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Metro’s $2-billion rail line from Mid-City to the South Bay will miss its 2019 deadline

Metro’s $2-billion rail line from Mid-City to the South Bay will miss its 2019 deadline
A tunnel-boring machine breaks through at the site of Leimert Park Station. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A $2-billion light-rail line that will add a key north-south connection to Los Angeles County’s growing transit network is facing several construction problems and will not open next year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.

Tunneling and track construction along the 8.5-mile Crenshaw Line through South Los Angeles has gone quickly, officials said, but crews have fallen behind schedule on electrical work, the connection to the Green Line, and improvements to sidewalks and gas lines in areas where the train will run at street level.

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The accumulation of issues means the Crenshaw Line will not be ready for safety testing until December 2019, officials said. That will push the opening date back by about six months, to the late spring or early summer of 2020.

“We are committed to trying to expedite and compress our schedule as much as possible,” Metro spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said.

The 8.5-mile Crenshaw Line will connect the Expo Line to the Green Line and will eventually carry passengers to a rail connection to Los Angeles International Airport.
The 8.5-mile Crenshaw Line will connect the Expo Line to the Green Line and will eventually carry passengers to a rail connection to Los Angeles International Airport. (Laura J. Nelson / Los Angeles Times)

The train will follow the route of a streetcar that ran along surface streets in Inglewood and South L.A. in the first half of the 20th century.

The modern rail line will also run at street level, with some subway and aerial sections. The line will add eight stations — in Inglewood and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills, Hyde Park, Leimert Park and Westchester — to the county’s growing rail map.

The delayed opening date is a frustration for drivers and bus riders who have waited for decades for a more reliable transit option between the Westside and the South Bay.

But in the world of multibillion-dollar construction projects, a modest schedule change is par for the course, said Henry M. Koffman, the director of USC’s construction management program.

“Working in a congested area, and an old area, is always going to be a challenge,” Koffman said. “Every one of these projects exceeds the original schedule. At this point, you can expect it.”

Labor is one of the most expensive elements of any major construction project, and six months of extra work will add millions to the total cost of the line.

The reserve fund for unanticipated costs has fallen to less than 2% of the project’s total budget as the line nears 90% completion. Tonilas said she was “not aware” of any plans to increase the $2.058-billion budget to cover the costs of the schedule delays.

Such disputes can take years to resolve. Metro's nearly $300-million payment to the contractor on the 405 Freeway widening, which resolved years of disputes over delays, was approved two years after the freeway opened to drivers. The settlement pushed the $1.6-billion project’s budget 55% over the original estimate.

It’s too early to “anticipate and speculate” on whether Metro will face a similar dispute over the Crenshaw Line, Tonilas said.

After Metro had chosen a type of fire-resistant cable for use along the line, private-sector safety officials recommended against it, Metro spokesman Brian Haas said. The process of finding, purchasing and installing new cable that “meets or exceeds the fire testing requirements” added to the delays, he said.

Contractors have also faced delays installing the electrical substations that power the train’s overhead wires. The line’s street-level, aerial and subterranean tracks all require slightly different electrical systems, making the installation more complicated, said Anthony Crump, the project’s construction relations manager.

In Park Mesa Heights, between 48th and 59th streets, Metro is rebuilding Crenshaw Boulevard “from storefront to storefront,” Haas said. The street is more elevated on the west side than the east side, he said, so the contractor had to raise and replace the curb and sidewalk to ensure the area did not flood in storms.

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“When you’re replacing a sidewalk, you expect certain standards that weren’t met,” Crump said.

Crews are also working to finish connecting the Crenshaw Line’s tracks to the Green Line, which runs from Redondo Beach to Norwalk, to avoid closures once the line is open. That will require some software updates to the older Green Line light-rail vehicles, Crump said.

Trains will pass through a juncture along Aviation Boulevard that will allow riders to transfer seamlessly between lines, but how service will operate is still under discussion.

Last year, Metro paid Walsh/Shea $55.5 million to resolve schedule problems that arose during the early phases of the project. The schedule issues on the electrical systems are unrelated, Crump said.

The Crenshaw Line’s delay comes after a series of schedule setbacks for another major Metro project: the $1.75-billion twin tunnels that will tie together three rail lines beneath downtown, seamlessly connecting the Financial District and Union Station.

Metro has learned that “one of the most dangerous things” officials can do is provide a specific estimate for when a project will open, Tonilas said, because providing an accurate deadline is “almost impossible.”

“Talking about years and seasons is usually safest, and that’s what we’re moving to,” Tonilas said — at least until officials can say with certainty when a project will open.

(Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times)

One of the most highly awaited portions of the Crenshaw Line will open several years after the rest of the route.

A $200-million station at 96th Street, which is slated to open in 2023, will serve as a connection point to a smaller, automated train that will carry travelers and workers to the terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. The stop will also serve as a mini-transit hub, where travelers can board a local bus line, hail a taxi or catch a ride home.

The airport train, called a people mover, is also scheduled to open in 2023. The project will cost an estimated $4.9 billion to build, operate and maintain over 25 years, and will be funded through airport revenues and tax-exempt bonds, for which the city’s airport department will pay the financing costs.

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