A state authority is set to decide next week whether transportation planners have done enough to make the Expo Line safe as it passes two South Los Angeles schools.
Some residents and school officials want the rail line to either be put underground or on a bridge near one or both schools.
Builders of the $862-million line say that would unnecessarily drive up costs and probably delay a transit system that could open by 2010 and provide an alternative to the Westside's traffic congestion.
The rail line follows a long-dormant right-of-way along Exposition Boulevard and will eventually connect downtown Los Angeles, USC, South Los Angeles, Culver City -- and one day Santa Monica.
But the tracks are slated to run next to the Foshay Learning Center and Dorsey High School.
The Exposition Line Construction Authority, the agency created to build the project, wants to set up rail crossings at street level outside the schools. Community activists and the Los Angeles Unified School District contend that children will be at risk of being run over or killed if the street level crossings are allowed.
On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to take up the matter. The five-member commission has two decisions to make: whether to allow the tracks to cross Farmdale Avenue outside Dorsey and whether to allow the tracks to cross atop an existing pedestrian tunnel next to Foshay.
Last month, a commission-appointed judge suggested an alternative. Judge Kenneth L. Koss recommended that pedestrian bridges be built over the tracks next to both schools and that Farmdale Avenue be closed to vehicle traffic at the tracks. The commission now has the final say.
All sides have expressed concern with the pedestrian bridges, saying that it's not wise to put that many students in such a small space. Transit officials still want to build the street-level rail crossings -- contending that they're safe.
"They're going to end up with a project that hits people," said Damien Goodmon, who is leading the community effort on behalf of the Fix Expo Campaign.
Goodmon said that building trains at street level is not only dangerous, but also ties up traffic and forces officials to run trains so slowly that people won't want to take them.
Many proponents of the train say Goodmon and others have exaggerated the street-crossing dangers and created a "folklore" in South Los Angeles about the Expo Line.
"They're saying we're going to build something that kills kids," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a member of the construction authority's board. "It's not something in the realm of possibility. They don't have the substance to carry their own arguments."
Expo Line officials say they will take pains to make the train safe. Construction authority chief Rick Thorpe said the agency would slow trains from 55 mph to 10 mph outside Dorsey immediately before and after school hours and also post security guards on both sides of the crossing gates to keep students from ducking under and dashing across the tracks before trains pass.
That's not enough, say safety consultants for the school district and residents. The problem, in short: Children will be children.
"Kids' risk perception at different age brackets is different than adults'," said Najmedin Meshkati, a USC professor of civil engineering who studies causes of transportation accidents. "They are more prone to risk."
School officials put it this way in a legal brief to the Public Utilities Commission: "Under crowded conditions, as would be expected at the at-grade crossing, students frequently misbehave, pushing other students and inciting fights."
School officials and advocates point to the fact that the Expo Line already plans to have four major bridges and a tunnel separating the tracks from streets along its route. The area near Dorsey and Foshay -- made up predominantly of Latinos and African Americans -- deserves the same safety features that are being built in other parts of South Los Angeles and in Culver City, they say.
Over the last two years the cost for the Expo Line has risen from $640 million to $862 million. Goodmon and school officials say that the line has been able to cope with rising costs, proving that more money can be found when needed.
Thorpe said that bridges and the tunnel were built to mitigate traffic concerns on the largest streets along the Expo Line route. Environmental study of the pedestrian bridges, rail bridges or tunnels and rerouting traffic off Farmdale could mean that the rest of the line would sit completed while a year or more is spent replanning the sections of track near the schools.
Light rail lines that run at street level have become increasingly popular in the United States because they are cheaper to build than subways. Trains operating down the middle of streets are found in parts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver and Portland.