Safety expert calls for more upgrades on Expo Line


A month after Metro’s Expo Line opened, safety questions are continuing to be raised about several street crossings along the light-rail route, including a unique and challenging intersection that forms a maze of track, traffic signals and warning signs for the public to navigate.

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor and safety expert at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, asserts that precautions at three crossings along the 7.9-mile route between downtown Los Angeles and the Westside are “woefully inadequate.”

Two of the crossings at Western and Denker avenues bracket the Foshay Learning Center, which has about 3,400 students in kindergarten through high school. Meshkati, who has studied the Expo project for years, says Metro needs to add signs at crosswalks specifically designed to warn children of oncoming trains.

He says there are more potential safety problems at Rodeo Road and Exposition Boulevard, where parallel streets cross forming an X, with Expo trains traveling at 35 to 40 mph cutting through a complex array of traffic signals, signs and pavement striping.

The mash up of passenger rail, cars, bicyclists and pedestrians, he said, makes the intersection one of the most confusing and dangerous in L.A. County and one that should be redesigned and simplified.

“It’s hard to believe they made this operational,” Meshkati said. “The intersection is complicated, and the design is awkward. All it would take is a dark, rainy evening and a driver unfamiliar with the intersection.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates rail crossings, disagree with Meshkati. Officials say Expo trains operate safely along the line, which has been thoroughly tested and evaluated during design and construction.

As long as people obey traffic signals and warning signs, they will be safe, the officials say.

Safety systems include traffic signals, warning signs for cars, gates that pedestrians must open to enter crosswalks and crossing guards — so called “safety ambassadors” — on temporary assignment at Foshay and elsewhere along the line. Fencing runs along much of the right-of-way, and trains are required to obey the same speed limits and traffic signals as motor vehicles.

While acknowledging the Rodeo-Exposition intersection poses challenges, MTA officials say reconfiguring the streets is too expensive and installing gates to stop vehicles would cause unnecessary traffic snarls on the two busy thoroughfares.

In addition, they say the unusual street configuration was already there and familiar to local motorists.

“Every single crossing was thoroughly evaluated to see what types of measures should be installed,” said Vijay Khawani, the MTA’s executive officer of corporate safety. “They either meet or exceed industry standards.”

But two rail safety experts, Bill Keppen, a consultant based in Maryland, and Bruce Fine, a former associate administrator of safety for the Federal Railroad Administration, said they tended to agree with Meshkati after reviewing his assertions and photos of the crossings.

More signage might be appropriate at Foshay, Keppen said, and the Rodeo-Exposition crossing “is an odd intersection for cars.”

“Someone could go down the wrong way,” he added, “and it’s silly to think that because people are familiar with the intersection they are safe. Familiarity can make people take risks.”

Meshkati’s concerns are part of a long debate about the safety of the $930-million Expo Line, which opened April 28 and runs between downtown and the La Cienega station at Jefferson Boulevard.

During construction, a prolonged controversy raged over the safety of the Farmdale Avenue crossing adjacent to Dorsey High School. Community groups and the Los Angeles Unified School District eventually won a variety of improvements, including a station, pedestrian gates and restricted speeds for trains.

Meshkati wrote a paper about the safety of the proposed Expo Line in 2007 and worked as an unpaid consultant for community groups that demanded more safety enhancements at Dorsey. He said he became concerned about the other crossings while inspecting the route during test runs.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of developing a safety culture at MTA,” said Meshkati, who discussed his concerns last week with authority officials. He praised the dedication of the Metro officials he met but said the agency needed to take a more proactive approach to reduce risks. “They need to address deficiencies in design,” he added.

At Foshay, Meshkati says extra precautions, such as train warning signs, are needed because children and teenagers can underestimate the speed of oncoming vehicles and they don’t have the same perception of risk as adults.

The rail intersections at Denker Avenue and Washington Boulevard have crosswalks, traffic and pedestrian lights, signs saying to look both ways, a pedestrian tunnel and MTA safety workers who help students for two hours before school starts and two hours after classes end.

School district officials requested pedestrian gates at crosswalks but were told there was not enough room. They also want crossing guards permanently stationed at Denker and Washington and on duty all day. Metro’s safety aides now working the crossings are scheduled to be removed in about 11 months.

“Obviously more signage is preferable,” said Ed Morelan, an official with the school district’s health and safety office. “The safety ambassadors are fine for now, but we want a longer-term solution.”