Tuesday, October 26, 2004

One track Line
By Carl Kozlowski

Connecting the LA to Pasadena Gold Line to east LA County
is proving more difficult than anyone thought

Illustration by Michael Hollingsworth

It seemed so simple when it all began. The goal was to relieve congestion on the freeways of Los Angeles by revolutionizing the way Pasadenans and other San Gabriel Valley residents traveled - by offering them a chance to ride a light-rail train rather than suffer the frustrations of highway logjams and ever more polluted skies.

When Gold Line construction began in 1999, its building plans and funding sources seemed uncomplicated and assured, thanks largely to voter-approved sales taxes that paid for it all. There would be two phases to the ambitious effort, which up until 2001 was known as the Blue Line, with Phase I stretching from Union Station all the way to the eastern edge of Pasadena and completed successfully by July 2003. Phase II would stretch the line east to Azusa by 2009, then onto Montclair by 2014.

The $700 million Phase I of the project went off with almost startling efficiency, finishing on time and more than $30 million under budget: a rarity in major public works operations. As the 13.7-mile line opened for service on July 26, 2003, it appeared to signal the start of a new era as tens of thousands of area residents flooded the line for a free day of sightseeing and special events.

But in the nearly 15 months since then, problems have become apparent. South Pasadena residents complained of excessive noise, speeding trains and the fact that the Gold Line never seemed to stop running past their homes at nearly all hours of the night. Ridership figures were far lower than expected and a battle broke out over governance of the massive second construction phase.

In the heart of all this still simmering controversy sits Pasadena City Councilman Paul Little. As the chairman of the Blue Line Construction Authority, he oversaw the construction of the soon-to-be-dubbed Gold Line. Some see Little as a driving force behind the Gold Line's successes so far.

But to city officials stretching from Arcadia to Montclair, who are still awaiting service, Little is a source of division whose alleged delaying tactics could derail the entire system's future progress.

"I'm not the one who's provoking a fight. I'm not," insisted Little."What I'm doing is following the work plan to get light rail by 2009 to Azusa and 2014 to Montclair. [Opponents] have no substance in their criticism. They've been trying for a year to get authority over the project and have resisted good-faith negotiations, preferring to force their way onto everyone."

Robbing Peter, paying Paul

The fight over whether trains are the solution to LA's logistical problems has stretched back for decades. Up to 1961, streetcars and trains were used throughout that city and surrounding communities, that is until auto-industry lobbyists convinced regional leaders and the public that cars were the way to go and the transit lines were shut down.

There was no stopping the population boom, however, and by 1990 traffic was in such bad shape that light rail and subways were again seen as a solution - by most, that is. There were protests along the way, particularly by bus advocates who felt that the new projects drained funds from existing bus lines.

"We were adamantly against the construction of the Gold Line and our movement began in 1994 when the MTA voted to eliminate monthly bus passes in order to recoup a $150 million shortfall at that moment," explained Manuel Criollo, an organizer for the advocacy group Bus Riders Union (BRU)."We sued them successfully to stop the elimination of the bus pass and for a while had a moratorium on building the Gold Line."

At that point, the state Senate intervened and created a joint powers authority called the Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority. The idea was to take control of construction away from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and depoliticize the construction process by having an independent five-member board govern the project.

The board's votes would be composed of members from Los Angeles, Pasadena, South Pasadena, from the MTA and from the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. In other words, each major city along the Phase I route from Union Station to east Pasadena would have a distinct vote in any issues that arose - and it's that very fact that has come to haunt the progress of Phase II.

After all, it's easy for three cities to have individual voices in a five-member board, but it's infinitely more complicated to give the 10 cities along the Phase II route to Azusa and Montclair the same level of input.

But for Criollo and his BRU constituents, any train development that hinders bus improvements is an unfair and unnecessary expense.

"We live in a county of 200,000 square miles and many multiple centers to the city, which doesn't have a classical downtown for everyone to come to," said Criollo."It's not to say trains don't have a future here, but it can't be done the way the MTA has done it, which is stealing bus money to pay for it. We still want to create freeway service for buses and bus-only lanes on major roads, which together can make the bus far more attractive for people to ride without the next East Side Gold Line expansion expense of $800 million for just six miles."

Frazzled nerves

Criollo and the BRU are not the only people with grievances about the Gold Line so far. If you're living in South Pasadena, chances are the trains come hurtling through your neighborhood at up to 55 mph, thanks to 11 intersection crossings in the space of just 1 1/3 miles. Factor in the loud bells that warn pedestrians and drivers at each one of those crossings and the sound of screeching brakes as the trains round curves.

Then add in the fact that the trains are greatly exceeding the federal government's recommended maximum noise level of 75 decibels, five points above the sound of freeway traffic and roughly the equivalent of a coffee grinder or a garbage disposal. Then factor in the reality that 200 trains come through 22 hours a day between 4 a.m. and 2 a.m. and you've got a recipe for some very frazzled residents.

"[South Pasadena residents] were told that because the construction authority only had a fixed budget amount, they didn't have the money for grade separation to take the train underground like they did at Holly Street in Pasadena," said Ernest Arnold, president of the Pasadena Avenue-Monterey Road Coalition (PAMRC)."We accepted and supported that, but the Public Utilities Commission [PUC] in San Francisco wanted grade separation and challenged the application for that phase of the project. When we started to realize that the at-grade crossings were holding up traffic and that there had not been proper hearings or reviews of the general plan, we formed the PAMRC to force accountability."

The citizens' group has had a great deal of success in that arena, with 2,000 supporters signing petitions for improvements and up to 200 people showing up for showdowns with the MTA, which actually runs the Gold Line as each phase is completed.

At the sometimes raucous hearings, one resident claimed that the stress of losing sleep due to the nearly non-stop noise of the train has caused her to start losing her hair, while numerous residents have stated that they feel compelled to sell their homes in order to move away and maintain their sanity.

Their battle has gone all the way to hearings before PUC-appointed Administrative Law Judge Anne Simon and has led to a settlement agreement from the MTA that's designed to rectify the problems.

Among the solutions hammered out in the proposed agreement are: lowering the volume of the crossing-gate bells and shortening their required ring times; lubricating the tracks to reduce the friction that causes loud grinding noises when the train wheels touch the railroad tracks; and building sound walls and"privacy screens" to prevent voyeurs from seeing into the homes of residents along the tracks.

Yet Arnold said that his group isn't backing down. After all, there's a distinct lack of trust when so many things were overlooked in the name of affordability. He maintains that the MTA and other parties still haven't taken an official noise test in South Pasadena and that until they do, any claims of progress or improvements ring hollow.

"How can they say it's adequate if they haven't done a final noise test? Everything they've done is arbitrary and designed to make us go away, but if they want to make us go away, then really fix the problems," said Arnold."If this is allowed to stand, the city of South Pasadena will cease to exist because people along the lines will give up and move. We're incorporated as a city and pay taxes because the residency wants a chance to represent themselves and make a choice."

Adding more voices

Issues of residents like the PAMRC members indeed must be addressed thoroughly and soon in order to prevent problems in the cities along the Phase II route, especially since 37 new housing developments are planned along its tracks in the near future. And the longer that problems such as these drag out and postpone Phase II construction, the wider the ripple effect will be that's cast across other transit projects in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.

For instance, there are other projects and proponents eager to get their hands on the funds afforded the Gold Line expansion, among them a proposed bus-only lane that would ease traffic for miles through the heart of the San Fernando Valley. And as the San Gabriel Valley's COG notes, the longer each city waits for the train to finally pull through town, the longer the delay in planning revitalized city centers.

"The building of the Gold Line is extremely important to not only the economic well-being but the economic quality of life in every city that lines the 210" said Rob Hammond, mayor of Monrovia and chairman of the COG subcommittee Joint Powers Authority, which represents the 10 cities specifically linked to Phase II. "Each day we spend time wasting time in traffic there's less productivity at work and less time with families. The quicker we get the light rail system out to the area that's putting the most people on the freeway, it'll alleviate the problems," Hammond said.

But therein lies the biggest of all the challenges facing the Gold Line: the question of who's actually in charge of Phase II construction - an even more immense project with a budget of at least $1.1 billion.

Now that Phase I is over, the COG - which lobbies on behalf of 31 San Gabriel Valley cities in pursuit of government funds for issues such as land use, air quality and transportation - wants to gain extra seats on the five-member construction authority board by replacing the positions held by Pasadena and South Pasadena.

The COG has found an unlikely ally in LA County Supervisor and MTA Board member Mike Antonovich, a longtime critic of the Red Line and other proposed subway projects who's nonetheless an avid supporter of light-rail projects. In fact, Antonovich's transit dreams won't be fulfilled until his long-term vision of trains extending all the way into Ventura County comes to fruition.

"Pasadena, South Pasadena and LA should enable the Phase II cities to have their privileges and rights of local representation afforded to them, because the successful completion of Phase I shows that local control promotes budget-conscious decisions and consensus," said Michael Cano, Antonovich's transportation spokesman.

"We're behind the idea of the three cities stepping down and giving their seats to three clusters of the Phase II cities so all 10 cities on the route would ultimately have a voice," Cano said.

Evil Empires

The battle has been downright ugly at times, as some COG members have accused the existing board members - and Little in particular - of refusing to cede power. They also accuse Little of voting with the MTA and Los Angeles board members to create a majority voting bloc that has consistently voted against COG members' interests.

By extension, they have criticized Pasadena City Council members and Mayor Bill Bogaard of being too passive in allowing Little to wield his allegedly obstructive power.

"Most of those votes were unanimous, and I have voted with them to extend the Gold Line to Montclair," Little said in his own defense."Basically some people are trying to incite conflict by raising the spectre of the evil empires to the south when the reality is we voted together in most cases to support the south."

The accusations came to a head with a letter written by COG President Mike Miller on Sept. 8, which was intended to put new agreements in writing but instead offended Pasadena council members who felt the letter attacked Pasadena's sovereignty.

The letter had also asked the council to prevent Little from taking any action regarding the development of Phase II, but the main result was a retaliatory response letter from Bogaard defending Pasadena's right to maintain a say in future developments.

The apparent solution seems to be on the way from US Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), who devised the clustered-city voting proposal for Phase II governance back in 1994, when Schiff was the state senator from the region. A seemingly friendly meeting was already held in September to set up just that sort of transfer, with hopes set on solidifying the changes at a follow-up meeting in October.

"I've tried not to dictate a solution, as many cities were outside my district. But as months wore on and delayed building, members of the COG and construction authority invited me to step in," said Schiff."It's important that we have a strong and viable governance because this time there's more money involved and it's mostly coming from the federal level. And we have to move forward soon to stay ahead of complaints that the money should be going to other transit projects." For his part, Bogaard believes that while it's important to find a governance solution, it's more important to take a thoughtful approach that brings a range of issues into consideration.

"The project has a number of important elements, including funding, preliminary engineering and design and environmental studies," said Bogaard."The MTA and city of Los Angeles are very important participants in this project and we need to nurture our relationship with those bodies and not provoke them. We'll still need legislative cooperation and we're facing competition for funds [from another rail project in Los Angeles]."

It's gotta work

But what of the man at the center of these allegations - Paul Little?

Asked for his side of the controversial comments waged against him by the COG, Little claimed that there were deeper issues involved in the proposed change of board seats rather than mere greediness or power mongering.

"The bill that proposed switching out seats city by city also sought to put the construction authority under the control of the MTA, when the authority was designed to be autonomous from the beginning," said Little.

"We don't want the MTA in charge, but they need to approve our budgets before the federal government will give any money over. The legislation that first proposed a move also had so many amendments on it that the project would've come to a screaming halt," he said.

Little said that if the time ever comes when he's required to step down, he'll do so quietly. But he also believes that the way he ran the Phase I project - using a small board to oversee construction of the project with a finite time and monetary budget in mind - was the key to the timely and cost-effective construction of it. Any change of power has to maintain that level of control, he said.

Little also noted that the construction authority has offered a settlement of up to $3 million from the Phase I surplus funds for the city of South Pasadena to mitigate its rail line problems and finds the prospect of people in South Pas selling their homes and moving away from the racket a positive as well.

"Anyone on the line can sell the property to the construction authority and we'll resell it," said Little."We'll pay market value and still sell at a profit because living near public transit actually greatly enhances rather than devalues the property because people want to live close to transit."

Ultimately, it is that desire that provides the hope for the future of the Gold Line and other light-rail projects in being able to transform the picture. While the Gold Line's ridership has only managed to hit two-thirds of the expected demand so far, the experts involved all cited the extensive rail strike from last fall as driving people away from what was then a growing enterprise. In fact, it's growing again.

"I'm convinced the Gold Line is a major part of our transit system going forward and I'm convinced the Gold Line will be increased when Phase II is completed," said Bogaard.

"We were told by my council committee consultant that the completion of Phase II will reduce traffic in Pasadena that results from new development by 25 percent. That confirms it's important for us all to work together to complete this well," the mayor said.


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