For over a decade, Santa Monica has enthusiastically supported bringing regional light rail all the way to our Downtown, providing new mass transit options to reduce our unacceptable traffic problems.

Now, suddenly, it seems, we find ourselves in conflict with some parts of the evolving proposal for the Exposition Light Rail line. What happened?

After many years of championing light rail, and after working hard in the 2008 election to make sure Los Angeles County’s Proposition R passed to fund accelerated construction of Expo, Santa Monica was blind-sided.

When the Expo Authority released its draft environmental impact report last February, a modified aerial photo showed a proposed rail maintenance yard in Santa Monica. Carefully edited out was an immediately adjacent residential neighborhood, directly across Exposition Boulevard.

Despite our representation on both the Expo Authority and its parent Metro board, such a location had never been discussed with Santa Monica, nor was a courtesy warning given before the draft was published. Only when we came upon the cropped diagram, buried deep in an appendix, did Santa Monica begin to realize what was to be imposed upon us.

Earning the benefits of light rail mass transit means providing room for needed infrastructure, and we fully accept that. However, a rail maintenance yard should never go next to existing, occupied housing — here or in any city.

Would you want a train yard, with mandatory early-morning horn testing, next to your house? The City Council should show some backbone, deny the placement of the maintenance yard as incompatible with our zoning, protect the quality of life of the Pico Neighborhood, and force the Expo Authority to find a more suitable, less impactful location, right?

Controlling land use is one of a City Council’s most significant powers. Unfortunately, that power isn’t absolute. California law dictates a hierarchy of jurisdictions, whereby a regional or county body can overrule a city, and the state can overrule us all.

As regional bodies, the Expo Authority and the Metropolitan Transit Authority trump us on land use, and do not have to comply with Santa Monica zoning laws. We cannot “just say no” to their maintenance yard.

What we tried to do instead was help find other locations, farther from residents. No matter how badly it’s needed, a rail maintenance yard should never be right across the street from homes and apartments. Quasi-industrial uses are not good neighbors for families with children.

The Expo Authority told us Bergamot Station was too small, and other locations didn’t meet their needs. One site, also in Santa Monica but in a commercial area, proved too expensive for them. A concrete plant property in industrial West L.A. was already coveted by a well-connected developer, who has promised to pay for the Expo Line’s grade separation at Sepulveda Boulevard.

With respectful advance notification, Santa Monica might still have had time to find a better location for Expo’s maintenance yard than our Pico Neighborhood. Instead, at this late date, we confront a “done deal,” putting yet more burden on families in a part of town that needs support, not abandonment.

If the maintenance yard is forced upon us, is there a way to lessen its impacts? Can it be built so that neighbors don’t see it, hear it, or have to fear for their children’s health and safety?

With the generous cooperation of Santa Monica College, we began to consider a land swap that would let Santa Monica create a protective buffer strip along Exposition Boulevard, separating the trains and facilities from the neighbors. Our city will have to invest considerable resources into making that buffer effective, and a benefit to our community — but that’s better than leaving a neighborhood unprotected.

When the Expo Authority came back to us to consider that offer, they brought expanded plans. They wanted to use the additional space to insert a new paint facility as well as metal and repair shops, and to increase the planned train storage on site from 30-odd rail cars to 50-odd rail cars.

The council protested, of course. Any such intensifications of use should require further environmental review. We had tried to solve a problem not of our making, only to be presented with new problems. Negotiating with a more powerful agency is like wrestling with a gorilla — you’re not done until the gorilla says so.

Our invocation of environmental law may have convinced the Expo Authority to drop the paint facility. They haven’t backed down on the metal and repair shop, or the additional train storage.

We want light rail. Increased mass transit options are the right thing for Santa Monica and for the region. We can’t, however, let it be at the expense of a particularly vulnerable residential neighborhood. We have to be firm in our resolve, because the prime responsibility of local government is protecting the people who live here.

Kevin McKeown is a Santa Monica City Council member.

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