Thursday, November 25, 2004 to Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Culver Citizens Object To MTA Plan
By Gary Walker - Observer Reporter

The promise of less traffic, an inexpensive rapid transit connector to the beach and downtown Los Angeles has brought a sense of exhilaration to many people in Culver City, which would be the midpoint destination on the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Expo Line, scheduled to run from Exposition Boulevard downtown to Santa Monica. But for others, there are potentially worrisome signposts of the agency's recent history of transit projects running through residential areas that makes them less euphoric.

Several Culver City citizens who live on the east side of the city have expressed trepidation with the project upon learning that the transportation agency has been sued by residents in residential areas where some of their Metrolink train run. Homeowners who reside near the Gold Line station in South Pasadena hired an attorney in June to file suit against the MTA, the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority and the contractors who built the Gold Line, the transit authority's latest addition to their growing rail system, which travels from Union Station to Pasadena.

One resident, Karolyn Kiisel, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, said the noise of the trains are so jarring that she has stopped barbecuing in her backyard, decided to install a $5,000 fence to block the noise and turn up the radio when she's working at home. So far, these measures have not helped matters much.

Kiisel and others who live near the Memorial Park station claim that the high-pitched screeches of the train wheels is so loud that the once welcomed train has become somewhat of a nuisance, to say the least. "I'm so sleep-deprived," complained the 52-year-old South Pasadena resident. "It's kind of like a big truck going by."

"Some houses actually shake when the trains comes by," Wayne Keger, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in their lawsuit told the Observer earlier this week. "The way that the line was set, it goes so close to the homes that noise and disturbance from the trains is overwhelming loud. (MTA) did not put in any sound walls, and that has created a big problem," he added.

Keger, a partner at the Santa Monica based law firm Verboon, Milstein & Peter, seemed amazed that despite the homeowners perceived lack of timely and necessary mitigation procedures, the agency was able to bring the project in under budget. "The extra money could have been spent to construct proper sound walls," he asserted. In addition, the design of the track has led to another set of circumstances that homeowners and businesses have complained about: traffic delays at the station, which has affected emergency response times for police and fire services, according to South Pasadena City Councilman David Margrave. "The way that traffic has laid out, ambulances and other emergency services personnel are sometimes delayed while the train stops at the station and the guard rails come down," Keger noted. "We feel that this is something that the planners of this line did not take into account."

Habib Balian, the Gold Line interim chief executive, said certain South Pasadena council members are trying to change the terms of the contract after the fact.

"There's been a different emphasis on what is an acceptable threshold for sound," Balian maintains. "We froze the design on an understanding we had with the city, the contractor and the operator." In 2000, Citizens Against the Blue Line At Grade, a group of homeowners in residential areas who disapprove of such crossings, successfully petitioned MTA to exclude several at grade crossing, or ground level, leaving three in South Pasadena.

Although he could not specifically comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, Keger told the Observer that there might be a way to find a solution for the South Pasadena petitioners' predicament. "There is a process under way to resolve the plaintiffs concerns," he confided.

The attorney mentioned that MTA could have opted to use eminent domain and taken many houses along the rail line, but choose not to. The process where government agencies employ eminent domain is often used selectively, he feels, particularly in this case. "No doubt about it," he answered.

"Please Protect Culver City"

Residents from East Culver City toured the Gold Line last month, getting a bird's-eye view of what they could expect if the light rail comes through their part of town. After departing from the train at the Memorial Park station in South Pasadena, many of them mentioned that the noise level was not as loud as they expected when they were about 300-500 feet away from the platform, but since the train is at grade, the bells that sound to alert oncoming traffic could be problematic.

With that in mind, several of the homeowners plan on insisting that the two stops on the Expo Line, which will be at Venice and National Boulevard and Washington and National be built above grade, to mitigate the amount of noise and traffic congestion at those busy intersections. To date, the MTA's Draft Environmental Impact Report on the Expo Line, which will become public between now and the beginning of 2005, calls for both intersections to be built at ground level.

Sandra Levin, an attorney and a former Culver City councilmember, has been heavily involved in her attempts to correct what she says are "dozens and dozens of inadequate information" in the DEIR filed by the agency in 2001. Levin, who lives on Cattaraugus Avenue, a few blocks from where the train will run, disputed many of the scenarios laid out in the DEIR, and she is not confident that the transit authority will remedy them.

"MTA staff has consistently demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to implement the project in a reasonable manner, or protect Culver City," she wrote in a letter to the City Council of Culver City in June of 2001, urging them to reject the document. "Unfortunately, the reality of the MTA's implementation is not a dream -- it is a disaster." In her letter, Levin stated "Culver City has not been treated equitably by the MTA. The MTA chose to go around the residential neighborhoods in Cheviot Hills. MTA has publicly stated that the reason for this detour was to avoid the negative impacts on residential areas. They are not even studying a single alternative that goes through Cheviot Hills; by contrast, they will only study alternatives that go through Culver City. Why not treat Culver City as well as Cheviot Hills? Our downtown would still have easy access to the line if it went on Venice Blvd," she reasoned.

"Similarly, there are 17 stations proposed on the LRT (Light Rail Transit) route and there have obviously been great efforts to accommodate the requests of Santa Monica and Los Angeles as to station locations," Levin continued. "Yet, the MTA has refused to even study a LRT station in Culver City, despite both past requests for a station and a General Plan policy specifically encouraging a station in Culver City if transit is built here.

" Please protect Culver City," the former councilmember urged the council. "No one else can or will."

"What will impact me the most will be the residual noise from the bells if (MTA) builds the project at grade, as they are planning to do," said Vincent Moytl, who lives on Faye. "Even though I'm about 150 feet from (Venice and National), the effects of the noise will be devastating."

Gold Line vs. Expo Line

Homeowners who live along National Boulevard have expressed anxiety that they might suffer the same problems with noise that residents who live next to the Memorial Park station in South Pasadena. David Mieger, the Director of Westside Area Planning, Transportation, Development and Implementation, says that his organization has plans to mitigate what happened there. He contends that the situations are dissimilar.

"In Culver City, the homes are farther away from the (proposed rail line), so we don't have the same situation that the residents of South Pasadena have," he pointed out in a telephone call on Monday. As far as reverberations from the train wheels, there again are differences in the design of the Gold Line track in some areas, and the Expo line would be different. "The track is curved in parts of the Gold Line, where you could get some squealing," he admitted. "The way the line is designed that will go through Culver City is a straight track, so there might not be a need for any type of treatment to the wheels."

The sound barriers that MTA plans on using as buffers for the clamor of the trains are standard block walls. "These are the same kind of walls that Cal-Trans uses on the freeways, so we think that they will be effective," he explained.

With regard to having the tracks built above grade, or elevated, Mieger suggested that it might be cost prohibitive. "Grade separation would be very expensive to do," he cautioned.

Mieger believes that by having several public forums and providing as much information as possible, the addition of light rail could have enormous benefits for the Westside, and for Culver City. "Our goal is to give people another alternative to traffic congestion on the Westside," he said.

Keger had some advice (unofficially) for the citizens of Culver City, particularly those who live near the proposed rail line. "Participate in all the public meetings that you can, and do not rely on the word of public officials," he counseled. "Some of my clients feel that they were let down by their elected officials, so that's something that they might think about," Keger advised.

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