DOWNTOWN — Despite delays and cost overruns during Phase One of the Expo Light Rail project, which is expected to link Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles by 2015, City Hall officials and mass transit supporters remain confident the project is on track.

The environmental impact report for the rail line’s second phase — the portion that will run from Culver City to Downtown Santa Monica — was released on Friday and is slated to come before the Expo authority’s board of directors for a vote Feb. 4. Construction could begin by the end of 2010.

Last week the Los Angeles Times reported the first phase of the project, which was originally supposed to open this summer, has fallen more than a year behind schedule and is running $220 million over budget.

But because the line’s two phases are separate projects with separate environmental review processes, delays to the first leg don’t necessarily affect the Santa Monica segment, said Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor, who sits on the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority’s board of directors.

“It’s not like we have to wait until everything in Phase One is done to begin Phase Two,” she said.

O’Connor also downplayed cost concerns during the first phase, saying some of the added expenses were because of added infrastructure improvements to the project, not mismanagement. She added the second phase could go more smoothly because of knowledge and experience gained during Phase One.

“Certainly the design-build contracting method (for the second phase) has been refined based on lessons learned,” she said.

Supporters of the line are gearing up for a final push as the second phase environmental impact report heads to the board.

“Elected officials need to see there’s public support,” said Darrell Clarke, who heads the group Friends 4 Expo.

Clarke, a former planning commissioner, agreed that concerns about the first phase don’t have bearing on the Santa Monica section’s timeline for completion.

“The second half is about a mile shorter,” he said. “It’s really simpler.”

But Kevin Hughes, the president of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners’ Association and a past critic of the Expo Authority’s handling of the project, said delays during Phase One could cause transportation leaders to expedite Phase Two, while ignoring community groups’ concerns.

“Certainly we would expect to hear the argument, ‘Hey there’s more pressure on you in Phase Two to get this thing moving’” because of Phase One delays, he said.

Hughes’ group has asked the Expo Authority to consider putting the rail line underground in the Century City area, citing traffic and safety concerns.

Maintenance yard update<p>

A land swap designed to aid the Expo line’s need for a maintenance yard moved ahead last week, as the Santa Monica Community College District Board of Trustees unanimously decided to allow its president to negotiate a deal with City Hall that would compensate the college for SMC-owned land slated to become the rail yard.

Under the plan, a 2.35-acre lot at Stewart Street and Exposition Boulevard currently being used as a parking lot would be used for the maintenance facility. In exchange, City Hall would give the college a lot of equal value located near SMC’s Bundy Campus.

Some neighborhood residents have opposed the idea, claiming the proposed rail yard will be yet another environmental blight in an area already impacted by the I-10 Freeway and a solid waste transfer station.

The final EIR for the second phase of the Expo project includes a plan to build a 100-foot buffer aimed at sheltering homes in the vicinity from the proposed facility.

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