The California Public Utilities Commission will closely scrutinize the safety of the planned Exposition light-rail line after South Los Angeles residents told officials they fear that running trains at street level would pose an unacceptable risk to the public.
More than 400 people turned out Monday night to tell PUC Commissioner Timothy Simon and an administrative law judge that running trains along an old railroad right of way would lead to the death and injury of students crossing the tracks near Dorsey High School.
Speaker after speaker voiced opposition to the operation of the trains at street level in the median of Exposition Boulevard. They demanded that the rail line be built below street level to eliminate potential conflicts with students and motorists, particularly where Exposition Boulevard crosses Farmdale Avenue next to the high school.
The intensity of the opposition struck Simon. "This process has been extraordinarily informative to me. The people have spoken," he told the crowd. "I'm looking at all the crossings and their risk factors from a different perspective."
Simon promised to pay particular attention to the safety of the line where it would pass the high school and the Foshay Learning Center near Western Avenue and Exposition.
The Exposition Construction Authority is seeking state approval to lay tracks across more than three dozen intersections from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City.
Simon last month issued a preliminary ruling rejecting the arguments posed by leaders of Expo Communities United, which opposes the street-level design. But he agreed with the opponents that a full-scale public hearing was needed to examine the safety of the proposed crossing near Dorsey.
A full evidentiary hearing on the application to lay tracks across that intersection was postponed until January after the construction authority's board of directors voted Thursday to study alternatives to the street-level design.
The options being considered involve changing the design so that trains would run over or under the intersection. A variation would keep the tracks at street level with a pedestrian crossing over or under the tracks.
Authority consultant James Okazaki opened the hearing with computer simulations of what the Dorsey intersection would look like after the installation of traffic signals, wider sidewalks, crosswalks and a holding area next to the tracks.
Okazaki insisted that the intersection would be safer with trains operating than it is today.
Numerous speakers said some high school students would see the crossing gates and fencing around the tracks as an opportunity to demonstrate their athletic prowess. Others accused the construction authority of having a double standard for safety in heavily minority neighborhoods along Exposition compared with USC.
The tracks will be in a trench where the rail line leaves Flower Street and turns west onto Exposition Boulevard near the southeast corner of the campus. The authority board recently agreed to add a street-level station at USC/Exposition Park.
USC engineering professor Najmedin Meshkati presented PUC officials with a lengthy report on ways the Exposition line could be designed with greater safety features. Some but not all of the features suggested in the report were incorporated into the Exposition project design.
But Meshkati said more could be done to protect the public at street-level railroad crossings. To underscore his point, Meshkati quoted a Southern California transit official who said after a 2003 accident involving a Metrolink commuter train that "every grade crossing is an accident waiting to happen."