Expo Board Approves FEIR for Phase II. Off to Construction or Off to Court?
After years of debates, threats of lawsuits, contentious community meetings and even heated discussion on Streetsblog message boards; there was a feeling that yesterday's meeting of the Expo Board to debate the certification of the environmental documents for Phase II would be a momentous meeting. Predictions of a 4-3 vote either for or against certification seemed a safe bet; with the exception of the Transit Coalition's Bart Reed who predicted a "blowout," everyone I talked to thought it would be close.
After nearly five hours of public comment and debate, the Board voted and the final tally was six in favor, zero against, and one abstention. The abstention wasn't even made by a fully-vested Board Member, but a staff member from the office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who was empowered to vote in place of the Supervisor. There was a vote on a Ridley-Thomas motion to delay, not reject, certification for three months that failed by the somewhat closer vote of 2-5, with Rosendahl joining Ridley-Thomas in support.
Instead of a close vote, the most controversial thing that occurred was a procedural move by Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks who blocked fellow Councilman Paul Koretz from voting on the measure. Technically, until Phase I is completed, Parks and Council Woman Jan Perry sit on the Expo Board. However it was widely believed that Parks and Perry would yield to their successors, Councilmen Koretz and Bill Rosendahl who's districts would be most directly impacted by the construction and operation of Phase II.
While Perry yielded to Rosendahl, Parks decided to hold on to his seat for the meeting to, in his words, defend the grade crossing policy at Metro that was under attack from opponents to Phase II and Ridley-Thomas. Whether that was the real reason for Parks' maneuver, or a more political one such as wanting to prevent the expected "no" vote from Koretz or even to spite his formal rival Ridley-Thomas is unknown. What is known is that Koretz was one unhappy Councilman.
After public comment closed, Los Angeles Councilman Herb Wesson, who chairs the Expo Board, allowed Koretz unlimited speaking time as though he were a seated board member. Koretz took advantage with a strong attack on many of the parts of the environmental documents, especially the traffic study, that Cheviot Hills residents had spent hours attacking during public comment. While he couldn't vote, some of Koretz's concerns were later addressed by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Rosendahl. Koretz railed against the quality of the traffic studies at intersections, especially the crossings at Sepulveda, Westwood, and Overland.
Supervisor Yaroslavsky made a pair of motions that somewhat addressed Koretz's concerns. The first requires further study of whether or not to elevate the crossing at Sepulveda Boulevard, which would cost an extra $17 million. The second addresses the concerns of the group Expo Greenway and put off the decision on whether or not to have a parking lot or park space at Westwood Station. Rosendahl seconded both motions, although he seemed ready to just support "park over parking" at Westwood Station. Each motion passed unanimously.
Rosendahl's support was somewhat of a surprise to people closely watching the Board. The Councilman had been a very vocal supporter of grade-separated intersections, but ultimately supported certification of environmental documents without elevating rail at the intersections. He did use his vote to get assurances from the Construction Authority staff that they would create a Bike Advisory Committee to help with issues such as crossings, access to the bike path, and parking and an Urban Design Committee to help with the station design. Some opponents of certification of the environmental documents focused their comments at Rosendahl for not sticking to his guns, but with the vote going against grade-separation with or without his vote, his political pragmatism might pay dividends for cyclists and residents in the future.
The major question that remaining, is whether or not there will be a legal challenge to the Expo Board's decision to move forward? It's long been assumed that with the amount of money being raised, and their forceful public statements, that Neighbors for Smart Rail will move quickly to challenge the Board's decision in court. The Times raised the issue in their coverage of the meeting, and while a final decision hasn't been announced, it does seem all-but-certain:
Robert P. Silverstein, an attorney representing a coalition of Westside homeowners' associations called Neighbors for Smart Rail, said his clients support extending the rail line but feel strongly it can be made better.
"I want to be clear that my client is not opposed to the project, but is opposed to it being built without below grade, grade separation between Overland and Sepulveda," he said at Thursday's public hearing of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority board. "Build it, but build it right."
If an announcement on a lawsuit is coming, you'll be able to read about it here at Streetsblog. In the meantime, given all of the complaining I do about Board and Chair conduct at Metro Board meetings, I should note that not only did Councilman Herb Wesson do a superb job chairing the meeting and respecting everyone's views, but the Board didn't act like a group of school children who were eying the clock waiting for the recess bell. Even with Mayor Villaraigosa announcing his layoffs, the City Councilmen didn't threaten to bolt the meeting if the public would just shut up and let them do their job and waited nearly five hours to cast their votes. It's a positive sign that all seven Board seats cast votes, even if Ridley-Thomas needed a surrogate to do so. The Metro Board would do well to follow their example.