Lawsuits Threaten Light Rail In Los Angeles

Ambitious plans for new public transit across L.A. are inching closer to reality. A comprehensive rail system in this car-centric metropolis seems truly possible. But not everyone shares the vision. Four lawsuits are threatening to halt work on the expansion of rail and subway lines. Opponents cite safety, traffic, and quality of life concerns, and some of the suits may indeed stymie work. The protests echo an earlier era of "freeway revolts," which saw residents of higher income areas successfully blocking freeway construction through their neighborhoods.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to a big story out here in Culver City, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILROAD BELLS)

BLOCK: That is the sound of change. Light rail has come to the Westside of Los Angeles. The new Expo Line begins in downtown L.A. and heads west. Yesterday, it reached Culver City, and the new stop isn't far from us here at NPR West. This first phase of the line runs roughly 8.6 miles and cost $932 million.

When the train pulled in yesterday, for the first time, a crowd of local officials stepped off including L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He promptly mistook a member of the city council for the mayor of Culver City.

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Mayor of Culver City.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

VILLARAIGOSA: Oh, you switched now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, we switched.

VILLARAIGOSA: I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

VILLARAIGOSA: So we got the new mayor. Come on over here. Let's shake hands in front of all these people here.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, in addition to that little mix-up, the ribbon-cutting also hit a snag:

VILLARAIGOSA: One, two, three. All right, good.

(APPLAUSE)

VILLARAIGOSA: Uh-oh.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: The ceremonial scissors broke.

But these hiccups are nothing compared to the troubles that have long stood in the way of L.A. County's ambitious public transit plans. In addition to the light rail line that will ultimately reach the high-end shops and sandy beaches of Santa Monica, Los Angeles is also working on a controversial subway to the sea, controversial because it would run directly under some of the region's most exclusive zip codes.

As Alex Schmidt reports, multiple lawsuits are threatening to halt or at least stall the work.

(SOUNDBITE OF A LAWN MOWER)

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Gardeners are busily mowing the sloping green hill below Beverly Hills High School. Graduation is this week. And if the work of L.A.'s Metropolitan Transit Authority proceeds as planned, one day, a subway will run right under this lawn. That possibility makes PTA Co-President Susie Roberts unhappy.

SUSIE ROBERTS: It's just a scary thought.

SCHMIDT: Scary, she says, because the tunnel would be too shallow and the county can't eliminate all construction risks.

ROBERTS: And it's not about not being in my backyard. I don't care where it is as long as it's not under the high school.

SCHMIDT: The school district and the city of Beverly Hills have filed lawsuits against the transit authority. They want construction stopped or moved. This is one of several lawsuits against rail lines around L.A. Others involve a downtown business and the neighborhoods of South L.A. and Cheviot Hills.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SCHMIDT: Folks live with the reality of defeated transportation projects at the intersection of Wilshire and Western, in mid-city Los Angeles. This is as far west as the purple line goes. So if you want to get anywhere on public transportation in the 13 miles between here and the ocean - the county art museum, say, or UCLA - you have to transfer to the bus.

LEO JOHNSON: That's what the 720 line is for, for us to go all the way through Beverly Hills to Santa Monica.

SCHMIDT: The bus.

JOHNSON: The bus. But I have to go through the drama of traffic and overcrowding just like the next man.

SCHMIDT: Leo Johnson lives in central L.A. and often transfers from subway to bus. Today, he's headed to Santa Monica, by the beach. He'd like to someday take the subway west.

JOHNSON: But it's not going to happen because they have too much power in Beverly Hills to stop it.

SCHMIDT: So you don't have high hopes that it's going to happen this time.

JOHNSON: It's not going to happen.

SCHMIDT: Opposition to transit projects is common here, and across the country. Sy Adler is a professor of urban studies at Portland State University. He says objections to rail projects in L.A. echo objections to freeway construction from decades ago.

SY ADLER: Higher income neighborhoods were able to prevent freeways from being constructed that would disrupt them. Of course, the highway departments built those freeways where resistance efforts, either they didn't happen or they weren't as influential.

SCHMIDT: The freeways, he says, ended up plowing through poorer neighborhoods. That's why you don't see any of them running through Beverly Hills today. Adler says by keeping transit projects out, wealthy neighborhoods around the country have created de facto gated communities. But L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says the mood is shifting.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY: There is a longing and a thirst in this town for an accelerated improvement to our mass transit system. We're in the midst of what I call the golden age of transportation infrastructure construction in Los Angeles.

SCHMIDT: And not coincidentally, an era of growing awareness about the environment. In fact, Beverly Hills initially supported the rail line before it changed its mind. Simply put, Yaroslavsky says, there's momentum behind mass transit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOWING)

SCHMIDT: Back at Beverly Hills High School, though, PTA Co-President Susie Roberts says she doesn't want the momentum to endanger kids.

ROBERTS: It just doesn't warrant the risk to do it, period, knowing we have other options. And if we didn't have other options, it's still not OK.

SCHMIDT: Lawsuits like these routinely cost millions of dollars, both for the parties suing and Los Angeles. Ultimately, that may just be part of the cost of doing large scale transportation business in Southern California.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.

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