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Torrance Gives Mixed Signals to Rail Line

January 21, 1988|JEFF RABIN | Times Staff Writer

Instead of a green light, Torrance City Council members are giving mixed signals about whether they want to proceed with a full-fledged environmental impact study on construction of a South Bay light-rail line.

Although the council Tuesday night postponed action for a week on a request for an environmental study, members made it clear that any rail line in the city must not end in the city, but extend through it to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Worried that south Torrance could become a parking lot for Palos Verdes Peninsula commuters bound for aerospace jobs in El Segundo and Manhattan Beach, council members asked their staff members to draft strong language calling on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to consider making the end of the rail line the county landfill on the northern edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

'Parking Lot for South Bay'

"There is not any light-rail project that can be proposed to this city that doesn't have a terminus at the Palos Verdes landfill or higher" up the hill, Councilman Bill Applegate said.

"It's too easy for us to sit here and wind up being the parking lot for the South Bay. I just don't want us to be the dumping ground (for commuters' cars), and that's where we are headed."

However, Richard Stanger, the transportation commission's director of program development, said in an interview that the electric light-rail trains do not have the ability to climb the hill along Hawthorne Boulevard to the landfill site south of Rolling Hills Road.

"It's just too steep for us to get up to the landfill," Stanger said.

Councilman Mark Wirth cautioned his colleagues against asking for too much and appearing too negative about the rail project.

"If we add too many demands we are telling the commission we don't want light rail," Wirth said.

And in reply to Applegate, Wirth said that "we're going to have to pull our head out of the sand and make decisions for the future."

The comments reflected the divisions on the council about whether the city should ask the commission to begin work on the environmental impact statement. The statement would be the planning document for any light-rail line in the South Bay, and without it the project could not be built.

Decision Due Soon

The commission is expected to decide in February or March whether to undertake the environmental statement.

An environmental study would examine possible routes for the rail line, construction schedules, station locations and whether to build a street-level or elevated system.

Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert, said the city should request the environmental study and take advantage of "a window of opportunity" created by the San Fernando Valley's inability to reach agreement on rail routes. If the Valley fails to move forward with its rail system, more than $700 million in sales tax revenues could become available for other transportation projects in the county in the 1990s.

Geissert conceded that the South Bay's chance of obtaining the extra transit money is a "very, very long shot." But, she said, the council should proceed. "Without action, the door is closed for many, many years to come."

Since the exact route is unknown, there are no cost estimates available. Stanger said that an elevated rail line--the only one considered practical for busy Hawthorne Boulevard--could cost perhaps $50 million a mile, pushing the total cost of the rail line "into hundreds of millions of dollars very quickly." The South Bay line would connect with the Century Freeway rail line, which is under construction.

Will Only Get Worse

While admitting that construction of the rail line could cause a "major disruption" on Hawthorne Boulevard, Geissert said that the alternative is ever-worsening traffic congestion leading to "an absolute parking lot" along the thoroughfare.

"A light-rail line is the only thing that could make a difference in traffic," she said.

Applegate expressed strong reservations about building an elevated rail line down Hawthorne Boulevard, the city's busiest street.

"If you like that kind of stuff, go to Disneyland," Applegate said.

Councilman Dan Walker also voiced doubts about building the system, elevated or not. "I really question the wisdom of it," he said.

Walker said he didn't know ". . . if this city should be sacrificing its main thoroughfare to allow more traffic to flow from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the El Segundo employment area."

However, Geissert pointed out that the traffic is coming anyway, and called the Palos Verdes landfill "ideally suited" for a park-and-ride lot where commuters could board a "quick, clean, rapid rail form of transportation that could take them near their place of employment."

Much of the push in recent weeks for an environmental impact study of the rail line has come from South Bay businesses led by the El Segundo Employers Assn.

Michael Jackson, manager of local government relations for TRW, urged swift action on a study. "All we are doing is encouraging examination of the system, not development of the system," he said.

Jackson told the council that South Bay transportation problems must be addressed through highway, street and transit improvements. "We have to mitigate the traffic we are creating," he said.

The renewed discussion of light rail came one week after representatives of the South Bay Assn. of Chambers of Commerce heard planners warn of severe traffic problems if the current imbalance between the number of jobs and the number of housing units in the South Bay worsens.

Planners at the Southern California Assn. of Governments predict that if employment and population trends continue, average freeway speeds could slow to an average of 15 m.p.h. by the year 2010.

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