Small intersection is the big concern for Expo light-rail system

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The last battle line in the effort to build the Expo light-rail system has been drawn at Farmdale Avenue and Exposition Boulevard — a small intersection about 20 yards from Susan Miller Dorsey High School in central Los Angeles.

If state regulators sign off on a grade crossing and station there, it will clear the way for completion of the first modern rail link between downtown Los Angeles and the bustling Westside.

But the plan to lay track at street level by Dorsey has run into intense opposition from neighborhood associations, students, teachers, Dorsey alumni and community activists who have fought for almost four years to change the project’s design.

Unless the rails are elevated or put below ground like other sections of the project, they say the line will create an unacceptable risk for pedestrians and motorists, especially when students head to class in the morning and leave campus in the afternoon. The school has about 1,600 pupils.

At a recent public hearing at Dorsey, some activists and residents from the predominantly black neighborhood also bristled when whites from the Westside turned out to voice their support for the line and its safety features.

“I’ve noticed lots of whites coming into the community to tell us how to live,” testified Clint Simmons, one of 300 to 400 people who crowded into the school’s cafeteria and an annex reserved for the hearing.

Critics of the project are concerned because at certain times of the day, hundreds of Dorsey students cross Exposition at Farmdale as parents drive past on their way to pick up or drop off their children. Plans call for light-rail trains to pass through the intersection every few minutes.

“All it would take is one car making a wrong turn at the wrong time and it would go right into a group of 100 students,” said Damien Goodmon, a community activist who chairs The Fix Expo Campaign, a coalition of community organizations, Dorsey alumni and civil rights groups.

If done today, the estimated cost to put the line underground at Farmdale would be at least $100 million, and an elevated section would cost at least $30 million. The amount does not include $1 million for every month of delay completing the project.

Trying to ease neighborhood concerns, the Expo Construction Authority revised its original plan for the Farmdale grade crossing and submitted it for approval to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates certain rail issues.

The commission, which held the hearing Tuesday night, rejected for safety reasons the authority’s first design for the grade crossing in February 2009 but allowed project officials to amend their plan. The initial proposal called for a pedestrian area and vehicle gates to control the intersection where trains would pass.

The revision includes traffic signals, warning signs, the latest vehicle and pedestrian gates, a pedestrian holding area and two station platforms, which will require trains traveling in both directions to stop before reaching the intersection. The station, which can be used by students and residents, was not in the original plans.

In addition, Expo officials say trains will not enter the intersection unless it is clear and the line will have an automated system to prevent trains from going faster than 15 mph across Farmdale.

The intersection is the last of 38 Expo grade crossings that still needs commission approval. Authority officials hope to receive a ruling by July.

“This is the missing piece so we can finish the alignment,” said Eric Olson, who oversees the line’s design and construction. “We think we have done what we need to do to come up with alternatives that add safety measures.”

Estimated to cost almost $900 million, the Expo line will run 8.6 miles from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City via Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard — a 30-minute trip one way. Construction is scheduled to be completed next year.

Just before USC, the tracks descend into a 1,000-foot-long trench to avoid the heavy traffic at Figueroa and Flower Street. The line resurfaces at Exposition and Trousdale Parkway and proceeds at ground level to La Brea Avenue, where the tracks and a station are elevated.

The line and stations also are elevated over La Cienega Boulevard and at Venice and Robertson boulevards in Culver City, the line’s terminus.

Expo officials said the four areas meet the criteria set by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for grade separations, such as trenches, tunnels or elevated sections of track. Farmdale did not, they added, partly because of moderate traffic conditions.

Despite the crossing’s revised plan, critics are not convinced the intersection will be safe. They cite light-rail accidents in Los Angeles County and the earlier testimony of Russell G. Quimby, the former head of rail accident investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board.

Addressing the initial Expo plan, Quimby told the commission that a street-level crossing at Farmdale would present “an unreasonably high safety risk” to Dorsey students, even at speeds as low as 10 mph.

A catastrophic accident could occur, he said, if a train derailed and went into a crowded pedestrian holding area or a train pushed a vehicle into the same place. A serious explosion, he said, could occur if a train collided with a truck or bus.

Quimby further testified that MTA’s grade separation criteria appeared to be more concerned with operational convenience than safety.

Critics also say that students, adults and motorists can get around crossing gates and there are no assurances that train speeds through the intersection won’t increase later. They note that serious accidents have occurred on the county’s Gold Line and Blue Line light-rail systems at speeds of 15 mph or less.

“The entire community is put at risk by this train. It’s jeopardizing everyone,” testified Jevante Davis, a Dorsey student and captain of the varsity wrestling team. This issue “isn’t going to be over until it [the train] is under.”

Expo’s supporters told the commission Tuesday night that light-rail lines have operated safely near schools for years and Expo’s revised plan is a substantial improvement over earlier proposals, including one that called for the closure of the intersection and a pedestrian bridge.

“This will benefit students and the community,” said Darrell Clarke of Friends 4 Expo Transit, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing. “This will be safer than the Gold Line, which has had zero accident deaths.”

The line’s proponents also downplay Quimby’s opinions, contending that his primary expertise is in freight and passenger train accidents, though he says he served as an expert witness for MTA in a lawsuit involving a light-rail crash. Samantha Bricker, an Expo spokeswoman, said his remarks are not applicable because light-rail trains go slower, stop quicker and derail less often.

“It’s time to move forward. We’ve been dealing with this issue a long time,” Bricker said. “We feel we’ve gone beyond what has been done on other light-rail lines.”