Look both ways: safety concerns remain amid Expo Line opening

After several years of nearly constant construction, the time has come for a smoother connection between downtown Los Angeles and the city of Santa Monica, with an expansion of the Los Angeles Metro's Expo Line. Beginning today, tourists and locals will be able to ride into downtown Santa Monica, specifically all the way to Colorado and 4th street, just a few blocks from the Santa Monica Pier.

As with any new street-level rail project, the Expo Line extension brings safety and hazard concerns. These concerns have only been increased by the multiple traffic accidents that have occurred during the train line's testing period, including a derailment last December.

While the $1.5 billion project is undoubtedly impressive, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that there are no rail-crossing arms at 7 of the 16 street-level intersections within the city of Santa Monica.

New lights have been implemented next to original standing traffic lights to signal when a train is crossing, but there are no physical barriers in place to physically prevent drivers from driving onto the tracks at these intersections in downtown Santa Monica.

According to officials, safety will depend on increasing awareness among the community through ad campaigns, the extra traffic signals and drivers responsibly following the rules of the road.

Dave Sotero, a representative of the LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority's (LACMTA) Public Information Office, said that LACMTA has gone to great lengths to ensure the safety of the community members by announcing the opening many months in advance.

“It’s very important people learn to negotiate with the intersections and change their behavior,” said Sotero,

Sotero also mentioned a multitude of pre-revenue operations that the LACMTA has put the Expo Line extension through. This included putting the subsystems, train and tracks through their paces via regular testing, and making sure the community is acclimating to the frequency of the train passing by.

Safety measures include traffic signals, warning lights, and fences along the line's center to deter jaywalking.

Asked about the accidents that occurred along the line during the testing phase, Sotero said, “They were minor. It’s typical when you have a rail service.”

When asked about the decision to leave out these precautionary arms, Gaby Collins, a representative of The Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, pointed out that these were not needed as the train is “street run and has to follow the same rules as vehicles” including traffic signals and speed limit.

The City of Santa Monica’s Department of Transportation was contacted about the decision to leave out rail guards, but no comment has been made as of yet.

In addition to lights and signals, the LACMTA is also placing “Safety Ambassadors” along multiple intersections to observe traffic conditions and report them to Metro and local authorities in order to help prevent accidents in the future.

Hector Alvarado, one of these Safety Ambassadors, when asked about the lack of safety arms said, “I don’t think [it’s a problem] because the city also pays attention to these problems. So, let’s say, for example, if the city [realizes they need the arms], they can tell the Federal Transit Administration, ‘Hey, we need this.’”

Despite these safety concerns, along with the other concerns which have been raised by the community during city council meetings, residents and business owners seem generally excited about the expansion. As Lou Moench, owner of Tulip Cafe on Euclid and Colorado, said about the Expo Line, “Oh yeah, I couldn’t be happier about it!”