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State panel approves final Expo Line street crossings

February 20, 2009 | 12:19 pm

Expomap_2 (UPDATED, 4:30 p.m.) After more than two years of debate, state regulators this morning finally granted approvals to the two remaining street crossings on the under-construction Expo Line light rail between Los Angeles and Culver City.

Both crossings are near schools in South Los Angeles, and school officials and community members have raised concerns that students could potentially be hit by speeding trains. Richard Thorpe, CEO of the Expo Line Construction Authority, said that delays caused by making mandated safety improvements will likely result in the Expo Line opening to Culver City in 2011 instead of the planned date of 2010. He added that the Construction Authority Board could decide to try to open the line as far as Crenshaw Boulevard in 2010.

On a 4-1 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission denied a street-level crossing for Farmdale Avenue next to Dorsey High School. That means Farmdale must be closed to traffic at the tracks -- it will no longer be a through street -- and that transit officials will probably have to build a pedestrian bridge over the tracks.

On the other hand, the PUC board granted permission for the tracks to cross atop an existing pedestrian tunnel next to the Foshay Learning Center. The dissenting vote on the PUC board came from Commissioner Timothy Simon, who wanted to require the Expo Line to write a detailed management plan for student safety in the tunnel before giving it approval.

PUC Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Koss had in October proposed requiring, at a minimum, pedestrian bridges over the tracks at both locations. But the PUC board has final say on such matters and was heavily lobbied by the Expo Line Construction Authority in recent weeks.

“The decision eliminates the single greatest threat to student safety” — a street level crossing at Dorsey — “but still puts children at risk by taking out important safety and law enforcement projections put in by the judge who heard the case,” said Michael Strumwasser, an attorney representing the Los Angeles Unified school district.

In particular, Strumwasser said that the PUC failed to resolve another fix an ongoing problem: how police officers at Foshay will now be unable to cross the fenced-off train tracks to respond to crime on the other side of Exposition Boulevard.

Damien Goodmon, a spokesman for United Community Assns., said that his group would continue to advocate for a rail tunnel or bridge at Dorsey and that his group is reserving all legal options. “We don’t want a kid to die before rail safety becomes a concern,” he said.

The school board and activists have 30 days to petition the PUC for a re-hearing. If that is rejected, the groups will have to petition the Court of Appeals or California Supreme Court to review the PUC hearing — and the courts would have to agree to take up the case.

-- Steve Hymon