Will Safety Concerns Delay the Completion of the Expo Line in Los Angeles?

Every time I feel as though L.A. is finally on the cusp on improving its (woefully) underfunded public transit system, something comes along to scuttle my excitement. The latest controversy surrounds the Expo Line, an $862 million light rail project that will connect downtown Los Angeles to Culver City and which is slated for completion in mid-2010. (That will be the first phase; the second phase will eventually extend the line from Culver City to Santa Monica -- see the "subway to the sea.") The plan could be delayed, however, if safety concerns win the day next week, the LAT's Steve Hymon reports.

Next Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is set to weigh in on a debate that has pitted MTA officials against community activists and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) officials who are worried about the line's safety features. The latter contend that the completion of the Expo Line should be delayed to allow for the construction of new bridges or tunnels to separate the tracks from streets -- and school crossings.

MTA officials counter that the street-level crossings they wish to build are perfectly safe, and that they have already invested in numerous features to ensure that students from two South L.A. schools -- Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center -- are protected. An alternative proposed last month by a CPUC judge, which would've required pedestrian bridges to be built over the tracks, was nixed by both parties due to space concerns.

Now I admit to some bias in the matter -- the Expo Line, once completed, would run a few minutes away from my office on the USC campus -- but I do think the activists' fears are overblown. I'm all for ensuring that all proper safety measures be taken, but, given L.A.'s (and other cities') track record with light rail, it seems highly unlikely that many children's lives will be put at risk by a street-level crossing.

Yes, children perceive risks differently and, yes, crowded conditions often make for pushing, shoving and other rowdy behavior, as the activists and school officials note, but those concerns shouldn't be enough to push back such a project. Light rail lines have been successful in Portland, San Francisco and other cities, and most accidents have been caused by individuals committing suicide.

The activists have a point when they say that the safety measures they are demanding are being built in a few other areas along the route. Yet, considering the slew of other measures MTA officials plan on deploying near the crossings, they are exaggerating the risks:

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.

And, just to give you a notion of L.A.'s recent track record with light rail lines:

The Blue Line has killed 26 people in vehicles and 65 pedestrians since opening in 1990, and there have been more pedestrian deaths in the last five years than in the Blue Line's first five years. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say that 20 of the pedestrian deaths were suicides.

MTA officials say that safety features have been added over the years, and they're working to install more equipment to keep people off the tracks. They also say that only one pedestrian death has occurred on the Gold Line, which was built to higher safety standards than the Blue Line, since its 2003 debut. They say that death was a suicide.

No transportation solution is ever perfect. This case is one of those in which I believe that the benefits of public transit -- reducing traffic congestion, giving more individuals access to cheap, fast transportation -- far outweighs its perceived risks. Call me impatient, but I'm not sure that those extra features are worth the millions more that they will pad onto the existing costs.


More about L.A. public transit
Los Angeles County Public Transit Could Face Blowback from Credit Crisis
Public Transit Looking More Attractive in the Face of Record Gas Prices
Pining for a Subway to the Sea (and other Public Transit Projects)

Tags: California | Los Angeles