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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

July 2015

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Metro pushes an ambitious rail-building agenda in car-centric Los Angeles


— by Julie Sneider, senior associate editor

Los Angeles may be considered the "world capital of car culture" — as L.A. Weekly declared it last year — but the transit agency serving Los Angeles County is pursuing one of the most aggressive light-rail expansion programs in the nation.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, known locally as Metro, is currently overseeing five major rail projects under construction: the Crenshaw/LAX; the Regional Connector; the Purple Line Extension; the Exposition Transit Corridor, Phase 2 to Santa Monica; and the Gold Line Foothill Extension through the San Gabriel Valley foothills. The first three are being built by Metro, and construction authorities are building the other two. When completed, Metro also will operate the Expo Transit and Foothill Extension lines.

Although the projects are receiving hefty sums of federal funds, all five are being paid for in part with dollars from Measure R, a half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2008 for Los Angeles County to use to finance new transportation projects. Metro officials say the projects will help the agency offer alternative transportation options to congested roadways, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the L.A. economy. The projects — especially the Regional Connector — also are designed to help riders more easily use the entire Metro rail system.

Whether the new and/or extended rail lines prompt Angelenos to exchange their four wheels for Metro TAP cards remains to be seen. At minimum, the projects are expected to appeal to the city’s growing population of millennials, who surveys indicate are more inclined to consider riding public transit systems over owning and driving a car.

And the city's frequent ranking as first or second worst among U.S. cities for traffic jams only gives Angelenos of all ages more reason to consider taking the train. Which is why Metro is pursuing an ambitious rail-building agenda.

The Crenshaw/LAX, Regional Connector and Purple Line Subway Extension projects — which combined will cost more than $5 billion — also aim to address one of passengers' main frustrations with the system: It's impossible to take a train across the county without making multiple transfers, taking short walks and perhaps riding a bus or two to reach their destination.

Metro held official groundbreaking ceremonies on the projects last year. All three are design-build ventures, which project administrators say will protect taxpayers from potential cost overruns.

LAX Airport link

Of the three projects, the $2 billion Crenshaw/LAX is the furthest along and has a planned opening in 2019. The primary contractor is Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors, a joint venture between Walsh Construction and J.F. Shea Group. When completed, the 8.5-mile extension will run from the existing Expo Line at Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards to the Green Line, and will serve the cities of L.A., Inglewood and El Segundo, as well as parts of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Eight new stations will be built, as well as six bridges, three park-and-ride lots and a new light-rail maintenance facility next to the line at the Southwestern Yard near LAX Airport.

The Crenshaw project also is designed to ease passenger access to LAX via Green Line trains that eventually will connect to the future people-mover known as the Airport Metro Connector.

Since January 2014, much of the project has focused on design, which is now 85 percent to 100 percent complete depending on the area, says Charles Beauvoir, project director.

"There will be an overlap in design and construction, so they've completed the design for some elements of work and are proceeding with construction in other areas," he says. "We started construction in April or May 2014 for the supportive excavation for the underground stations."

Underground boring systems will be used to create the tunnels and cut-and-cover construction will be used to develop the underground stations, a "complex dynamic" that requires the expertise of designers and subcontractors with a range of backgrounds and experience, Beauvoir says. Three of the eight stations and slightly more than two miles of the route will be underground.

Cut-and-cover requires excavation of a massive hole, installation of support walls and other structures to give crews access to the underground station locations, and decking placed over the excavation site so that traffic can move over the area during construction.

Fast-track approach to construction

As part of the excavation for the underground stations, Metro is employing a "cutting-soil-mixing" process to stabilize loose soil. A 100-foot-tall rig mixes the soil with chemicals and water as the machine cuts into the ground. The mixture creates a plasticized and uniform soil mass that is used to support and strengthen the excavation site.

By mid-May, Metro had begun the excavation and decking work on the third and final underground station — the Crenshaw/Vernon. And by early June, the Crenshaw/Expo station excavation reached a depth of 40 feet and was on its way to 80 feet deep; and a shaft elevator was being built to support construction activity as crews continued the underground utility work.

Other activities along the line this summer will include pot holing, steel beam installation and additional underground utility work. Rail welding on the right of way in the project's southern segment began in June, as had falsework for the support columns of the La Brea Bridge. Falsework on support columns for a bridge over Manchester Avenue in Inglewood will be underway soon, as will preliminary construction of a bridge that will cross Interstate 405.

The project likely won't be ready for the tunnel-boring machine (TBM) until later this year. As part of a community outreach effort, Metro will hold a contest to name the TBM, a tradition in the tunnel-boring construction realm, says Beauvoir.

To keep the Crenshaw/LAX project on schedule, building is occurring along the entire alignment simultaneously.

"We have to have multiple fronts moving," he says. "So, it's a fast-track approach to design and construction."

Downtown connections

Work also is advancing on the Regional Connector project. The strategy behind the 1.9-mile underground light-rail segment underneath downtown L.A. is to give riders easier access to the Gold, Blue, Expo, Red and Purple lines, and provide a "one-seat ride" across Los Angeles County, says Girish Roy, deputy executive officer for the Regional Connector project.

The alignment will extend from the Gold Line Little Tokyo/Arts District Station to the 7th Street/Metro Center Station; it will enable riders to transfer to the Blue, Expo, Red and Purple lines and bypass Union Station. Depending on where one is traveling, the Connector will help riders shave 19 minutes off their current travel time, says Roy.

The $1.4 billion project includes the construction of three new stations, one each at 1st Street/Central Avenue, 2nd Street/Broadway, and 2nd Place and Hope Street. The connector is slated for completion in 2020, and the contractor is Regional Connector Constructors (RCC), a partnership between Skanska USA Civil West California District Inc. and Traylor Bros. Inc., in association with Hatch Mott MacDonald.

Take a seat and enjoy the ride

The extension will offer passengers a one-seat ride across Los Angeles County. From the Gold Line, riders can travel from Azusa to Long Beach, and from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica without transferring lines. The extension also will provide connectors to other rail lines at the 7th Street/Metro Center.

Metro spokesman Rick Jager offered this example of how the Regional Connector will make it easier for Metro riders to travel across the county: A rider wants to travel from Long Beach south to Pasadena. Under the current Metro rail system, that passenger would have to make three transfers using the Blue, Red and Gold lines to make the trip.

“With this project, the Regional Connector will link the Blue Line with the Gold Line, so someone coming from Long Beach can just stay on the train all the way to Pasadena and not have to make any transfers,” Jager explains. "That's why we call it a one-seat ride, and that's the significance of why we call it the Regional Connector. Even though it is being built in downtown Los Angeles, it benefits the entire region by connecting them."

An official groundbreaking ceremony was held in September 2014. Since then, the majority of construction work has emphasized utility relocation, creation of a construction-staging site for the eventual TBM machine, station excavation work, and preparation of shoring and final design plans.

"We expect to finish the majority of civil design by the end of this year, and we also have the systems design that will continue from the beginning of the first-quarter of next year," says Roy.

Metro also has been acquiring property and buildings along the route that will be demolished in preparation for station locations. Demolition of some buildings has begun. The contractor is performing potholing and trenching activities to make sure utilities will not be in the way when crews install shoring systems.

Stakeholders' concerns about construction

In addition to dealing with the technical issues of constructing a subway alignment underneath downtown Los Angeles is the practical side of meeting regularly with property owners above ground to address concerns about the impact of construction on their businesses. Project officials meet regularly with property owners to develop plans aimed at addressing concerns.

"Being downtown, we have a lot of issues with all the stakeholders, such as maintaining their access to the street and to their garages, and maintaining pedestrian access to their businesses. And of course, noise, vibration, dust mitigation and aesthetics are big issues for them," Roy says.

Last year, some downtown business owners sued Metro, alleging that the agency did not properly analyze the impact that the cut-and-cover tunneling on a portion of Flower Street would have on their businesses. A judge ruled largely in favor of Metro, but did require the agency to reassess its tunneling method in a draft supplemental environmental impact statement. The statement was issued in mid-June, and public hearings were scheduled for late June and early July.

Tunneling isn’t expected to begin until next year, Roy says. Late this year, the TBM will be brought in from Seattle, where it was used for a Sound Transit project, and assembled for use by Metro.

"By next year May, we will put the TBM in the hole and start mining," he adds.

A connection going west

In November 2014, the official groundbreaking was held for the first segment of the Purple Line Subway Extension, a four-mile, three-station extension to the Westside of Los Angeles slated to open in 2023. Skanska, Traylor, Shea (STS) is the contractor.

The project would extend the subway nine miles west from the Wilshire/Western terminus, feature seven new stations and provide rail service to some of L.A.’s busiest destinations, such as Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood.

The Purple Line Extension is "critically important" because it will connect west L.A. to Metro’s growing rail network, making it possible for passengers to travel between downtown and Westwood in 25 minutes, according to Dennis Mori, Metro’s executive officer of project management, who responded to questions via email.

In January, the notice to proceed was issued to STS to begin the $1.64-billion design-build contract, which includes twin-bored tunnels, the stations, systems and track, Mori said.

The contractor has developed design engineering plans and preformed potholing for utilities and geotechnical exploration in several locations. The new stations at Wilshire/La Brea, Wilshire/Fairfax and Wilshire/La Cienega will be built using excavation from the top down, under temporary concrete street decking, beneath Wilshire Boulevard.

The agency is in the process of acquiring the properties it needs to complete the project, and has begun demolition near the Wilshire/La Brea area to create a construction staging yard, Mori said. That work is being done in preparation for the pile installation for excavation support expected to begin late this year and continue through 2016.

To assist the "mom and pop" businesses that will be affected by construction activity, Metro established a Business Interruption Fund to provide financial assistance, as well as an "Eat, Shop and Play" advertising program. Key construction milestones to be met this year include the pile installation between Orange Drive and Detroit Street along Wilshire Boulevard, which will be done prior to excavation at the future Wilshire/La Brea station.

Tar pits, gassy soil and other unique challenges

Among construction challenges unique to this project: tunneling through ground conditions that include gassy soil and groundwater, as well as tar sands in and around the La Brea Tar Pits, according to Mori. The tunnels will be excavated using closed-face, pressurized TBMs that will reduce gas exposure for workers and the public. Enhanced ventilation systems will be used where necessary, and tunnel and station linings are designed with barrier systems that help protect against water and gas leakage.

“During construction and operations, safety codes require rigorous and continuous gas monitoring, alarms, automatic equipment shut-off and additional personnel training,” said Mori.

Also, all three Metro projects are designed to meet rigid standards aimed at protecting safety and ensuring continuous operation in earthquake-prone areas, Metro officials said. The tunnel systems and stations are designed to move with the earth during a quake.

"At public meetings, I always get this question: 'What happens during an earthquake, will I get buried if I'm riding the subway?' And I tell people that I would rather be underground during an earthquake," says Roy. "That is the safest place to be."

Answering questions, keeping the public informed and coordinating communication between Metro, contractors, subcontractors and myriad public- and private-sector stakeholders is by far the most demanding aspect of completing such major infrastructure projects, Metro officials say.

Ultimately, the success of those projects will help determine the public’s support for future expansions of Metro's rail and bus system. A March survey paid for by Metro found that more than two-thirds of L.A. County residents polled indicated they would support a November 2016 ballot measure that would seek to extend the Measure R sales tax to raise even more funds for rail and highway transportation infrastructure.

The voters' apparent willingness to consider extending Measure R funding may yet be another sign that traffic-weary Angelenos are ready and willing to get out of their cars and ride Metro trains.

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