Despite objections from residents who believe that their neighborhood is not the best place for a light rail maintenance facility, the Santa Monica City Council has voted to back a site recommended by the Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Construction Authority.

The council also pledged to look into claims made by Stewart Park neighborhood residents that levels of methane gas near the proposed location were higher than previously reported and to urge the construction authority to do so as well.

The Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Line, commonly known as the Expo Line, will have three stations in Santa Monica — 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard, near Bergamot Station, 17th Street and Colorado Avenue and at Fourth Street and Colorado.

Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager for governmental relations, said that city staff members had investigated the methane claims at the proposed location, which is the city-owned Verizon telephone maintenance facility on Exposition Boulevard and a portion of a parking lot used by Santa Monica College (SMC).

“The environmental concerns have been addressed and were found not to be a hazard,” Vernez told the council.

Vernez gave the council and the public an update from an August meeting when the hybrid alternative was offered by Metro authorities instead of only the Verizon site, the original proposal. At the meeting, the council voted to consider the so-called hybrid location of the existing Verizon facility and the SMC parking lot, but a number of residents of the Pico and Stewart Park neighborhoods complained that their neighborhoods were being targeted for a facility that could bring noise and environmental complications.

Vernez mentioned that the new planned location had been redesigned to eliminate “wheel squeal” from the train and a car wash and cleaning platform would be relocated north of the Verizon property. A 110-foot sound barrier is also proposed to reduce noise from the train and the light rail yard.

“In addition,” Vernez added, “Metro has eliminated the paint and body shop, restricted access to Stewart Street, proposed adding directional lighting to reduce glare and installed landscaping to soften the building faÁade.”

Mayor Ken Genser, as Vernez did at the beginning of the meeting, reminded the audience that the final authority on where the rail yard will be placed lies with Metro. He also commented on what he sees as the transportation authority’s sense of urgency to determine where the maintenance yard should be built.

“It seems like Expo is moving ahead no matter what our position on CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) is,” said the mayor, referring to questions regarding environmental review at the suggested location. “Expo seems to be operating on the basis of ‘we’ll work with you as long as you don’t oppose us or what you’re doing does not slow us down.’

“That seems to be their (modus operandi,)” Genser asserted.

Samantha Bricker, the chief operating officer of the construction authority, said that her agency has been working diligently with Santa Monica officials as well as residents in the neighborhoods that will be affected. Bricker also said it was important to have a site selected so that any necessary environmental work can begin prior to submitting all necessary documents to Expo’s board of directors in January for its approval.

“We have reviewed the hybrid site regarding any environmental issues, and our team did not find anything that would be cause for concern,” Bricker said, echoing Vernez’s earlier statements. “Our final draft is a CEQA document that will give environmental clearance for both the Verizon site and the hybrid site.”

Residents who addressed the council represented a mixture of supporters of the hybrid site and those who remained concerned that Expo has not given sufficient mitigation regarding noise, traffic and potential environmental hazards. Some Stewart Park homeowners have also taken issue with the alignment of the rail station that will stop at nearby Bergamot Station, which will be at grade, or ground level, instead of an elevated track.

Sarah Devine, a Stewart Park resident who lives on Delaware Avenue, took exception with the site’s location, which she pointed out was close to an educational institution, private school New Roads School, on nearby Olympic Boulevard.

“How or why is this (site) so different from the other sites that were not selected because they were close to a school?” she asked.

Darrell Clarke, a former Santa Monica planning commissioner who is also a light rail proponent, commended the city’s staff and Metro officials for crafting a proposal that he feels will satisfy both parties.

“I hear about the impact of the (10) freeway all the time, said Clarke, who lives south of the Verizon facility and is a co-chair for the light rail advocacy group Friends 4 Expo. “A maintenance facility is not the same thing.

“I look forward to the completion of this excellent project,” he concluded.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis stated that it was important to separate safety and the potential impact on neighborhoods.

“There are a number of communities in the country that operate at-grade systems that operate very safely,” Davis noted. “I have seen nothing that leads me to believe that this will be a problem.

“Rail, as a method of transportation, is a safe method.”

Genser also mentioned that the selection of the hybrid site was predicated on approval of a land exchange with SMC officials.

Bricker said that Expo had been in contact with the college and city leaders about the land swap and did not anticipate any problems.

“It’s my understanding that the city and the college are both willing,” she said. “Everyone has been very cooperative and we’re very optimistic that we will be able to work with all parties.”

SMC officials did not return phone calls for comment.

Davis also discussed the environmental concerns that some members of the audience brought before the council.

“City reports show that the ambient levels (of methane gas) are safe,” the councilwoman said.

The Expo Line will begin in downtown Los Angeles and is set to arrive in Culver City in its first stage of construction next year. It is scheduled to arrive in Santa Monica in 2016.

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