The landmark decision at Dorsey is a major victory for a vocal South L.A. group. A backroom deal brokered by a former Enron lobbyist and pushed by Westside politician Zev Yaroslavsky led to a previously mandated pedestrian bridge at Foshay Learning Center being removed.
In a landmark decision regarding the MTA/Expo Line Construction Authority's Expo Light Rail Line crossings next to 2,100-student Dorsey HS, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ruled MTA's plans unsafe, and in favor of the community and LAUSD at their Friday meeting. The is ruling is the biggest victory yet for a scrappy South LA community coalition with the support of LAUSD, United Teachers Los Angeles and civil rights organizations, combating the MTA. From the Decision:
"[The Application by the] Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority for an at-grade rail crossing at Farmdale Avenue in the City of Los Angeles is denied."
"Grade-separated crossings provide a higher level of safety than at-grade crossings."
"Score one for David in our long war with Goalith," said Damien Goodmon, coordinator of United Community Association's Fix Expo Campaign, a community-based coalition of neighborhood groups leading the fight against MTA at the CPUC. "It's not often at the CPUC, that reason and safety can survive a powerful barrage of lobbying, lawyering and political manipulation, but we did it! This is a major victory for the community, the School District, and rail safety advocates every where."
The decision denies the proposed street-level crossing adjacent to Dorsey High School where over a thousand students cross daily. The afterschool surge involves over 700 urban high school students flooding into narrow sidewalks in just a 15-minute period, with a peak of 108 per minute. The community, the LAUSD, UTLA, international experts in rail safety and human behavior and a national expert in vehicular safety passionately disapproved MTA's proposed plan, a "holding pen." The weeklong trial and nearly 2 1/2-year proceeding involved the testimony and cross-examination of a dozen witnesses.
Maj. (ret) Quimby the former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman of all rail-accident investigations said the proposed Farmdale crossing "creates a higher risk of a catastrophic accident."
"The potential for catastrophe articulated by international rail safety experts Russ Quimby and USC Prof. Meshkati has been eliminated," said Goodmon.
Although the Decision denied the street-level application it did not approve any of the alternative options. From the Decision:
"Though we deny the application for the proposed crossings at Farmdale, we cannot authorize the construction of any of the alternative design options."
The CPUC will now, on behalf of MTA, undergo an environmental review process to supplement or amend the environmental review document (EIR) to determine the feasibility of constructing a street-closure and pedestrian bridge. If the review shows that the street cannot be closed for traffic or community impact reasons, the only other options are for MTA to build a train overpass or train underpass.
"We obviously prefer the underpass or overpass and will work to that end, politically and legally," said Goodmon. "This is South LA, so of course MTA wants to do the cheapest thing – close the street and build the bridge. But there are problems with that proposal."
"Closing Farmdale not only completely divides this black community, it makes Buckingham the only street for the over 1 mile between Crenshaw and La Brea where a vehicle can cross the tracks," said Hattie Babb, president of the West Adams Neighborhood Council serving Dorsey HS. "And to widen Buckingham to two lanes, which still isn't enough to address the adverse traffic impact, they have to take property possibly through eminent domain."
Babb continued: "Why can't MTA spend the money to construct a train underpass like they're constructing at Figueroa next to USC, or a train overpass like they are in Culver City? We're tired of being treated like second-class citizens in South LA. We are not just the go-between for travelers between Downtown and the Westside."
"Our community has lived through the destruction and displacement of one strong black community for one transportation project to Santa Monica, the 10 freeway," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, Chair of the West Area Neighborhood Development Council, just south of Dorsey HS. "We should not be forced to endure another, with the Expo Line street-closures."
"We look forward to participating in the environmental review process," Goodmon continued. "And unlike the original environmental review process where MTA literally railroaded our community, ignoring our concerns about safety, community, traffic and environmental justice, the community is now represented by very able legal counsel."
POLITICAL SHENANIGANS ELIMINATE HARVARD PEDESTRIAN BRIDGE
With the community's victory at Dorsey, came the unfortunate loss at Foshay Learning Center. The initial proposed decision, authored by Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Koss and the assigned CPUC Commissioner, Timothy Simon, also denied MTA's plans at Harvard Avenue, which is adjacent to Foshay Learning Center, a 3,400 student K-12 school about 2.5 miles east of Dorsey.
"After the proposed decision became public the Expo Line Construction Authority hired a former Enron lobbyist, Sandra McCubbin, and engaged in nearly two dozen closed-door meetings and phone calls, known as 'ex parte communication,'" said Goodmon. "Through these meetings, which were not on the record, they convinced another CPUC Commissioner, Rachel Chong, to author an alternative decision, pulling away the pedestrian bridge at Foshay that was previously mandated by Koss and Simon."
"The pressure also apparently forced Simon to revise his initial decision in an attempt to win over a majority of the 5 member CPUC board. In mid-December, he issued a revised proposed decision that still denied the Expo application at Foshay, but no longer mandated a pedestrian bridge. It instead required the Expo Authority to come back with a comprehensive plan for student and community safety for the existing pedestrian tunnel at the intersection. Chong's decision simply approved it as is, for concerns about delay and didn't even require them to come back with a plan for any transparent evaluation."
"The community calls the Harvard pedestrian tunnel the 'the rape tunnel,'" said Michael Urena, the past president of the North Area Neighborhood Development Council, the neighborhood council area surrounding Foshay. "It was closed for good reason, and if Chong attended the public workshop at Foshay attended by nearly 300 people in the community, like Simon did, maybe she would know that."
In an interesting twist, westside Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's office had been heavily lobbying the CPUC as well, and he himself called Chong's office putting his support behind the Alternative Decision that removed the pedestrian bridge.
"I think it speaks volumes that the initial decision written by Judge Koss and Timothy Simon after the trial and after nearly 2 1/2 year process, was ignored in favor an backroom deal concocted by a former Enron lobbyist and pushed for by Westside politican, Zev Yaroslavsky who doesn't even represent South LA," said Goodmon.
LAUSD AND COMMUNITY ATTORNEYS READY THEIR APPEALS
Leading up to Friday's hearing attorneys for the LAUSD and attorneys for the community issued scathing letters to the Commissioners, regarding the process the proceeding took since the initial proposed decision. The community attorney's said: "Beyond the outright violations of CPUC rules and governing statutes, an air of politics has descended over this proceeding." Both parties called for the decision to be delayed and an all parties meeting.
The letters were ignored and the CPUC discussed the Foshay issue on Friday. "The board discussion about Foshay before the CPUC was surreal in that we thought we were supposed to be listening to the state's rail safety regulatory agency," said Goodmon.
"At the CPUC meeting on Friday, Simon was the only one talking about the safety of school children. The rest were talking about potential project delay as though the delay wasn't of MTA's own making and delay is more important than the safety of the Foshay community," said Clint Simmons, Chair of the West Adams Neighborhood Council Safety Committee.
Goodmon said: "Imagine there was a mad cow outbreak and the Food and Drug Administration held a hearing to decide whether to issue a beef recall and the only thing decision makers talked about was the potential impact McDonald's bottom line and public image."
"I don't think we recognized how difficult it was for Simon to force MTA to build a grade separation next to Dorsey, until we began hearing the other four Commissioners talk about Foshay," Simmons said. "It explains why so many of the other unsafe crossings like Western, Vermont, Crenshaw were approved. We're looking forward to reading Simon's Dissenting Opinion."
"Anyone wondering how MTA gets away with continuing to operate the Blue Line, the deadliest light rail line in the country, which slices through South LA, Watts, Willowbrook and Compton en route to Long Beach, need only look at the CPUC, which is the state's rail regulatory agency, and this proceeding," said Goodmon. "This commission is clearly susceptible to political pressures and that interference is leading to preventable deaths on the tracks."
"The irony is that in the process of using back room deals trying to mess over the community, they messed over themselves by strengthening our appellete rights," said Goodmon. "The Chong Decision they adopted has more holes in it than a pound of Swiss cheese."
"But the good news is now that this chapter is nearly completely we can appeal to an actual court if we find that appropriate. The crossings near Foshay will be added to the category of dozen or so crossings in South LA, which the community knows we're not going to get through the CPUC process and instead will have to obtain politically or in another court. We still have a lot of legal weapons in our arsenal, but hope that MTA would put down their hired guns and join with us in searching for a legislative solution to build grade separations to address our community's concerns and still get this project built quickly," said Goodmon.
FUNDING MORE GRADE SEPARATIONS THROUGH NEW RESOURCES
"With the passage of Measure R in the 2008 election, Metro will have $20 billion more dollars that has to be spent on rail expansion," said Goodmon. "The money begins flowing into their headquarters in July. Additionally, over the next two years, the Obama economic stimulus package will deliver hundreds of millions to MTA, also specifically for rapid transit expansion. Our concerns can be addressed if the funding is dedicated to adding grade separations to Phase 1 of the Expo Line."
Goodmon continued, "We've been meeting with various offices outside of MTA, on the potential of adding grade separations to the Expo Line through the Obama stimulus recovery package and will have positive news to report in the coming week."