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MTA Confronts Concerns About Pedestrian Safety

The agency fears that neighbors may have let down their guard during the five-week strike, when buses and trains weren't running.

November 25, 2003|Sharon Bernstein and Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writers

After five weeks without Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses rumbling through the streets, it was almost a shock to see them there last Tuesday, cutting in and out of traffic as if nothing had happened.

There already have been a couple of accidents since the five-week long transit strike ended last week: A woman was hit by a bus and injured on the Westside on Wednesday, and a limousine collided with a Gold Line train in South Pasadena on Thursday.

More ominously, the MTA says that children have been playing on the Gold Line tracks in Pasadena.

So transportation authority brass are worried that drivers and pedestrians may have let down their guard during the strike, with a spate of tragedies in the offing.

"After more than a month of little to no transit service, people may have gotten used to the absence of buses and trains on the streets and within their communities," said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble.

The MTA system -- the nation's third-largest metropolitan bus and rail network -- shut down Oct. 14 after 2,200 union mechanics walked off the job in a dispute over wages and health- care benefits. Drivers and clerks honored the mechanics' picket lines, stopping transit service for about 400,000 Southern Californians.

As of Monday, all MTA service was scheduled to be up and running, albeit with shorter trains on most routes. Although there were still some glitches Monday, the agency aimed to have its buses and trains on regular schedules for the first time since the strike began.

As soon as the first buses got rolling on limited schedules last week, said MTA spokesman Dave Sotero, pedestrians started dashing in front of them or behind them.

"People are forgetting," Sotero said. "Pedestrians are not used to seeing a bus go by every few minutes, so they jaywalk and that's a big problem."

The other big concern, he said, is that safety habits were never fully ingrained in the residential neighborhoods around the Gold Line, which runs between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, because service there was just a few months old when the strike began.

A roughly half-mile segment of the Gold Line running down Marmion Way in Highland Park is one of the most worrisome stretches of railway for the MTA. Gold Line trains run through the middle of a narrow street, no more than 30 feet from the front doors of many homes.

Because the Gold Line trains go slowly through the neighborhood, adhering to a 20-mph speed limit and stopping at red lights, the state ruled that the MTA did not have to build crossing gates or use whistles at Marmion Way intersections.

During the strike, some residents said, children started playing on the tracks.

"All of a sudden, there seemed to be more kids around during the strike," said Christy Lambertson, who was crossing Marmion Way on Sunday to buy a newspaper. "Kids playing on their bikes. Kids playing soccer.... It's kind of a good place to play when there are no trains."

The notion that the tracks could make a good place to play at any time gives MTA officials a big case of the willies. The agency has hired "safety ambassadors" to patrol the area around the Gold Line crossings and remind people to stay away from the trains.

The MTA also has sent out fliers with a list of safety recommendations, including an exhortation that drivers remain behind the white lines at railroad crossings if they must stop, or if the lights are flashing.

The agency had done similar outreach when the line opened last summer, giving presentations at local schools and using a mobile theater to illustrate for children how dangerous the trains can be.

"They have not forgotten," said Alex Barcemas, waiting for a train with his three small children. "They know to be scared of what the train could do to you."

Here, where news of last week's accident involving a Gold Line train and a limousine traveled quickly through the neighborhood, parents talk constantly with their children about safety around the trains, Guadalupe Sanchez said.

She clutched the hands of her two daughters as they crossed the street on their way to church.

"We will not let our kids forget," she said.

If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California, write to Behind the Wheel c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Safety tips

* Never walk or play on or near train tracks.

* Look carefully for buses and trains coming from both directions.

* Because light-rail trains are very quiet, don't use headsets or cell phones around train tracks, as they might prevent you from hearing approaching trains.

* Hold on to your child's hand when using station escalators or around tracks or crossings.

* Always use crosswalks. Make sure that motorists see you while crossing or making turns.

* Always wait for rail crossing gates to close and reopen before crossing an intersection.

* Don't stand in the street to look for buses.

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