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Molina is critical of MTA Eastside extension's rollout

The L.A. County supervisor, a key backer of the line from Union Station to East L.A., says the above-ground sections could pose a risk to schoolchildren. Agency officials say testing has minimized risks.

October 27, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz

With a new rail line set to open on the Eastside next month, one of the project's most vocal and enthusiastic backers has few good things to say about it.

L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina calls the Eastside Gold Line extension "substandard" and potentially dangerous and says she worries that children leaving school are in danger of being hit by oncoming trains.

"I don't know that it's safe. They're telling me that it's safe. . . . Everything has been an excuse. Everything," Molina said. "I should be happy; I worked so hard to get it, and I was so satisfied that even though it wasn't a subway I could live with this, but now I don't know what to think," she said.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials announced Monday that the Gold Line extension -- a six-mile route running from Union Station in downtown L.A. to Atlantic Boulevard in East L.A. -- will open Nov. 15.

Molina, who has represented the Eastside for almost two decades, played a major role in bringing rail service to the area, where she said East L.A. and Boyle Heights' largely working-class immigrant population relies heavily on mass transit.

But now, Molina says she is disappointed about how the Gold Line's opening is being handled.

She said that what was supposed to be a happy day, when the train picks up its first commuters in November, is increasingly feeling bittersweet.

One of her complaints is the agency's decision several years ago to make only a portion of the line a subway, meaning that the majority of the route runs above ground, mostly on 1st and 3rd streets.

Only about 1.7 miles runs underground, through twin tunnels underneath Boyle Heights.

Molina said she considers the Gold Line "substandard" because the area deserved a subway line and ended up getting a less-expensive light-rail route.

In an interview with The Times on Monday, the supervisor said she doesn't think there is enough fencing to prevent people from crossing the tracks, particularly children at nearby schools.

She also said there has not been enough community outreach on safety to prepare residents for the new line.

"We all struggled so hard to get this into our community," Molina said. "Now, at the end of the day, I feel like I'm being shortchanged on the issues of integrity, safety and confidence."

The Gold Line is being anticipated with excitement on the Eastside, where residents and merchants have endured years of torn-up streets, detours and noise.

MTA officials expect ridership to be about 13,000 boardings per day on the line by the end of the first year.

MTA Chief Executive Art Leahy said he believes the line will be safe when it opens and that his agency is going to lengths to ensure safety.

"In October, the board approved an additional $4.5 million for the line, exclusively for safety enhancements. That will include about two miles of pedestrian fencing," among other enhancements, Leahy said.

He also said there were now 24 safety ambassadors who will help residents navigate tricky spots on the line, and that law enforcement has been working to discourage pedestrians from jaywalking.

"We've scoured the line, we've had outside experts scour the line, I'm not aware of anything out there that we haven't addressed," Leahy said. "We will do what we need to do to make sure this line is safe, but we also need the public's cooperation," he said.

City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents some of the areas the line will go through, hopes the Gold Line will spur further development and private investment in Boyle Heights.

He agreed with Molina that more safety measures are needed but said he believes the MTA is working to make those improvements.

"I'm excited that it's going to finally open up, and I know we can do a lot more to improve safety. We haven't done enough, but I know we have some plans on the way to make it better," Huizar said.

Molina's criticism of the Gold Line comes amid a big push to get federal money to build a subway from Koreatown to Westwood.

Molina has been pushing for the second phase of the Gold Line extension, which would run from East L.A. to either South El Monte or Whittier.

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ari.bloomekatz @latimes.com

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