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Technical problems delay Expo Line’s debut

The opening date for the long-awaited Expo Line has been postponed several times, and a test ride last week showed how a spot of bad circuitry and a debate over six-letter words — “subway,” “tunnel” and “trench” — continue to delay the system’s operation.

While examining a 0.6-mile stretch of railway that dips below ground level near USC, transportation officials on Thursday argued over nomenclature.

“I think it’s a subway, it’s not a trench. There’s special ventilation requirements on a subway,” said Art Leahy, head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Rick Thorpe, head of the Exposition Construction Authority, insisted the feature was a trench.

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“You say po-TAY-to, I say po-TAH-to,” Leahy said. “When I look up and I see a roof and I’m on a train, I’m in a subway.”

“But you can also look up and see the sky,” Thorpe said.

“In certain places, that ... would be a trench,” Leahy said.

Ventilation in the trench — or tunnel — is one of a handful of technical issues that officials with Metro, the agency responsible for funding and operating the line, say need to be fixed before they can finish “pre-revenue operations”: training operators and testing the line.

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Officials with the Exposition Construction Authority, who announced Nov. 28 that they had turned the system over to Metro for those pre-revenue operations, are complying despite saying that some of the requested changes — like fans in the trench or tunnel — are unnecessary.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sits on the Metro board of directors, described the tension between Leahy and Thorpe as “sibling rivalry.”

“The older child is giving the younger child a hard time,” he said.

The two agencies do agree on some of the requested changes. One is to fix the line’s primary technical problem at the junction where the Expo Line shares tracks with the Blue Line, which runs between Long Beach and downtown L.A.

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Thorpe explained that rail operators receive signals from the track ensuring that the train is going the right speed, and in one area those signals were not going through.

Leahy said the junction is already tricky because trains will run frequently — minutes apart — in both directions, but the problems with the circuitry make full testing impossible.

“We can simulate service south of 23rd [Street]. We cannot simulate service north of 23rd because of the junction,” Leahy said. “We can’t get the trains through there fast enough. We’ve got to work out some signal system issues with the junction,” he said.

“I think optimistically we’re a few days away in solving it,” Thorpe said Thursday.

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Metro officials said they were working with the city Fire Department and are pushing for certain changes because the line can’t open before the California Public Utilities Commission certifies it as safe. The first part of the line to open will go 7.9 miles, between the downtown 7th Street/Metro Center station and La Cienega Boulevard.

Leahy said that soon after problems at the junction are fixed, he’ll be able to begin pre-revenue operations — which can take up to three months — and set an opening date shortly after.

Predictions for when the Expo line would begin service have repeatedly proved inaccurate. On Thursday, Leahy and Thorpe declined to specify a date.

The technical issues are the latest kink in a project that has faced numerous delays and cost increases, most often because of design enhancements, safety concerns and increases in construction prices.

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Some officials said the problems occurred because of an initial bewilderment about funding sources and a disjointed process of construction, design and other contracts.

The first phase of the line originally carried a price tag of $640 million and was considered a cheap way to get rail into the Westside, but the cost grew to exceed $930 million.

When complete, the first phase will take commuters 8.6 miles between downtown Los Angeles and downtown Culver City at speeds of up to 55 mph.

But the 0.7-mile stretch into Culver City will not be ready for several months. Officials decided to first open the line as far as La Cienega, just east of Culver City.

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The second phase of the project is budgeted at $1.5 billion. When fully built, the Expo Line will transport riders from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica in 46 minutes with 19 stops. It will be the first light rail line into the Westside since the days of the Red Car trolleys and is expected to become one of the most heavily used in the country.

Most of the line’s first phase is complete. Each rail station will feature original artwork based on local history, including an interpretation of when the Baldwin Hills Reservoir dam burst in 1963.

At the above-ground La Cienega station, commuters will enjoy a 360-degree view of the region including the Hollywood sign, West L.A. and the Federal Building, Baldwin Hills and downtown L.A.

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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