Little Tokyo Businesses Delay Metro Subway Construction Closures to 2016

Metro's Regional Connector subway is already over-budget
Metro’s board took action today to delay Regional Connector subway construction opposed by Little Tokyo business interests

Details are still emerging, but this morning, Metro Board of Directors chair Mark Ridley-Thomas announced that Little Tokyo businesses served Metro with a Temporary Restraining Order against Regional Connector subway construction. The legal threat caused the Metro board to decide to delay track relocation construction that had been announced to begin tomorrow. If the terms are approved, the construction will not begin until January 2016.

The $1.5 billion Regional Connector is a 1.9-mile light rail subway. Connector construction began earlier this year, and is expected to be completed in 2020 or 2021. Its alignment follows Second Street (Alameda to Flower) and Flower Street (2nd to 7th.) The connector will tie together the Metro Blue, Gold, and Expo Lines, making for transfer-free rail trips from Long Beach to Azusa, and from Santa Monica to East L.A.

In November, Metro announced plans to move up the date of the planned relocation of existing Gold Line tracks currently located in the middle of First Street. The relocation had been targeted to begin between February and April of 2016. Metro construction heads had made the decision to move this construction ahead of schedule, tentatively scheduled to begin Friday, December 4 – tomorrow night.

The track relocation construction is expected to last three months, and results in several street and station closures:

  • The Gold Line Little Tokyo Station will be closed. A temporary shuttle will ferry riders between Union Station and Pico Aliso Station.
  • Alameda Street will be reduced to one lane between Temple Street and 2nd Street.
  • Westbound First Street will be closed between Alameda Street and Vignes Street. Eastbound First Street remains open there.
  • First Street between Central and Alameda will be intermittently closed.

Metro CEO Phil Washington attended a contentious meeting with the community earlier this week. From Rafu Shimpo coverage of that meeting:

Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-Do Confectionery, said that December accounted for 25 percent of his yearly sales. He asked Metro to consider delaying the closures to Jan. 2, after the New Year’s holiday. He also expressed frustration that the community was only notified of the changes within the past month.

“It seems outrageous that we would have to inconvenience this entire community just for the fact that the Azusa extension is open, that it’s going to be fully train-only, when you do have a bus bridge that will keep it running. I think that’s a bit disrespectful to our community,” Kito said.

At this morning’s Metro board meeting, Washington explained the need for the early closure. He stated that Metro had encountered an unexpected water line repair that would add a month to construction, and that the agency intended to finish this Gold Line closure in advance of the March opening for the new Foothill Gold Line Extension.

Washington cited a number of concessions that Metro has made to mitigate construction impacts to Little Tokyo including a 4-stop shuttle and encouragement programs via Metro’s business interruption fund.

The current conflict is, to an extent, a continuation of past Regional Connector frustrations expressed by the Little Tokyo’s business community, which had pushed for an at-grade line instead of a subway.

Little Tokyo business owner Kito clarified that the intent of the lawsuit is to delay construction until after the holidays, stressing that a holiday construction closure “maximizes collateral damage.” Kito expressed frustration at Metro’s lack of advance notice; per Kito, Metro gave notice only two weeks ahead of the scheduled closure.

Metro’s board met in closed session for nearly an hour to discuss the Little Tokyo Business Association vs MTA lawsuit. At the end of the session, board counsel announced that the track relocation construction would be delayed to January 2016, if Little Tokyo interests commit to dropping the lawsuit.

Regional Connector road closure permits are up for approval at tomorrow’s meeting [PDF] of the city of Los Angeles’ Board of Public Works.

Construction is just underway, and the Regional Connector is already experiencing more than its share of difficulties. It is complicated to tunnel below historic downtown streets, but this light rail subway is already over-budget and late. Today’s decision likely repairs some of the strained relations with the Little Tokyo community, but it nonetheless also represents a delay. Another delay.

This new subway may well soon be a great mobility resource for the region, but how Metro navigates the current minefield is turning into an important test of Phil Washington’s leadership. Washington inherited the project, but now it’s his to deliver. He needs to balance regional mobility benefits with neighborhood construction impacts, while keeping a lid on escalating costs.

  • CalRobert

    There’s something rather perverse about a neighborhood called “Little Tokyo” fighting a rail project…

  • calwatch

    They are not fighting the project, only asking that the timeframe for the closure avoid the busiest season for their business (as most retail businesses), Christmas/New Years. While making sure the full Gold Line operates Azusa-East LA on March 5, 2016 seems nice, in reality very few people east of SMV will be riding past Little Tokyo to East LA.

  • Jose Escobar

    Perverse? They’re not fighting against it, they’re fighting to make it better. If they hadn’t fought against putting the line above grade, then we wouldn’t benefit from fully underground and faster commute times through this busy downtown corridor.

  • CalRobert

    That’s a good point, thanks for sharing.

  • James Fujita

    This is great news. Little Tokyo should have the Gold Line station open for Japanese New Years celebrations. Any delay will be minor compared to fostering good will with the community.

  • Joe Linton

    I think you’ve got it backwards – from what I’ve read Little Tokyo interests pushed for at-grade rail – because they anticipated that subway construction would be detrimental. http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/08/20/los-angeles-regional-connector-stirs-controversy-in-little-tokyo/

  • AlecMitchell

    They initially fought for below-grade, and then advocated for above-grade when the below-grade plan was fleshed out to require the demolition of the Office Depot site along with cut and cover construction along much of the line. The current route resulted from the later concerns of those Little Tokyo stakeholders, moving the station location to the Señor Fish lot and using TBMs to minimize construction impacts along the route (http://thesource.metro.net/2011/01/12/metro-refines-regional-connector-route-through-little-tokyo/).

    The article you link makes the initial change in preference fairly clear, but predates the final alignment:

    Residents of the neighborhood made their preference for the at-grade option clear at recent community meetings — a preference that has changed markedly since last year’s strong endorsement of a seemingly less intrusive underground option. But the fact that the latter alignment will require the destruction of a building across from the Museum to allow trains to surface aroused controversy.

  • GlobalLA

    They just need to pay off (“reimburse” in PC lingo) this “Kito” guy for his potential losses and MOVE-ON with this regional project. It’s ridiculous to hold this back and waste more money on delays!

  • GlobalLA

    Tell that to the Kito guy…

  • GlobalLA

    And that makes CalRobert’s point even more relevant…

  • GlobalLA

    And how much in financial terms will further delay cost us taxpayers?

  • James Fujita

    This was not an unreasonable request. We will still get the Regional Connector built. Little Tokyo gets to keep the station open during an important time of year.

  • GlobalLA

    I feel for the guy. I own a business myself. But the scale and scope of this project cannot be further constrained when it is over budget and behind schedule. We are talking about millions more of our taxpayer’s money. As a business owner, even I pay taxes!

    Perhaps Metro can provide more financial concessions, but for pete’s sake, if the delay costs us even more than to pay this Kito guy off, it would be stupid not to increase Metro’s Business Interruption Fund.

  • James Fujita

    It’s not just Brian Kito. Do you want to pay off the entire Little Tokyo Chamber of Commerce? Because other businesses will be affected as well.

    In any case, they were talking about starting in February 2016 before they moved it to December. Now they moved it to January. So how much of a delay are we really talking about?

  • AlecMitchell

    I don’t see how. They’re still not fighting the rail line (nor have they ever been as far as I’m aware), they are fighting to mitigate specific significant (if temporary) impacts to their livelihoods.

  • GlobalLA

    It was more in principle than a specific detail. In Tokyo, rail is given far more priority from its sense of planning – totally opposite of what we see here. Yes, I get it we are in auto-centric Los Angeles, but of all places… Little Tokyo? Hence, CalRober’s point.

  • GlobalLA

    Not me, how about Metro since my taxes are also going to them.

    Paying off people isn’t entirely new. It’s called “pay-to-play” with developers because pay-offs seem to be the new norm. Just like USC forking over $20 million to the city to build their Urban Village.

    I have no problem with the delay myself, but if I were Metro, time is money – and its taxpayer’s money we are talking about.

  • All About That Infrastructure

    The City needs to grow a backbone and put a priority on public transportation projects. Bending over backwards for a few businesses is not only going to make the project over-budget and behind schedule. It is going to send a message to the state and federal agencies which fund this project that the City of LA can’t make efficient use of money they are giving them.

  • Neal Broverman

    Well, Little Tokyo stood to lose tons of business during their Xmas season if construction started–so we would have taken a hit with sales taxes if Metro kept their plans to begin in Dec. (which were moved forward with little notice simply to accommodate the Gold Line opening). Someone just didn’t think this through when they announced the opening.

  • GlobalLA

    I can’t disagree with you on that, yes they would have been affected. This is a project management issue and something that the city could have mitigated with both Metro and the local businesses.

    Temporarily increase the Business Interruption Fund?

    Tax subsidizes for the affected businesses?

    They could have also compared the gross sales and tax receipts from last year and have a better projection of sales losses if they proceeded ahead with the construction.

    And wasn’t this Metro CEO recently hired this year?

  • James Fujita

    No, it was a bad public relations move for them to consider closing the station during a very busy and important time of year for the community.

    It is only ONE MONTH. One month back from the December 2015 date, but still a month ahead of the February 2016 date they were considering earlier. Hardly a giant budget busting move for Metro, but a potentially huge difference for Little Tokyo.

  • Considering how they’re burning through cash on the project already, I doubt the one month move will be more than budget dust in comparison.

  • So then project management needs to readjust the schedule again to ensure that this change can have as minimum an impact as possible to the budget. Just this week alone, three Metro projects have hit delays over community objections. Perhaps Metro’s project managers need to be doing a better job in regards to community outreach to avoid having this issue pop up so often.

  • GlobalLA

    Yes, that’s part of project management and a part of that is exactly what you state – community outreach. Public construction can be a contentious issue and what Metro needs to focus on with these businesses is Expectation Management.

  • GlobalLA

    The potentially huge difference for Little Tokyo is getting this Regional Connector and new station online ONE MONTH sooner so that more movement of people can come to Little Tokyo and spend their money for these businesses.

    Delays can be a budget busting move when we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars being managed. You say ONE MONTH, but whose to say there will be another ONE MONTH, and ANOTHER, and ANOTHER? Can you guarantee us there will not be another Kito?

    I do agree with you it was a bad PR move, but I think the new Metro CEO needs to think outside the box and think further ahead for LA’s goals. This isn’t Denver where he last came from. Businesses need to understand the greater benefits for this Regional Connector. Metro and the City of Los Angeles also needs to put their brains together and see how they can better assist these affected businesses financially in the short term.

  • jean_luc_turbo

    It sucks that the MTA had to be forced to be a good neighbor in an act that would have economically damaged Little Tokyo severely.

  • James Fujita

    I don’t think there will be another “just one month” delay here.
    You have to understand that New Years is a giant deal for the Japanese American community, and then things will settle down for a few months until Anime Expo in July, Obon season after that and then Nisei Week is huge in September.
    As long as they have a temporary station during the tunnel construction (which this delay isn’t even for the tunneling, it’s for track relocation), I don’t see there being another problem.

  • GlobalLA

    Disagree in how you are viewing the context of the delay issues. It’s not just about these businesses, it’s about the collectively resistance of Metro’s transportation projects, including this one. More delays will happen unless Metro works to improve its community outreach in an effective matter and learn from its previous mistakes.

    It’s very hard to hear someone like you say things such as “I don’t see there being another problem” when history tells us very well that Metro has been beset with delays quite often in the past since the Blue Line began construction back more than 25 years ago.

  • James Fujita

    Not all complaints are equal. Yes, quite a few community-based delays are unjustified and unnecessary. I hate NIMBYs as much as the next transit fan.
    However, there is no comparison between this one particular example, and say, Beverly Hills.

    When the problem is simple and easily fixable, why needlessly antagonize a community which generally supports the project as a whole?

  • GlobalLA

    This problem transcends beyond your perception of simplicity and quick fixes, in my honest opinion. How this construction schedule is handled (due to seasonal concerns for local businesses) sets precedence on how future concerns are handled, for better or worse.

    It’s like a teacher trying to achieving his or her goal of ensuring the students in a class learn and pass the course. However, instead of a teaching plan and strategy, we let the students scrutinize each homework, test, and exam given to the class. The result is anything but a class, regardless if some students have more merit than others.

    I understand any project will have problems, including delays caused by community concerns. My problem are the collective delays costing taxpayers even more money, and to that both Metro and the affected community need to be more proactive in COLLABORATION instead of the habits of always being reactive when problems arrive.