8.6-mile line has been touted by planners as a fast and cost-effective route for rail service to the Westside because it is being built mostly on an abandoned Southern Pacific right-of-way.

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But a variety of factors have held up what was supposed to be a relatively quick project and added to the costs. Among them: construction delays where the Expo and Blue lines meet on Flower Street, the decision to add a station at USC and safety improvements required next to public schools along the route.

The problems with the Expo Line come at a difficult time for the MTA, which is now trying to build new rail lines with federal money and revenues from a transportation sales tax that L.A. County voters approved last year.

MTA officials said they do not yet know how the agency will pay for more Expo Line costs if needed or whether those costs would eat into money slated for other projects, which include a subway along Wilshire Boulevard and an extension of the Gold Line east into the San Gabriel Valley.

The delays are prompting concern from communities along the route and elsewhere on the Westside, which was supposed to be a main beneficiary of the Expo Line.

Westside officials said they are reconsidering how to build the western portion of the line given the problems with the first construction phase.

“The contracting process is going to be done very, very differently,” said Culver City Councilman Scott Malsin, who is on the Expo Line Construction Authority board.

Officials said they lack a breakdown on what the cost increases could be, but reports from the construction authority have said that “there are a number of areas that pose significant risk to the budget.”

One of the more vexing problems is occurring where the Expo and Blue lines meet near the Los Angeles Convention Center. Planners originally believed that tying the two lines together would not be a major effort.

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But officials said the section was delayed initially because the design was incomplete and was delayed further when portions of the existing track needed to be replaced because of inadequate Blue Line track insulation, in addition to other changes requested by officials.

The Blue Line segment is crucial because plans call for Expo Line trains to follow the Blue Line route into the downtown Metro Center station, which planners expect would be a key destination for many riders.

The Expo Line route has long had its critics, who have argued that the line is too far south to effectively serve the Westside.

The line runs about three miles south of Wilshire Boulevard, missing major job centers in Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood.

But MTA planners favored the line in large part because of the cost savings involved in using an existing rail right-of-way.

Some of the projected cost savings are now coming into question.

The project jumped from $640 million to $862.3 million because of a variety of change orders, additions and increases in material costs.

In September 2007, the MTA board approved $22.3 million for extra work on the Blue and Expo line hookup, safety enhancements and a new USC station.

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MTA approved another $145 million because of increased construction costs and later approved $54 million to build an elevated station in Culver City. Thorpe said the original plan called for a temporary station in Culver City, with an elevated platform planned for later. Officials decided that it made more sense to build the elevated platform right away.

Though no specific date has been set, officials hope to have the Culver City station running by the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012.

More money probably will be spent on safety improvements. Over the last few years, activists have complained that the route poses risks to students at Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center, among other campuses near the line. They have called for costly improvements to protect pedestrians, including running the line above or below street level.

The state Public Utilities Commission, which has regulatory authority over rail lines, is now deciding which safety improvements are needed near Dorsey High.

“They’ve known that these street-level crossings in our community and next to our schools were opposed by our community since the inception of this project,” said Damien Goodmon of the Citizens’ Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line, one of the line’s chief critics.

“The reality is this project was sold as being cheap and built fast, and the fact is neither of those points has come true,” he said.

ari.bloomekatz

@latimes.com


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