Getting Eastside ready for light rail

Compelled by their hankering for a breakfast of pozole, Ricardo and Rosa Solis casually strolled across the railroad tracks on First Street to a Mexican restaurant.

They didn't know that around the corner, MTA and law enforcement officials had just concluded a news conference Monday exhorting people not to do exactly that.

Later this summer, light rail trains will return to Boyle Heights and East L.A. for the first time in half a century. But officials say that just months before the Gold Line Eastside Extension begins running, they are seeing a lot of bad habits that could lead to serious injuries or deaths. If it is not jaywalkers, it is cars zipping across intersections when they're supposed to be stopped.

Since May, law enforcement has issued more than 400 traffic citations to heedless drivers and pedestrians.

Come to think of it, Ricardo Solis, 37, said, he did see a motorcycle officer when he and his wife jaywalked. But it seemed so much easier to cut across the tracks than walk several hundred feet to the intersection, he said.

"Hijole!" he said. "That could have been a lot of money."

It's not like there are no signs that the trains are coming. Test runs occur nearly every day. But some people are undeterred. And the Eastside Extension will offer special challenges.

The Red Line from North Hollywood to Union Station in downtown L.A. is underground; the Blue Line mostly parallels a freight railroad track; the Green Line spans a freeway; and the Gold Line to Pasadena traverses neighborhoods only in stretches.

The 22-mile-long Blue Line has had the most accidents and fatalities, with 92 deaths involving vehicles or pedestrians between July 1990 and March of this year. While the Blue Line trains hit top speeds of 55 mph, the Gold Line Eastside Extension trains will not top 35 mph.

But it will go mostly through narrow neighborhood streets, with cars and people seldom more than a few feet or yards away, said Jose Ubaldo, an MTA spokesman.

The MTA has embarked on an aggressive education campaign, working with law enforcement to get the word out in neighborhoods and visiting 60 schools.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar said 14 cameras have been placed at intersections to record left-hand turn violations.

"It's almost 50 years since residents had to negotiate a rail line going through Boyle Heights," Huizar said. "Trains can't stop on a dime."

Art Leahy, the MTA's chief executive, said more dividers will be added to discourage people from walking across the tracks.

"It is safe, but we're going to make it safer," Leahy said.

As she ate with her husband at Tamales Liliana's on First Street, Rosa Solis said the barriers would definitely be needed.

"If people don't see a train, they're just going to go across," she said. "They'll risk it."

Waitress Araceli Soto, 29, said motorcycle officers have been giving a lot of traffic tickets.

But she said she doubts that the jaywalking will stop even when the trains start rolling regularly.

Just a few hundred feet away, MTA "safety ambassador" Gilbert Maese of East L.A. spent the morning telling people what they needed to do to keep safe when the trains are running. He said jaywalking was more rampant before.

But it's still a problem, he said, moments before two young men crossed the tracks about 200 feet away.

"Old habits are hard to break," Maese said. "I've talked to people and told them they need to be careful and that they shouldn't be crossing the tracks. What do they do? They turn around and do it anyway."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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