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Residents Plan Gold Line Lawsuit

In South Pasadena, some say that noise from the MTA commuter trains is threatening their quality of life.

August 04, 2004|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Karolyn Kiisel said the high-pitched screeches of the Gold Line train are so grating that she has stopped barbecuing in her backyard, installed a $5,000 fence to block the noise and turns up the radio when she's working at home.

The whine, she says, interrupts her day and night. "I'm so sleep-deprived," said the 52-year-old South Pasadena resident. "It's kind of like a big truck going by."

Despite steps taken by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to dampen the sound, Kiisel and at least a few dozen other South Pasadena residents are fed up. Some of them are planning to file suit against the MTA, the separate authority that built the light-rail line and the contractors.

Residents who have fought the extension of the Long Beach Freeway through their town see the Gold Line as another front in the war to guard their "Mayberry" way of life. The line threatens to ruin South Pasadena's quiet atmosphere, said David Margrave, a city councilman who owns a plumbing business near the line and who promised while he was campaigning to press the MTA to reduce the noise level.

"We don't want to be L.A.," he said. "We don't want to be Pasadena. We hate the idea of Alhambra."

The $859-million Gold Line light rail from Union Station to Pasadena opened a year ago and runs along a right of way that was last used by Amtrak in 1994. Along some parts of the route, thick concrete walls box in the train. Along others, though, a wire fence and a few trees are all that separate the tracks from residential streets.

The train's rumbling interrupts the suburban sounds of chirping birds and barking dogs all day, except between 2 and 4 a.m. Even in off-peak hours, the bells clang at intersections about every 10 minutes, followed by the train's whipping sound and high-pitched squeal. A South Pasadena citizens group, the Pasadena Avenue-Monterey Road Committee, started complaining about the potential noise and vibrations to the state Public Utilities Commission in 2002, even before the line opened.

In June, officials at the MTA and the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, which built the line and plans to extend it to Montclair, agreed to some remedies for the noise, such as adding more 6-foot-high concrete walls to block sound and finding softer bells for the crossings.

The South Pasadena City Council narrowly approved the agreement. But the citizens group and other residents weren't satisfied and hired a lawyer.

"It just scratches the surface," said Wayne Kreger, a lawyer with the firm of Verboon, Milstein & Peter in Santa Monica.

Kreger said he was hired "to take the fight to another level" and said the planned lawsuit would ask for millions of dollars in damages and remedial measures to reduce noise and vibration.

"It's amazing to think people are forced to live like this and there's nothing done to protect them," he said. "Houses that are on the tracks shake and vibrate like it's an earthquake."

Kiisel, whose two teenage daughters regularly use the Gold Line, said she supports the railroad, she just wants a higher sound barrier than the 4-foot one near her house. She would be satisfied, she said, "if they just raised the wall a little bit ... or helped the people right bordering the Gold Line to defray some of the cost."

Rick Thorpe, who oversaw the line's construction and now serves as the construction chief for the MTA, said he was disappointed the citizens group is planning a lawsuit. "I thought we had worked out some things that were going to substantially improve the situation," he said.

Thorpe said the agency lubricates parts of the track by hand to reduce screeching and plans to install new sound walls in about a month.

Thorpe and Habib Balian, the Gold Line authority's interim chief executive, said newly elected South Pasadena council members are trying to change the terms late in the game.

"There's been a different emphasis on what is an acceptable threshold for sound," Balian said. "We froze the design on an understanding we had with the city, the contractor and the operator."

Residents in other areas, such as Mt. Washington and Highland Park, have complained about the noise and vibration, but no one has mounted an effort as concerted and organized as South Pasadena's, said Balian and Thorpe. "I think there's less tolerance for the system in some parts of the alignment than others," Balian said.

Eileen Johnson, who lives on Orange Grove Avenue, benefited from some of the attempts to remedy the disturbances. Transit officials replaced several single-paned windows in her home with double-paned ones, but the 55-year-old said they don't help much. "I haven't slept through the night since they began testing on April 18, 2003," she said.

When no trains are rolling by, the only sound in her living room comes from a wall clock. But when a train rushed by, the noise was so loud she stopped talking until it passed.

"Some are louder," she said.

Friends can hear the bells and horns over the phone, prompting them to ask, "What's that? Are you outside?" Trains often shake the bedroom wall when she is trying to sleep or jostle the porcelain in her curio cabinet.

"You cannot even complete a thought," she said.

One neighbor across the street now sleeps in his office in Orange County, and another on Hawthorne Street has rented an apartment in Alhambra, she said. Some residents use fans or air conditioners to drown out the noise at night.

Johnson, however, is not sure she would join a lawsuit. She said she knew she would have to deal with some hassles when she bought her 1916 Craftsman cottage right next to the tracks.

"We are very pro-public transit," she said. "During the 2 1/2 years of construction, we welcomed it. We provided dessert and drinks and shade to the workers."

"I don't hate the train," she said. "I just want the train to be a good neighbor, that's all."

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