After years on the drawing boards, a long-delayed light-rail line from Union Station to Pasadena is finally moving into the concrete and rails stage.
More than 2,600 tons of steel rails from a Pennsylvania foundry are now stacked at a staging area near downtown Los Angeles.
Concrete has been poured for the first structures that will support a half-mile stretch of elevated track from Union Station to Chinatown.
All of the major construction contracts have been awarded and contractors are mobilizing for the work ahead. Trailers--the command posts for the building crews to follow--are in place.
Engineers are finishing their designs. The last parcels of land needed for stations along the old Santa Fe railroad right of way are being purchased.
And not long after the Rose Parade makes its annual New Year's Day trek down Colorado Boulevard, workers will move into Old Pasadena to begin preparations for digging a trench for trains through the historic district.
If the inevitable problems during construction can be solved quickly, passengers could be riding the rails by July 2003 on the winding 13.7-mile route from Union Station through Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, Mt. Washington, Highland Park, South Pasadena and Pasadena.
The recent arrival of 38 flatbed rail cars, each carrying 70 tons of track, marked a major milestone for those who have waited decades for a return to the days of trolleys running between Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
The 80-foot sections of track standing in an open field near Chinatown are symbolic of the progress being made two years after the Pasadena project was taken from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Frustrated state lawmakers created the Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority to finish the project. The MTA halted work on the line in January 1998 after spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars on plans and bridge work.
"I'm sure glad I skipped the first 15 years of this," said Rick Thorpe, chief executive officer of the construction authority. Instead, he looks forward to completing the line in the next 2 1/2 years.
A veteran builder of light-rail lines in San Diego and Salt Lake City, he knows firsthand the challenges that lie ahead. He says the biggest risks to completing the $710-million project on time and under budget are other government agencies and utilities, which must relocate power, water, and sewer lines.
Thorpe also is keenly aware of another potential bump in the road ahead. Community groups have objected to the authority's request to the state Public Utilities Commission for approval to run trains through certain railroad crossings in the Mt. Washington area and in parts of Pasadena.
More than 400 residents of Mt. Washington turned out at a community meeting earlier this month to express concern about the potential impact of trains passing through their area from early morning until late at night.
The Pasadena line will follow an old Santa Fe railroad route that winds along the Arroyo Seco as it climbs out of Los Angeles into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. At points along the way, the rail line passes quite close to homes, apartments and businesses.
"We are concerned about the noise," said Paul Ahrens, co-chair of the Mt. Washington Assn.'s Blue Line Committee. "Topography and geography of this arroyo is such that sound really travels. . . . Sound is very much a key issue," he said, because a train could run through the area every four minutes at peak periods.
Ahrens, a 12-year resident of the neighborhood, said it was unlawful for the Santa Fe freight trains to sound their horns in Mt. Washington and Highland Park except for emergencies.
But the MTA's practice has been to sound the horn at every rail crossing. Once construction is complete, the Pasadena line will be turned over to the MTA, which will operate the three-car trains.
"The fact is we're going to have a big problem here with the train coming through," said Lisa Moncure, another Mt. Washington neighborhood activist. "The community is very concerned."
Some members of the neighborhood association want a grade separation built at Avenue 45, a street that serves as the main connection from Mt. Washington to Figueroa Street and the Pasadena Freeway.
Thorpe said it is too late for that to happen. The authority needs to construct the rail project as planned, he said, but could come back later and build a grade separation if the money to pay for that improvement can be found.
"There is no way we can grade separate now. We don't have the money and we don't have the time," he said. "The only thing we can do is to mitigate the noise" and that "might resolve their concerns."
Thorpe said he plans to take a group of neighborhood activists to San Diego in early January to see and hear how that city's light-rail system.
Several leaders of the Mt. Washington group traveled to Hawthorne last week to listen to the horn on the new train that the MTA plans to use on the Pasadena line.