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Blue Line Crossings Get a Yellow Light

Transit: Work on street-level track can begin, but PUC could later deny permission to use it.

November 03, 2001|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Public Utilities Commission granted temporary approval Friday for workers to begin laying track at 60 street crossings for the Blue Line rail connecting Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles.

But a key state official warned the tracks might never be used if the PUC doesn't give final approval for a 13.7-mile light rail to cross city streets. About half of the transit system is finished.

The Pasadena Blue Line Authority last month filed a motion seeking permission to begin work in advance of final PUC approval. The PUC has authority over applications to build railways that cross public streets.

"I caution the [construction authority] that this is a risk, and in granting this motion in no way do I mean to afford any assurance . . . that it will be successful" in gaining ultimate approval from the PUC, wrote Richard A. Bilas, the commissioner who made the ruling.

The motion seeking temporary approval to lay the track was made after neighborhood activists protested construction at 17 of the street crossings. Opponents say trains crossing city streets would be a safety hazard and cause environmental damage.

On Friday, the PUC granted temporary permission for the street tracks, but Bilas warned the decision did not signal final approval by the PUC board. The commission will hold weeklong public hearings on the street crossings beginning Monday in Los Angeles. The PUC board is not expected to decide until May.

Neighbors fighting the street-level crossings say the authority should seek extra state or federal money to build overpasses or tunnels for the $732-million rail line, an idea estimated to cost an additional $300 million.

"We are not surprised at this latest ruling," said Gigi Scully, a Pasadena resident from a group called No Blue Line at Grade. "But we are extremely disappointed. This reflects badly on our due process. Still, at the same time, we are not going to stop fighting."

In his ruling, Bilas noted the rail authority could proceed at its own risk. If the PUC board disapproves the street crossings, the rail trains will not be allowed to run on them.

Rick Thorpe, the Blue Line Authority's chief executive, got the news Friday on his cell phone as he was touring the line, which is scheduled to open in July 2003.

"Fantastic," he said, "wonderful news."

Forcing contractors to continue building the line without laying track across streets makes little sense and would be costly, Thorpe has said. The authority could have ended up paying work crews during long idle periods.

"Granting this allows us to move forward in the way that we had always planned, and it's going to save the taxpayers between $6 [million] and $12 million," he said.

Thorpe has argued that if a PUC decision forces the line to be built above or below street level, the rail project might not be finished.

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