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The Expo/Culver City Standoff Drags On, But Authority Says It Won’t Affect Opening (Updated: 8:45 P.M.)

It's been two weeks since staff for Culver City and members of the Expo Construction Authority faced off in a public meeting over the status of the Culver City Station and money that the Culver City has promised the Authority.

When Streetsblog first reported on the controversy, the fear was that the standoff could effect the opening of the line itself, now tentatively scheduled for early next year.  However, Expo staff has clarified that the station is nearly complete and work on the station will continue.  What is being put on hold for now are other improvements to the station area such as the bike path and road improvements.  While these amenities are desirable, especially for the cyclists that have been promised the path for years, they aren't needed to run a light rail line.  Culver City transportation staff point out that Expo has stopped work on these "amenities" but that they're included in the FEIR as mitigation.

This isn't just good news for Expo and and the waiting rail enthusiasts, but also for Culver City.  "We're as excited as anyone about the Expo Line opening," explains Culver City Manager John Nachbar, "We want it to happen as soon possible."  The Vice-Mayor for Culver City sounded similarly upbeat in a recent article in the Culver City Times.

With that issue out of the way, there is still the matter of what is at the heart of the conflict between the Authority and the city.  The Expo Construction Authority is still waiting on a pair of lump sum payments from Culver City while the City is waiting for an agreement on an easement that is needed from Metro for the T.O.D. that is planned for Culver City.

Originally, the Expo Line was going to end at a temporary, street-level  station at Culver City until Phase II was brought online.  The Authority and Culver City reached an agreement to build a permanent aerial station as part of Phase I with the Authority raising $50 million and Culver City coming up with an additional $4 million.  Culver City had promised $4 million in value towards the construction of a station in a letter to the station.  Now the City and the Authority are locked in debate over what constitutes "$4 million in value."

For it's part, Culver City claims that they are trying to give the Authority $2.4 million that will cover the majority of their debt.  Why won't Expo take those funds?  They're concerned that because a chunk of these grants, $1.43 million, comes from Federal "5309 Intermodal Funds" they won't be allowed to use the bulk of them for Expo.  These funds are federally mandated for bus and busway improvements.  While the FTA had approved a list of construction items associated with Expo earlier this year, but when Expo scaled back portions of its mitigation plans some of those items were removed from Expo's planned projects.  Thus, Expo wants money to cover the construction work that was already done, but Culver City feels that Expo is giving them moving targets to reach their $4 million agreement.

A second issue preventing the resolution of this $4 million is what to do with the bike path.  The path is scheduled to run through Culver City on its way to Santa Monica, but unlike the City of Los Angeles, Culver City wants Metro to control the maintenance and policing of the path and wishes to sell the land to Expo/Metro and to credit their account with Expo as part of their payment.  Culver City argues that until recently, Metro had always claimed they would be responsible for maintaing the path.  I don't think your average cyclist cares who will be in charge of the path when it's completed, and staff for the Authority and City have both assured me that they believe this issue will be ironed out soon.

But that's only one of two issues between the Authority and city.  The second is another $2.9 million that Culver City owes Expo as payment for the additional construction and deeper columns needed to allow for additional parking that is required by the transit oriented development project that is planned for the station area.  The additional construction that was needed has already been completed, but as of yet no funds have changed hands.  Culver City won't hand over the funds until an easement agreement, guaranteeing access to the area so that Culver City can begin construction of a subterranean parking lot that is needed for their development to move forward.

"The entire reason we were willing to pay extra to have the bridge structure strengthened was so that we could expand onto Metro ROW for subteranean parking structure or the  bridge strengthening wouldn't be needed," explains Nachbar.  He went on to say that the city is placing the $2.9 million into an escrow account to be handed over after the easement agreement is completed.

That Culver City is working on an escrow agreement, this news caught Expo officials off-guard.  Expo Authority Spokesperson Gabriella Collins writes, "We have not received anything from Culver City showing that the funding has been put into escrow nor has Culver City communicated that to Metro or the Authority." (Note, since I talked to Expo Staff early yesterday evening, the funds were placed in escrow and Culver City sent a formal notice to the Expo Construction Authority)

While Expo awaits word that the money is in escrow, the appearance of the funds in an account won't make the issue go away on its own.  First, the agency fronted the $2.9 million for construction and is miffed that they haven't received payment.  Second, a easement agreement for Expo/Metro property isn't a simple document.  Even though Culver City has already written a first draft, it's not as though the negotiations have been completed.

But from Culver City's standpoint, why would they pay extra for a project until they know they'll be able use the project as they planned before they agreed to pay extra money.

So the standoff between the City and Authority drags on, but as Expo finishes the construction of the station, at least it's not dragging the whole region with it.

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