Officials approve plans for Expo Line route on Westside

Los Angeles transportation officials on Thursday took a major step in bringing commuter rail to the Westside, approving plans for a route linking downtown L.A. to Santa Monica.

Officials hope to begin work later this year on phase two of the Expo Line, a nearly seven-mile link from downtown Culver City to the corner of 4th Street and Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica’s main business district. Phase one of Expo Line is already under construction from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City.

Extending the line to Santa Monica would be an important milestone in Los Angeles’ ambitious rail-building campaign. It would also mark the farthest west a rail line has reached in several decades, serving a section of the county that is notorious for traffic problems.

“Every other part of Los Angeles has been served by mass public transportation,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the Westside. “This part of town, this part of the county has waited a long time for this.”

Transportation planners believe they will have the $1.5 billion in local and state money to build it.

And although there is broad support for the extension, some neighborhood residents have concerns about portions of the plan.

Some homeowners say the plan for the route approved Thursday is unsafe and will create traffic problems, particularly a stretch near homes in Cheviot Hills as well as areas near Sepulveda Boulevard and Overland Avenue.

Those residents insist that at least one portion of the line should be built underground, saying that would make the route safer for motorists and pedestrians. They also argue that the underground route would improve traffic flow.

Robert P. Silverstein, an attorney representing a coalition of Westside homeowners’ associations called Neighbors for Smart Rail, said his clients support extending the rail line but feel strongly it can be made better.

“I want to be clear that my client is not opposed to the project, but is opposed to it being built without below grade, grade separation between Overland and Sepulveda,” he said at Thursday’s public hearing of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority board. “Build it, but build it right.”

The Expo Authority, which is building the line, said a subway along that stretch is unnecessary. Building a subway between Westwood Boulevard and Overland Avenue would add about $224 million to the project’s cost.

Some speakers on Thursday agreed -- and urged the authority to approve the plans for the route as is.

Sarah Hays, co-chair of the group Light Rail for Cheviot, told the board that she was in favor of approving the plans for the route.

“I live . . . less than half a mile from the [rail] right of way, and I work within half a mile of the 4th Street Station in Santa Monica, so I would use this line,” she said.

After the board approved the plans, she added: “It means we can move forward -- that we are one step closer to having an alternative to sitting in traffic.”

The MTA has for decades wanted to build a subway along Wilshire Boulevard through Beverly Hills and into Santa Monica. But the high price -- several billion dollars -- has stalled the effort. And that leaves the Expo Line as the only viable plan right now for an east-west rail link from downtown to Santa Monica.

Opponents of the plans approved Thursday are threatening to file a lawsuit that could delay construction of the second phase, which officials hope to open in 2015.

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

But the first 8.6-mile link from downtown Los Angeles to Venice and Robertson boulevards is already more than a year behind schedule and is more than $220 million over its original budget of $640 million.

Some delays are due to safety issues near schools. Activists have complained that the first phase’s route poses a risk to students at Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center and have called for improvements, including running the line above or below street level.

That issue is still unresolved and the state Public Utilities Commission is deciding which safety improvements are needed near Dorsey High, and those improvements could be costly.

Furthermore, the Expo Authority and the contractor for the first phase of the project are at odds over some of the delays and are wrestling over who is to blame. That could further raise the project’s phase one cost depending on how the dispute is resolved.

Rick Thorpe, chief executive of the Expo Authority, said that is why officials are using a different contracting process for the second phase.

Thorpe said that for the second phase, two contracts will be awarded for design, and then one of those same companies will also receive the contract for construction. That way the contractor is responsible for the plans and the follow-through, Thorpe said.

Officials said they hope to open the first part of phase one, from downtown Los Angeles to Crenshaw Boulevard, sometime this year and estimate that the second part of phase one will open about a year later.

Thorpe said the timeline of the first phase will not affect the second phase of the project because the sources of funding are different.

But fully funding the line is not a sealed deal because sales tax revenues are lower than expected, there is a state budget crisis and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has projected a historic $251.3-million operating deficit in the 2011 fiscal year.