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Expo Line Takes Shape in Santa Monica

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

May 14, 2013 -- A little more than a year after construction started on Phase II of the Expo Line, Los Angeles' newest mass transit project is already making a visible impact on Santa Monica.

Santa Monica Expo Line Framework
Centinela Bridge. Photos by Jason Islas for The Lookout.

Visitors and residents alike traveling on Olympic Boulevard can't miss the several-hundred-foot-long bridge -- one of seven along the Expo Line -- that arches from Bergamot Station northwestward to connect the train with Colorado Avenue.

And no doubt, the traffic cones and heavy construction machinery along Colorado haven't escaped the attention of even the most oblivious traveler. (“Expo Construction Shuts Down Santa Monica Streets This Week,” May 14, 2013).

Construction on the second stretch of the 15.2 mile, $2.4 billion transit project started late last April, and already it has permanently altered Santa Monica's streetscape. With construction scheduled to be completed by 2015, it is plugging along at a steady pace.

Construction Team.

“By summer, we should be placing track,” Robb Fonkalsrud, SKANSKA’s construction project manager, said during a construction tour for The Lookout Friday. The Santa Monica native gestured to a pile of neatly-stacked steel rails behind the Lantana Building.

That building, he said, houses a lot of recording studios, pointing out the galvanized steel posts that workers had planted at even intervals along the future route of the train. Those posts, he said, are for a concrete sound wall.

Driving along the construction site, between Centinela Avenue and Bergamot Station, there's a five mile-per-hour speed limit, Fonkalsrud said from the passenger seat of the black SUV hybrid.

Fourth Street Site.

“Otherwise, the cars kick up too much dust,” he said. “The neighbors don't like that.”

The car passed by a construction crew, busy at work on the Centinela Bridge. Half a dozen workers were filling in the foundation of the half-completed bridge that will be the entrance -- and exit -- to Santa Monica for Expo Line trains.

Officials estimate that by 2030, some 64,000 commuters will ride the Expo Line into Santa Monica daily.

Under Olympic Bridge
Under Olympic Bridge

On Friday, the workers were filling the foundation of the bridge with highly compacted, finely ground dirt instead of concrete. The dirt eventually will be hemmed in all sides by concrete retaining walls, Fonkalsrud explained.

It's called an MSE -- or mechanically stabilized earth -- foundation, he said, adding that it is commonly used by CalTrans in its construction projects.

Once the train arrives in Santa Monica, it will come down from the Centinela bridge and make its first stop at Olympic and 26th Street, next to Bergamot Station in the heart of the city's new arts and creative office district.

Nearby stands the Papermate site, where developer Hines has proposed building a 767,000 square-foot mixed-use residential complex. The project remains in limbo after residents protested its size.

In order to start work on the street, Fonkalsrud said that he and his team will likely need to close the entire intersection at 26th Street and Oympic Boulevard for a weekend.

With continual shifts, that's long enough to get the work done while minimizing the impact on traffic, he said.

From Bergamot Station, the train will travel over Olympic Boulevard.

At the moment, the bridge that will take the train over the busy six-lane boulevard is mostly scaffolding where construction crews will pour the concrete that will eventually support the tracks. Construction on the bridge is about three months in, Fonkalsrud said, and it could take about a year in total to complete.

Perhaps the place where most Santa Monica commuters feel the impact of the Expo Line construction the most is along Colorado Avenue, east of 17th Street, where the train will descend from the bridge and continue along the street.

Construction crews already have reduced Colorado Avenue to a two-lane street, cordoning off the middle lanes for excavation where they will eventually lay tracks.

As the car inches toward the site of the Expo Line's final stop at Fourth Street, the impact on traffic by the construction is clear, although the former site of the Sears Automotive Center in Santa Monica isn't very impressive yet.

It's a flat dirt parcel, full of construction equipment and materials, surrounded by a chain-link fence. But that will soon change.

“We're going to start hitting this place pretty heavy,” Fonkalsrud said. The fence encircling the future site of the Fourth Street station cuts off the two eastbound lanes of Colorado Avenue.

Those lanes will soon become a walkway for passengers disembarking the train, connecting them to the City's $10 million Esplanade project that officials hope will make the stretch of Colorado from the station to the Pier a more “walkable” and “bikeable” street.

Once the work is completed, the streets will be wider and the Expo Line should remove some of the traffic burden, officials said.

When the Expo Line opens to the public sometime in 2016, it will mark the first time a train rolls into to the beachside city since the Pacific Electric “Red Car” Line discontinued service more than fifty years ago.

The new track roughly follows the same route the Pacific Electric trains did until the 1950s, when local rail transit was eventually overtaken by the popularity of private cars and Los Angeles’ world-famous freeway system.

And while City and transit officials remain optimistic, only time will tell if Los Angeles’ new public rail transit sytem can succeed where its predecessor failed.

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