The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board called contractors to return to work on the Orange Line across the San Fernando Valley on Thursday even as lawsuits over the east-west busway's environmental impact report continued.
Lack of action by a state appellate court prompted the agency to restart the $330-million project, which has been stalled about four weeks. Opposing sides will appear in Los Angeles County Superior Court today as the citizens group battling the agency seeks an emergency restraining order in response to the MTA's decision to restart work.
Five years in the planning, the 14-mile dedicated bus corridor from the Metro Red Line subway station in North Hollywood to Warner Center in Woodland Hills is being built on an existing railroad right of way.
Two years ago, a Valley group called Citizens Organized for Smart Transit sued the MTA, alleging that the environmental document violated the California Environmental Quality Act. On July 19, a state appellate court nullified the county transportation agency's environmental impact document and shortly thereafter put a temporary stop to construction.
The temporary stay "essentially dissolved" when the court's jurisdiction in the case expired Aug. 18, 30 days after the initial ruling, said Daniel Potter, assistant court administrator of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.
Because stays are "not usually" lifted in this manner, Potter said, "there was some confusion on the part of the parties about the stay order, how long it remained effective."
When Aug. 18 passed without any further orders from the court, MTA officials sent a letter seeking clarification. The clerk alerted the agency's lawyers late Wednesday that the court's authority in the case had lapsed and it could make no further rulings, including a decision on a long-term injunction, MTA and court officials said.
Although the clerk did not specifically say that construction could resume, MTA officials "felt comfortable" interpreting the clerk's call to mean work could resume, said the agency's chief counsel, Steve Carnevale. Thursday morning, MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble announced at a board meeting that construction would restart.
"It's unusual the court didn't rule on the petition," Carnevale said. "They could have said the petition is denied, but they did nothing, which left everybody confused."
MTA construction chief Rick Thorpe said he started calling contractors Thursday morning, asking them to round up workers. He said he hoped that by early next week, workers could return to finish traffic lights and repave trenches. Priorities will be intersections near Pierce College and the intersection of Woodley Avenue and Oxnard Street.
The citizen group's lawyer called the return to construction "a bad idea."
"The Court of Appeal clearly wants [the MTA] to reconsider the Rapid bus alternative, and the court of appeal stayed them from continuing to work on the busway," said John Henning. "I don't know what interpretation the MTA has made."
The group will appear today in Superior Court to ask for a temporary restraining order. A Superior Court judge had been ordered in July by the appellate court to write an official decision nullifying the environmental document and approval for the busway project. Also today, the MTA plans to ask the state Supreme Court to review the appellate court's ruling in the case.
Some residents and employees at businesses along the Orange Line route said they were glad to hear the MTA would resume work.
"You can't make a left [turn] either way, so it's hard to get into the shopping center," said Chris Hughes, who works at International Golf, near the intersection of De Soto Avenue and Victory Boulevard. "The sooner they finish, the better."
For the last few months, Ellen Madison, 46, has had to make three extra turns to get out of her house on Bullock Street and onto White Oak Avenue.
Madison is worried about the noise of buses that may soon rumble behind her house, but said the state of limbo was frustrating. "I wish it was done," she said with a sigh.