State regulators gave approval Friday for the Expo Line light rail to proceed with construction next to a pair of South Los Angeles schools on the condition that safety upgrades are made at both sites.
The decision by the California Public Utilities Commission means the Expo Line between downtown L.A. and Culver City probably won't open next year as scheduled and may be pushed back to summer 2011, according to Expo Line officials. It's possible that the train will run between downtown and Crenshaw Boulevard in 2010, with the rest of the line opening a year later.
"At last we've gotten to a point, after more than two years, of having a better idea of what we're building," said Richard Thorpe, chief executive of the Expo Line Construction Authority. "We're supposed to be open in another year, and until today we didn't know what we were building."
The $862-million line between downtown and Culver City broke ground in 2006, but construction next to Foshay Learning Center and Dorsey High School was delayed while regulators decided whether the train could run at street level next to the schools.
School officials and activists have said the train would pose a danger to students trying to cross the tracks and that it would be better if the train ran underground or on an elevated structure. Transit officials argued that trains that run at street level are common, safe and less expensive to build.
Ultimately, the PUC board voted 4 to 1 to allow tracks to stay at street level next to both schools, but with caveats.
At Dorsey High, the PUC required that the Farmdale Avenue crossing of the tracks next to the school be fenced off. That means Farmdale will no longer be a north-south through street. Instead, a pedestrian bridge will probably be built at a cost of about $8 million, Thorpe said.
The PUC also gave permission for train tracks to be built atop an existing pedestrian tunnel under Exposition Boulevard next to Foshay Learning Center. The board required transit officials to make some improvements to the tunnel, including better lighting.
The dissenting vote came from Commissioner Timothy Simon, who didn't want to approve the crossing at Foshay until Expo Line officials wrote a detailed safety plan outlining the best way to protect students in the tunnel from crime. Other commissioners said that requiring the detailed safety plan would only lead to further construction delays. They said it wasn't necessary because relatively few students use the tunnel, and Expo Line officials have said they would provide safety improvements.
A PUC administrative judge had ruled that pedestrian bridges would be needed at both Dorsey and Foshay. But the PUC board said a bridge at Foshay was unnecessary, which displeased the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"The decision eliminates the single greatest threat to student safety" -- a street-level crossing next to Dorsey -- "but still puts children at risk by taking out important safety and law-enforcement projections put in by the judge who heard the case," said Michael Strumwasser, an attorney representing the school district.
In particular, Strumwasser said that the PUC failed to resolve another problem: Police officers at Foshay would be unable to cross the fenced-off train tracks to respond to crime on the other side of Exposition Boulevard.
United Community Assns. spokesman Damien Goodmon said his group would keep advocating for a rail tunnel or bridge at Dorsey: "We don't want a kid to die before rail safety becomes a concern."
The school board and activists have 30 days to petition the PUC for a rehearing. If that petition is rejected, the groups would have to petition the Court of Appeals or California Supreme Court to review the PUC hearing -- and the courts would have to decide whether to take up the case.