Arguing Over Crenshaw-LAX Rail Project

A dispute over whether the line should go above or below ground threatens to derail progress.

Efforts to build a long-awaited rail line to Los Angeles International Airport could be slowed amid arguments about whether the Crenshaw-LAX line should be above ground or below.

A lawsuit demanding that the line be built below ground as a subway, rather than at street level, was delivered to Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials on Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

News of the suit came on the same day that the Metro board voted to shore up funding for the project by allocating an additional $34.4 million for it. The allocation brings the total cost of the line so far to $1.75 billion, spokeswoman Gayle Anderson told NBC LA.

The lawsuit was filed by a neighborhood group called the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which has long argued that the rail line should be built below ground. The group says that if the 8.5-mile train were built at street level, it would disrupt business and traffic along Crenshaw Boulevard, the storied heart of LA's African-American business community.

Roderick Diaz, the project manager for the planning phase of the rail project, said it's certainly true that construction of the line will be disruptive. But he said the agency was working hard to minimize the impact on neighbors and businesses.

"We try to be as cooperative and as much of a good neighbor as is possible," Diaz said.

The suit was filed just weeks after President Barack Obama said he would fast-track the project in order to speed up federal approvals for it.  

Calls and an email to the Crenshaw Subway Coalition were not immediately returned on Thursday, 

However, the group said on its blog that the suit challenges environmental studies that had been prepared about the impact of building the light rail project.

“Crenshaw Blvd is the last black business corridor in Southern California,” said Jackie Ryan, past president of the Leimert Park Village Merchants Association. “Five to six long years of street-level construction ... will vibrate all down Crenshaw Blvd as people avoid the disruptive street-level construction zone."

The group also wants a subway station at Leimert Park, long a center for African-American businesses, restaurants and homes. The Metro board has said it would allow the station - but only if contractors can build it without increasing the cost for the line overall.

The regional rail system has long been criticized for failing to offer a direct route to Los Angeles International Airport. The new line is meant to provide commuters with better service to LAX, and also serve a number of South Los Angeles neighborhoods.

The line, however, will still not go all the way to LAX.

It will stop about a mile away from the terminals. Officials are considering ways to close that last gap. One possibility is for LAX to build a tram or other conveyance to bring passengers to the terminals, Diaz said. Another would be to extend the Metro rail line for a mile.

Or, he said, passengers could keep doing what they're doing now: riding the train (sometimes two trains, and sometimes three) and then transferring to a bus for a final ride to LAX. 

Or they could drive.

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