The following interview was conducted on June 14, 2022 between Habib Balian and Damien Newton. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Damien: Welcome to a special edition of the SGV Connect Podcast. Today, I’ll be interviewing Habib Balian, the executive director of the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority. As you are listening right now, the Construction Authority is holding a press conference to celebrate the 50% completion of the extension out to Pomona which is scheduled to open sometime in 2025.
This interview is a summary of where they are in construction and what is next for the project. It’s a short 10 minute interview and we’ll get right to it after I remind you that.
SGV Connect is supported by Foothill Transit, offering car-free travel throughout the San Gabriel Valley with connections to the new Gold Line Stations across the Foothills and Commuter Express lines traveling into the heart of downtown L.A. To plan your trip, visit Foothill Transit. “Foothill Transit. Going Good Places.”
We are posting this podcast live, just as the authority is finishing its press conference. Can you give us some of the highlights and tell us, ‘what’s next?”
Habib: Well as far as the highlights so far, we’ve spent a good portion of the time on this contract since we signed the joining venture with Parsons in the fall of 2019 completing the design. We had an agreement with the stakeholders on all the details of the project.
Then we began the extensive work of relocating the utilities, we made sure we had the grade crossings organized, that we had buy-in from the cities who will be a part of it. We did the relocation for the freight track, which is a significant portion of this job. We had over $150 million of project cost was dedicated to the relocation of the freight track. We’ve now completed most of the grade crossings, about 21 grade crossings are done. Light rail track installation is about half completed. Station construction has started.
So there’s a lot that’s happened so far, including extensive work on bridges, and abutments and sound walls. That makes about 50% total of the project.
Damien: I was going to ask about how we reached the 50% number. It’s not like you have exactly 50% of the tracks down, there’s a lot of other things: stations, abutments, etc, that go into this project. You feel you’re at the halfway point.
Habib: Yes, we look at all the factors. It’s not like every part is exactly half-done. Because this project is staged work we look at the dollars spent, the man hours expended and see where we are on the schedule. When you look at all those things, we are at the 50% mark when you look at all those factors included.
We are on track to complete construction late in 2024, which is just over two years from now.
Damien: I assume most Streetsblog readers will know this already, but just to be clear: completing construction in 2024 doesn’t mean ‘open in 2024.’ There’s still work that Metro has to do and people shouldn’t expect the line to be open until sometime in 2025.
Habib: We do ‘substantial completion.’ We complete a certain amount of work with the contractor and then Metro will do some pre-revenue operations. As they do that, they prepare their staff for the opening and then they will set the opening date.
So while we have a completion date with our contractor, and we’re on pace to meet that date in 2024, you are correct that when we give it to Metro they will set the ultimate opening date that we suspect will be in 2025.
Damien: If I remember correctly from past Metro projects, it’s usually about six months from the hand-off to opening day if everything goes according to plan.
We actually had a similar conversation to this when we opened the first stage of the Gold Line Extension a couple of years ago. One of the things we discussed was Phase II, what is happening right now. Can we talk about Phase III and what the Authority is going to be doing in a couple of years, I assume we’re not just going to close shop.
Habib: Our plan is to complete the project per the state mandate, which is to Montclair. Our focus has always been on extending it through Claremont and to Montclair. Even though we only have funding to Pomona, we have approval to go all the way to the county line and the right-of-way to Montclair which is our ultimate goal.
Right now we’re working with our state legislators to obtain funding, $748 million in state funding, that will get the project completed. We’re very hopeful that as the budget process goes forward, there are billions of dollars set aside for transportation. There are very few projects that are shovel ready that are environmentally cleared and engineered and are ready to go as the Gold Line is.
We’re hopeful that when the budget is approved that we’ll be at the top of the list and we’ll be able to get the project all the way from Pomona to Montclair.
Damien: I wanted to talk about that a little bit also. Montclair is not in L.A. County, but San Bernardino County. Does that create any extra challenges, both coordination and funding, that don’t exist when you’re just dealing with one county?
Habib: It makes it a little more complicated, but we do have the state mandate. We’ll work with San Bernardino County officials and Montclair officials to clear out any issues we might have. It’s more complicated, but the City of Montclair is very dedicated to getting the extension to their transit center. From a planning sense, it makes a lot of sense to make that connection.
I’m hopeful that will happen and there is a lot of enthusiasm to tie the two counties together. Color of money issues exist, we can only use L.A. County dollars up to the county line. All the funds used to cross that line will be state dollars, and San Bernardino dollars.
Damien: When I really covered Metro when I was the Streetsblog LA editor, the mantra for new projects was ‘on time and on budget,’ ‘on time and on budget,’ ‘on time and on budget.’
I imagine it would be difficult to say that for this project, but it would make for a great headline. At the 50% point are we on time and on budget?
Habib: We are on time and on budget despite the challenges that we’ve had. Supply chain issues, high inflation, getting the workforce…all those things. Despite all that we’ve maintained and ‘on time and on budget schedule.’
We’ve had very few change orders on this project, although there are a few in the pipeline. But from everything we can tell from where we are, we believe we are in very good shape to complete this project on schedule within our budget. We’ve had excellent coordination with our contractor and with the cities. We’ve been able to stay on-budget with approvals even during COVID.
There were issues in the supply chain with concrete and steel, everything that’s been in the headlines the last couple of years. Because we had a contract that’s been signed in 2019, we locked in all of our prices and avoided what a lot of projects that are just getting started are seeing now, which is sticker shock.
But we avoided all that. We got into the market at the right time, and despite COVID and all the issues that have come since then we are in a very good place with this project. We are very proud of that.
Damien: We’re approaching our time limit at the moment, but is there anything you’d like to add before closing or should we link to the press release and call it a morning.
Habib: Well, you can link to the press release, but keep in mind that when this project is open and Metro makes all the modifications to this system with the Downtown Connector and Expo and L Line and A Line; this system is going to be expanded to a new area of the county. People from Long Beach will be able to visit Montclair and Pomona in a way that they aren’t able to right now.
We’re very excited with all the new projects that are opening at Metro as we’re opening this. It’s very exciting for L.A. County and I think people are going to be very pleased with all of this.
Damien: I get out to Pomona from my perch in West L.A. about once a year and I will tell you: I am very much looking forward to not having to get into my car for that trip.
Habib: Alright Damien, thank you.
Damien: No, thank you for your time. Good luck and be well.