Beverly Hills Brings Its Best Face and Smartest Brains to Yesterday’s Subway Hearing

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Yesterday afternoon must have been surreal for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  At noon, he delivered remarks to an audience of 1,200 of L.A.’s elite at the Westin Bonaventure as part of the Center City Association’s “Treasures” awards.  Jokes about the lackluster performance of the Lakers in the past couple of days were contrasted with the upbeat feelings some have about the suddenly hot Los Angeles Kings and the soccer champions with the Los Angeles Galaxy.  The Mayor avoided having his picture taken with newly minted “treasure” Hugh Hefner.

But the real contrast came an hour and a half later when the crowd of 1,200 cheering Angelenos was traded for several hundred skeptical and irritated residents of Beverly Hills who traveled to Metro headquarters to hear the last effort of Beverly Hills’ seismic experts to convince the Metro Board of Directors that the safest and best route for the Westside Subway will not take it under Beverly Hills.  Instead of hanging out with Hef, Villaraigosa was waiting for Metro Board Member Mel Wilson to call in to a hearing, and when that didn’t work out had to appoint a temporary Board Member to meet quorum.

For those of you just joining us, officials and residents from Beverly Hills are waging open war on the preferred Westside Subway expansion route that would take the subway under the high school.  The Metro Board of Directors was poised to approve the route at last month’s board meeting, citing seismic and geological reports conducted on behalf of the agency until the Beverly Hills City Council requested yesterday’s hearing at an emergency meeting held days before the scheduled Metro Board meeting.

Early reports from the yesterday’s hearing hint that the three hours of testimony didn’t change many minds.  Supervisor Mike Antonovich told the Times that the Beverly Hills’ experts made a good case and chided Villaraigosa for trying to “shove the route down their throats.”  Richard Katz, a Villaraigosa appointee to the Board, sounded more skeptical.

Whether the lack of change is a result of Beverly Hills not proving its scientific point, or because the Metro Board had as much of a chance to understand the science as I did, or whether the fix really is in in Metro headquarters will most likely be determined by a judge.  Representatives of the hills wasted no time clarifying that if and when the Board approves a route that goes under the high school, that a legal challenge under the state’s CEQA environmental law would soon follow.

Once quorum was sort-of established, the presentation was dominated by reports from Beverly Hills’ experts.  Opening arguments and a series of objections came from a trio of lawyers,  Larry Weiner, Kevin Brogan and Robert McMurry. Even if the day wasn’t won inside the Board room, media reports ranging from a “live blog” on Patch to television reports were dominated by Beverly Hills’ take on the subway route.  Instead of bringing its own experts, Metro submitted their reports for the record, basically yielding the media day to the team from Beverly Hills.

Of course, almost all media made mention of the silly “Beverly Hillbillies” YouTube spoof video which stood in stark contrast to the serious and intelligent discussion that happened in the Metro Board Room yesterday.

The first scientist called was Philip Buchiarell from Leighton Consulting.  Buchiarell brought maps showing where his firm discovered faults around the campus and city and pictures of the soil sampled that led to their conclusions.  Leighton consulting using a soil sampling method that is oft-referred to as the “gold standard” because it utilizes trenching, couldn’t find the trenches that Parsons Brinkerhoff found in their study of the school area.  Parsons responded by moving their estimates to other parts of the campus.  Their report is available here.  Metro’s response is available, here.

Next up was Eldon Gath of Earth Consultants International.  Gath reviewed the data by Leighton and found it to be solid.  He described Metro’s response as “frustrating.”

Following Gath was Miles Kenney of Kenney Geo-Science presented on his review of the original Parsons Brinkerhoff report for Metro.  Gath slammed the PB study noting that many of the active faults listed did not, in his professional opinion, actually exist.  Kenney agreed with the research done by Leighton consulting.  He conceded that there are likely faults along Santa Monica Boulevard, but that the faults are likely inactive.

Following a video presentation by Dr. Roy Shlemon, a consulting geologist that confirmed much of what had already been said, Tim Buresh, the lead engineer studying the alignments for the City of Beverly Hills and the former regional director for the High Speed Rail Authority in Southern California, attacked the ridership models that determined the preferred station.

Buresh claimed that the least expensive of the four station options for Century City, one placed under Santa Monica Boulevard with station entrances on either side of the street.  Metro rules out that station citing fault activity in the area, but Buresh argues that if Metro was wrong about the faults under Beverly Hills High School, as demonstrated by the previous witnesses, than it might also be wrong about the Santa Monica Boulevard fault that disqualified a station at this area.

The reaction to Buresh was different than that to the scientific experts.  Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is a supporter of the subway regardless of route, mocked Buresh’s assertion that the subway would be going “through classrooms” by asking if the High School was planning on building classrooms six stories underground.  Buresh responded that the school hadn’t ruled it out.  Board Member Katz mocked Buresh’s position on tunneling under Miramar College when he worked for High Speed Rail.  ”Do you stop caring about kids at a certain age?”

Following Buresh’s testimony, there was no time left for public comment, which actually played to Beverly Hills’ favor.  Regardless of your position on subway routing, the staid intelectual conversation yesterday stands in stark contrast to the hysterical testimony seen at public meetings on the subway in the past.  If you’re trying to make people take your scientists seriously, it probably isn’t a good idea to hand over the microphone to the people that made video with the exploding high school.

The Board clarified that they will be discussing subway routing at next Thursday’s Metro Board meeting, but stopped short of guaranteeing route selection.  Public comment will be part of next Thursday’s Board meeting.

If the Board doesn’t vote next week, the politics of the hearing could change somewhat.  By July, Villaraigosa will be replaced as Metro Board Chair, by Mike Antonovich.