The bitter, years-long battle between Beverly Hills and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over the route of the Westside subway has found a fresh new face.
On Friday morning, hundreds of students as young as 8 left their Beverly Hills classrooms and rallied at a public park, protesting Metro’s plans to tunnel beneath Beverly Hills High School.
Speaking before a crowd of more than 1,500 people, high school students called on President Trump, who owns a home next to the park, to move the Purple Line subway away from the high school or revoke its $1.5-billion package of federal grants and low-interest loans.
Teenagers who have grown up watching the Beverly Hills Unified School District’s fight against Metro said they feared that tunneling beneath the campus could spark a methane explosion because the soil is studded with abandoned oil wells and pockets of methane gas.
“I should not constantly be terrified of an explosion ... or that my health could be jeopardized, simply by being at school,” said student organizer Amanda Khodabash, a 16-year-old senior, at the rally.
Friday’s rally was billed as a “walkout,” though students were required to submit permission slips and were bused to the park. High school organizers had help from district staff members who invited the younger students, lined up school buses and kept track of hundreds of permission slips, district officials said.
Some younger students sprawled on the grass in the park drinking juice boxes, clutching their brown-bag lunches and scrawling messages on posters. An 8-year-old’s homemade sign, decorated in red, blue and yellow crayon, urged Metro to “dig some were elce!”
Organizers planned lessons during the rally, including one about civil rights leader Rosa Parks that emphasized the importance of peaceful, nonviolent protests.
The $9-billion Purple Line project will extend Metro’s subway to West Los Angeles from its current terminus in Koreatown, creating a half-hour trip to downtown. An alternative to the Westside’s traffic-choked streets will be key to the success of the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Metro’s route to the Westside includes a station near Constellation Boulevard in Century City, two blocks west of the high school. Officials had considered a Santa Monica Boulevard route that would have avoided the campus but discarded it after geologists found a complex earthquake fault zone nearby.
For years, officials with the school district and the city have fought Metro in court over that decision, seeking to stop, delay or reroute the subway.
More than five years of environmental analysis have shown that the subway can be built without risking students’ health, Metro spokesman Dave Sotero said. Metro officials “appreciate and respect the passion and civic engagement of the high school students,” he added.
The subway is being built in three phases: along Wilshire Boulevard through the Miracle Mile by 2023; to Beverly Hills and Century City by 2025; and to Westwood and West L.A. by 2026.
Metro’s two subway lines run beneath multiple Los Angeles Unified School District campuses in Westlake and Koreatown.
Some in Beverly Hills have hoped that the ties between local officials and the Trump administration could help their cause. Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, is the founding partner in the law firm that represents the school district in the Metro lawsuit.
Any change in a funding grant agreement that has already been signed would be “unprecedented,” Sotero said.
A federal lawsuit filed this year by Beverly Hills officials says Metro’s construction area near the campus could expose students to fine particulate matter. Metro said its studies have found that the cancer risk from the project’s construction would not exceed the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s existing thresholds.
During the prolonged fight, fears of methane gas explosions and health risks have gained traction with Beverly Hills families, who say they fear their children’s health will be at risk once tunneling begins.
Some parents said they have considered withdrawing their children from school. They recalled lawsuits, filed more than a decade ago by the law firm that employed Erin Brockovich, that claimed former students had developed cancer from fumes emitted by a campus oil derrick. The cases were later dismissed.
More than 200 parents attended the protest Friday, including Lisa Suriyasat, who held a sign with a red skull and crossbones that read, “Dear students: your school is no longer safe.”
Suriyasat said she moved from Thailand to Beverly Hills three years ago so that her twin children, now in sixth grade, could attend a safe school. The news of Metro’s tunnel plans, she said, “was shocking.”
The protest sparked some ridicule Friday from critics, who said students had been indoctrinated by school officials or were being trained as NIMBYs, shorthand for “Not in My Backyard.”
Former Beverly Hills school board member Myra Demeter told The Times that she was mortified and outraged by the protests, saying: “The resources and efforts of the school board should be to educate students, not excuse them from classes and use them as pawns.”
Sean Toobi, 17, a senior and the student representative to the Beverly Hills school board, said students, not the district, planned the rally. As for accusations that students are NIMBYs? “Of course we have that stigma — we’re Beverly Hills,” he said.
But, he said, students want to move the subway, not kill it. A delay in the project’s timeline would be worth it to protect their health, he said.
Sotero said safety is Metro’s “No. 1 priority.” Metro has used state records, historic and aerial photos, and magnetic technology that detect subterranean metal to map out the location of dozens of abandoned oil wells on campus, he said.
If crews did find a new well, Sotero said, construction would stop until state officials approved the plan for removing it.
“We’re not just going to go tunneling,” Sotero said. “We’re taking all precautions necessary.”
Tunneling on the Beverly Hills route is scheduled to begin next summer and last about a year and a half, Sotero said. The tunneling machine will be beneath the high school for a month or two, he said, and will be far enough below the surface that students will not feel it.