Some City Hall politicians and Expo Light Rail cheerleaders received a rude awakening a couple weeks ago when Rick Thorpe, CEO of Metro’s Expo (Phase 2) Construction Authority told City Council that much of the Colorado Avenue alignment of the Expo Light Rail may be fenced for safety reasons.
Thorpe was referring to the dual, light rail tracks planned for the middle of Colorado Avenue from roughly 17th Street to the Fourth Street terminus. One of the reasons that City Hall favored Colorado over two other proposed alignments was the permeability of at-grade (surface level) transit for foot, bicycle/skateboard and conventional vehicular traffic.
There’s a new joke at City Hall. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" "It didn’t, Expo’s fence was in the way."
According to a Sept. 13 staff report to council, "Expo is proposing pedestrian crossings to be permitted at existing signalized intersections. East of Lincoln there are currently signals at every third intersection (11th, 14th and 17th streets).
“The crossings are subject to the approval of Metro and the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) … As discussed with Expo, Metro and CPUC staff, the city’s preference is to preserve all existing pedestrian crossings."
The report continues, "Upon preliminary concurrence by Metro, Expo will prepare the study necessary to submit a CPUC application for crossings at 10th, 12th, Euclid and 15th Court; however, the application and approval process is lengthy and uncertain."
All this has left folks at City Hall frustrated. At the Sept. 13 council meeting, Councilman Kevin McKeown showed photos he recently took in a number of European cities of streetcar and light rail trains operating at grade amidst pedestrians, bicyclists and automobile/truck traffic. McKeown’s shots demonstrated that the varied modes of transit can share the road comfortably without fencing or physical barricades.
It’s good that McKeown is thinking optimistically, but in the L. A. area, the co-sharing of streets by pedestrians, drivers and bicyclists is fraught with problems — the main one being an appalling lack of consideration for others using the streets.
Also, our lack of experience dealing with multi-modal means of transit is an issue. In Europe, multi-modal transportation has been part of the landscape for decades and is totally accepted.
A couple of years ago when Expo’s route through Santa Monica was being debated, Metro had originally recommended an elevated alignment from 26th Street/Cloverfield Boulevard down Olympic to the Fourth Street terminal.
Misguided Expo cheerleaders complained about a lengthy elevated structure down Olympic, calling it an eyesore. They said it would cut the city in two, limit pedestrian crossings and require removal of trees in the Olympic median. At least people can walk, drive and bicycle unimpeded beneath overhead rail spans.
City Hall favored an at-grade alignment on Colorado because it fit with its utopian vision of a thoroughfare that is “all things to all people” — the “complete street” of the future. With Expo running at grade on Colorado everybody and everything could exist in harmony. Ohhmm.
In my Feb. 23, 2009 column, I wrote how Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal in NelsonNygaard (City Hall’s expensive, outside planning consultancy), had praised the virtues of ground-level stations "surrounded by the community." At a public meeting at the time, he said elevated platforms are not as pleasant an experience as platforms at ground level. I wrote in reply, "The truth is surface tracks divide and separate the community, not unite it."
Colorado was chosen in part because ground-level light rail was more pedestrian/bike friendly and that people could easily cross Colorado from one side to the other at will. Now, with the possibility of fencing along most of the railway, pedestrians and bicyclists will have to hike or ride a couple of blocks just to cross the street. Oops.
I also wonder about the potential liability of having open, accessible railway tracks in the middle of a congested urban street then encouraging pedestrian and bicycle use adjacent to them. How long will it be before someone stumbles in front of a moving Expo train and is killed?
Another factor being ignored is traffic. Tumlin’s take on traffic was, "There would be no significant traffic impacts." Now, with the removal of traffic lanes on Colorado and intersecting streets blocked by fencing, it’s even more obvious there will be significant traffic impacts. And, that’s not even counting trains running in both directions at five minute intervals during peak periods crossing major intersections each hour! Major congestion factor?
Clearly, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, now that Expo’s alignment is finalized, City Hall is facing the reality that there may be a lot more wrong with Colorado than they expected.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org