Clear the tracks, Beverly Hills

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The “Subway to the Sea”: By now the words have an almost mythical ring to them, with the Westside extension of L.A.’s subway system so long delayed and so much desired that it has almost come to seem like the stuff of legend, akin to the Stairway to Heaven or the Low Road to Loch Lomond. Yet now that the funding to build the line is in place -- if not to get it all the way to the sea, at least to run it as far as Westwood -- and it’s finally poised to become a reality, the city of Beverly Hills is putting up costly and pointless roadblocks.

In its final environmental report on the subway extension, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority wisely recommends putting a station at the intersection of Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars, an ideal site because it’s a short walk from the station to a cluster of office towers, hotels and the Westfield Century City mall. That set off alarm bells at the Beverly Hills Board of Education because in order to get there, the tunnel would have to run beneath Beverly Hills High School. Fearing the tunneling would endanger students, the board raised repeated objections with the MTA. Other community groups followed, and the locally influential Beverly Hills Courier began devoting its news pages to attacks on the tunneling plan. The anti-subway campaign came to a head Tuesday when the City Council authorized the mayor to draft a letter to the MTA board expressing the council’s opposition to the project.

The objections have little merit. Beverly Hills activists want the MTA to adopt an earlier plan to locate the Century City station on Santa Monica Boulevard, yet seismic studies, reviewed by some of the nation’s top experts on earthquakes and tunneling, ruled that out because there are active fault lines in the area; studies show no such faults affecting the Constellation Boulevard location. The city of Beverly Hills commissioned two studies of its own. One concluded that more research was needed on the dangers of tunneling under the high school, and the other essentially agreed with the MTA that the Santa Monica Boulevard location is not feasible. Meanwhile, the MTA projects that 8,600 people a day would board the subway at a Constellation station, compared with 5,500 at a Santa Monica station -- which would be located next to a golf course, not a high-density office and retail district.


Moreover, MTA engineers say the fears of tunneling under the high school are greatly exaggerated; modern tunneling machines, which maintain pressure on the surrounding earth as tunnels are being bored, appear to have solved the subsidence problems that dogged construction of the Red Line in the 1990s. Neither methane concentrations nor old oil wells in the area raise serious engineering concerns. And subway tunnels under schools aren’t uncommon -- systems in Washington, Portland, San Francisco and Berkeley all pass under schools. Here in Los Angeles, the Red Line runs beneath two schools, the Young Oak Kim Academy middle school in Koreatown and Camino Nuevo High School near Silver Lake. The subway hasn’t caused problems at these schools, and it was built without the community hysteria being exhibited in Beverly Hills. MTA studies say there will be no surface impacts during construction, meaning Beverly Hills High School won’t have to close and its operations shouldn’t be affected.

The MTA board is slated to vote on whether to approve the environmental study, including its recommended station locations, on Thursday, unless it’s thwarted by the Beverly Hills council, which seems determined to pull out every delaying tactic at its disposal. The council has scheduled a special session Sunday to consider filing a request for a public hearing before the MTA board, a right granted to cities affected by transit projects under a seldom-used state code; if the hearing is approved, it would stall a vote on the station plan. In the likely event that the city fails to persuade the MTA, it has more monkey wrenches to throw into the works. Beverly Hills has been consulting with lawyers about its legal options, and Board of Education President Brian Goldberg has threatened to sue the MTA if it opts to tunnel under the high school. That would add to the project’s expense and cause indefinite delays, a slap in the face to L.A. County voters who approved higher sales taxes to pay for the subway extension.

Decades ago, powerful Westside interests opposed subway construction and blocked a line that would have run west down Wilshire Boulevard, apparently fretting that the rail system would bring the wrong element to their neighborhoods. Westsiders have paid the price, with the region now enduring some of the worst traffic in the nation and with poor transit alternatives for commuters. We’ll give today’s Beverly Hills NIMBYs the benefit of the doubt and presume they’re genuinely worried about student safety. But their fears are unrealistic and overblown. The Metro board should approve the Constellation station, and Beverly Hills should clear the tracks.