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The Expo Line—Not If But When Will It Open?

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - By and large, I’m a “glass half full” kind of person, so cynicism and being a downer on issues that vex us isn’t a path on which I recommend “travelling”.  Yet when it comes to “travelling” the Expo Line, it’s hard not to have at least a bit of sympathy towards Culver City Mayor Michael O’Leary, who vented his frustration to the Expo Construction Authority as to the uncertainty of when the first phase will open to Culver City. (Link)
Originally, the plan was to open the first phase of the Expo Line in two parts—the first to La Cienega in March or April, and the second to Culver City (Venice/Robertson, to be specific) in May.  Not certain as to why the double opening was needed, but it’s clear that the Expo Construction Authority and Metro want to get the line operational as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the electronic signaling and coordination at the eastern portion of the line, where the Blue and Expo Lines share tracks, is not yet sufficiently problem-free to allow Metro and the California Public Utilities Commission sign off to safely allow operations for public use.  For those unfamiliar with the shared tracks, the following is from the Friends4Expo Transit website:

A host of questions are likely to pop into the minds of commuters, transit advocates and taxpayers:

1) Why are we still plagued by delays and problems after the Expo Line has so far been delayed two years and is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget?

2) Is the finished product that the Expo Line Authority gave to Metro plagued with problems?

3) Is the merging of technologies between the much older Metro Blue Line and the brand new Expo Line problematic?

4) Can a human being just manually control access of Metro Blue Line and Expo Line trains to the shared tracks Downtown?

5) Should the Downtown Light Rail Connector be extended—now or into the future—to establish non-shared tracks and avoid this problem altogether?

Well, I am certainly no transit expert, and I am certainly no apologist for Metro or the Expo Construction Authority—although I do believe their efforts are sincere and effective, and they have been done amidst a stormy sea of legal, political and engineering challenges.

First, and most important, no responsible public official is going to sign off on a product that has potential safety and operational issues.  Better to annoy and infuriate the public than to set in motion a potential disaster.  I’m not sure the Challenger space shuttle disaster is a good analogy, but it occurred in large part because of impatience and the “full steam ahead” approach.

Second, the signaling issue is a good talking point to hold Metro’s and the Expo Authority’s feet to the fire—but again, it’s safety first…but explanations are in order.  Maybe this technological problem is NOT an easy one to resolve, and having a human being switch tracks for the two intersecting train lines is NOT a viable solution.

Third, and finally, the Downtown Connector project is not going to virtually double in costs and scope at this late phase of its planning, and it need not be extended to accommodate twin tracks for the Metro Blue and Expo Lines.

Some have suggested doubling the shifts of the crews to make sure Phase 2 of the Expo Line (from Culver City to Santa Monica) is done on time. (Link)    Others have proposed throwing all of Metro’s resources on one rail project at a time and finishing each in 6-12 months or so.

While it’s unclear that any new construction scheme is legally, financially, structurally or politically viable (despite the good intentions of those proposing the schemes), what is clear is that the Expo Line will open.  Not if, but when, it will open is the question now to be answered.

And when it opens, very few will remember or care about the delay.  They’ll just have a new way to get from here to there in the City and County of Los Angeles.

(Ken Alpern is a Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC) and is a past co-chair of the MVCC Planning and Outreach Committees, and is current Vice Chair of the MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and also chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org.   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) -cw

Vol 10 Issue 19
Pub: Mar 6, 2012