More delays plague Expo Line

This summer was supposed to see a milestone in L.A. transit.

The Expo Line, billed as the L.A.'s first rail system into the Westside since the Red Car trolleys disappeared decades ago, was supposed to be whisking commuters between Culver City and downtown Los Angeles.

But instead, a series of delays has pushed the opening of the first phase of the rail line to next summer. And even then, only part of the line will be open and trains won’t reach the Westside.

Officials are trying to decide how long that segment will be, and they face what they admit are two unsatisfactory options: opening Expo as an approximately 51/2-mile line from downtown to Crenshaw Boulevard, or having it run about two miles farther west to La Cienega Boulevard.

Planners said neither alternative is ideal because neither gets commuters to the line’s original terminus in Culver City, home to entertainment firms and an increasingly hip dining and gallery scene. Instead, at best, the line will initially fall about a mile short of that goal.

It’s the latest setback for Phase 1 of the Expo Line, which has faced several delays is now projected to cost $900 million. Originally, the price tag was $640 million, but costs have risen because of design changes, surging construction expenses and safety enhancements.

“Most of the projects we’ve built in recent times have been on time and under budget, and this has been a different experience for all of us,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sits on the Expo Line Construction Authority board. “It’s frustrating, to say the least.”

With the shortened route, it’s likely that ridership on the Expo Line will fall below expectations when it opens next year.

Scott Malsin, a City Council member in Culver City who also sits on the Construction Authority board, said ridership is likely to increase the farther west the rail line goes. The line is expected to reach its Culver City terminus sometime in 2012, once an elevated station is completed there.

“My hope is that if anything, the operating dates will come sooner,” Malsin said.

The Construction Authority, which is building the line for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has dealt with a series of problems, including the relocation of the line’s maintenance facility, unanticipated ventilation issues with the below-grade portion of the line at Figueroa Street and the need for safety improvements where the Expo Line ties into the Blue Line. Those problems have all been resolved, according to Richard Thorpe, the Construction Authority’s chief executive.

The Construction Authority also struggled to gain safety approval for the part of the line that crosses Farmdale Avenue, adjacent to Dorsey High School. It was required to revise its plans and add a grade-level station at that intersection. The California Public Utilities Commission granted construction approval in July of this year.

Thorpe said it will take 18 more months to complete the Farmdale station, which is between the Crenshaw and La Cienega stops.

The delays at Farmdale have created another quandary: whether Metro should run trains through the station there while construction is underway. Officials say they want the line to run as far west as possible.

The Public Utilities Commission has granted Metro permission to operate at Farmdale on a “stop and proceed basis,” Thorpe said. Trains would stop at the station, but no riders would be allowed to exit or board the train. Construction workers would briefly clear the site, and safety crews would check for pedestrians.

“It’s not ideal from either perspective,” Thorpe said. “It would make it difficult [for train operators] to know how long it would take to get through the intersection, and there are inefficiencies in construction as well.”

The alternative would be to halt service at the Crenshaw station until work at Farmdale is complete.

“We want to make sure the line goes as far west as possible, but we need to do things right,” Thorpe said.

The second phase of the project, which has an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, will take the line from Culver City to Santa Monica. Major construction will begin in about a year and half, Thorpe said, and it’s scheduled for completion in 2015.

Meanwhile, there is some push for independent oversight of the remaining construction. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is also on the Construction Authority’s board, proposed earlier this month that positions be created for an independent inspector general and an ethics officer.