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PUC commissioner takes position on Expo Line controversy

December 24, 2008 | 11:54 am

California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong on Tuesday filed an alternative proposal on how best to solve the controversy involving two Expo Line light rail street crossings in South Los Angeles.

The gist of it: Chong's proposal makes it more likely that a pedestrian bridge -- at the least -- will be built across the tracks next to Dorsey High School. That means the Expo Line is going to have to find some extra money. Building the bridge could also jeopardize plans to open the line in 2010.

First, some background.

The Expo Line Construction Authority, which is building the $862-million line from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City, still needs the state's permission to build two at-grade street crossings next to schools in South Los Angeles -- the Foshay Learning Center and Dorsey High School. At Foshay, the construction authority needs the state's approval to put rails atop an existing pedestrian tunnel at Harvard Boulevard. At Dorsey, the authority needs approval to lay rails across Farmdale Avenue.

In October, a PUC administrative law judge denied those requests and instead proposed that pedestrian bridges be built over the tracks at both locations for safety reasons -- with bridges, no students or other people would have to walk across the tracks at those sites.

But the judge doesn't have last say on the matter. It's up to the five-member PUC to decide and the commission has already twice postponed a vote on the issue. At present, no one is happy with the judge's proposed solution: The construction authority doesn't believe the pedestrian bridges would be safe, saying they would funnel too many students into too small a space, including elevators. Community activists and the LAUSD want the train to either tunnel under Farmdale or go over it on a bridge. Activists also want the train to tunnel under both Western and Harvard avenues (Western is near Harvard).

Under Chong's proposal, the construction authority would be allowed to build rails across the pedestrian tunnel next to Foshay, but she denied the construction authority's request to build an at-grade crossing of Farmdale next to Dorsey. Her proposal leaves open the possibility of a pedestrian bridge over the tracks or a rail bridge over Farmdale -- and due to the PUC process, makes it unlikely a street-level crossing with no pedestrian bridge will even be considered.

(correction: an earlier version of this post said Chong's proposal also leaves open the possibility of a rail tunnel under Farmdale. Her proposal says that's not practical for reasons of engineering and cost.)

Chong also proposes giving the construction authority something it requested: that the PUC act as the lead agency in considering future environmental review of the crossings. That's wonky, but significant: It basically means that a lawsuit over the environmental studies would go directly to the California Supreme Court (if it decided to hear it) whereas a lawsuit against the construction authority would start lower on the legal ladder, in Superior Court.

In other words, that move could shorten the time the issue is in court, thereby also shortening construction time and project costs.

The proposal from Chong will be considered at the PUC's Jan. 29 meeting. Keep in mind, it's just a proposal. The PUC can decide to keep it, amend it or toss it out completely. But it does appear that both the community, the LAUSD and the Expo Line are getting closer to knowing what they're actually building at the two crossings.

-- Steve Hymon