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State to Rule on Pleas for Redesign of Planned Gold Line Crossings

Transportation: Safety changes sought by residents may delay light rail, set to open in 2003.


Running smack down the middle of Pasadena's Foothill Freeway are scores of new power lines and two sets of freshly laid rail track. A mile south, a 24-foot-wide tunnel slinks under a shopping district. In Los Angeles' Mount Washington neighborhood, a cement platform rises, one day to be flooded with train riders.

All along a nearly 14-mile stretch from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena are signs that a long-sought light rail line, considered one of the region's transit priorities, is nearly completed.

But even as work continues six days a week, the fate of the railway known as the Gold Line stands in doubt.

On Thursday, the five-member Public Utilities Commission, which oversees California's rail safety, is to rule on the design of several controversial intersections on the route.

Approving the design would grant legal right of way for completion of the rail line--expected, shortly after a July 2003 opening, to send as many as 250 trains and 38,000 riders a day through dense neighborhoods. Plans are underway to eventually extend the line all the way to Claremont.

Yet if the commission asks for the most aggressive of the safety changes it is considering, transit experts say, it may take a decade or more for trains to run on the Gold Line, mainly because there is little money available to alter the intersections.

That would be a major setback for transit planners--and thousands of hopeful residents--who have waited for the railway since at least 1980, when funding was first made available. They envision the Gold Line whisking riders end-to-end in about 30 minutes, part of a blueprint to ease congestion in Los Angeles by getting more riders on a rail network that is sprouting from downtown in all directions.

"I haven't been sleeping well, thinking about this, reading all of the material," said PUC President Loretta Lynch, who would not say how she will vote. "I'm completely for the building of the Gold Line, but we have to build it in the safest way."

The commission is making its decision late in the game because the Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Construction Authority, the contractor established by the state in 1988 to build the Gold Line, failed to get proper approval before starting construction. Rick Thorpe, the authority's chief executive, says such methods are duplicated by rail builders across the state, a claim confirmed by the PUC. Still, he recognizes it was a gamble that may end up backfiring.

In the past month, the commission has received conflicting opinions from a variety of official sources and interested parties, including an administrative law judge hired by the PUC to hold hearings and make recommendations.

Among the commission's options:

* It could green-light the railway with slight modifications--calling for measures such as the slowdown of trains and a partial ban on horn blowing, particularly near residences in Mount Washington, where an elementary school, businesses and homes often sit feet from track.

* It could call for trains to travel in a trench underneath Del Mar Boulevard, the busiest street on the trip, where trains will travel through a soon-to-be-constructed apartment complex, a structure that some say poses risks by blocking views of the trains from the street. Such a move could delay the project by two to three years.

* Or it could call for more radical surgery: forcing the builder into a massive redesign of four intersections spread out over five miles. That aggressive a move would put a near foolproof guarantee of safety at those locations above the goals of light rail: a belief that placing commuter trains on streets is the most cost-effective way to ease congestion, at about 40% of the cost of subways.

If the PUC decides on the more radical approach, the cost of the fixes would be close to $80 million. Operating under a tightly planned budget of $451 million, Thorpe and others argue that it could take 10 years or more to come up with the money, then redesign and rebuild the line at those intersections.

People living near those streets, anticipating the decision, say the sudden mix of official opinions is fraying nerves. Some of them--residents of Pasadena, Highland Park and Mount Washington mostly--have diligently fought for changes.

"It's hard enough just waiting around for Thursday ... [but now] it feels like we're on a roller coaster," said Sue Baldwin, a paralegal who is part of a group in the canyon-like Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington worried about not only safety, but also noise pollution.

"We just don't know what to think," said Karen Cutts, founder of a group opposing trains running on streets just south of Pasadena's bustling Old Town, a popular shopping strip that is currently one of two tunneled portions of the railway. "It's still a David versus Goliath struggle."

Cutts' stance was given a huge lift this month by Judge Sheldon Rosenthal, the administrative law judge hired by the PUC to run hearings and come up with a recommendation.

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