A judge gave a go-ahead today to the second phase of the Expo Line, ruling against neighbors who have argued the project will snarl traffic on surface streets.

In a tentative ruling, Judge Thomas McKnew found that Expo officials had acted appropriately in approving the project's environmental report.

“EXPO carefully made its decision concerning the project with its environmental consequences in mind,” McKnew wrote.

“Petitioner [Neighbors For Smart Rail] has not established that there

was any prejudicial abuse of discretion. Accordingly, the respondent's

decision should be upheld. The petition is denied.”

Neighbors For Smart Rail vowed to appeal.

“This is just the prolongation of a fight that we've committed to until the end result,” said Colleen Heller, vice president of NFSR. “It ain't over till the fat lady sings.”

Darrell Clarke, co-chair of Friends 4 Expo Transit, said the ruling would clear the way for the Expo Authority to award a construction contract for Phase 2 in February. The project will run from Culver City to Santa Monica, and is currently slated to open in 2015, though it may be delayed.

“This was a very comprehensive environmental document and process,” Clarke said. “They're just trying to nitpick it.”

More from McKnew's ruling:

On Expo's traffic impacts: “The analyses showed that there would be no significant effects to any impacted intersection as a result of the project… There is no evidence that the traffic analysis is inadequate.”

On air quality: “It will have beneficial air quality effect.”

On safety at street crossings: “In response to comments, EXPO undertook additional studies of the at grade crossings at Overland Ave., Westwood Blvd., Sepulveda Blvd., Barrington Ave., and Centinela Ave. The report confirmed that at-grade crossings would be operated in a safe manner.”

On transit oriented development: “The project is compatible and consistent with existing and future land uses… Notwithstanding petitioner's argument, transit oriented development will have beneficial effects through reduced vehicle miles, fewer air emissions, and reduced energy consumption.”

On NFSR's contention that traffic impacts from the Expo Line should be

compared to current conditions, and not to conditions as they would be in 2030 without the line: “To analyze

the project's effects on transportation assuming that the project's

operation is the only change that will occur, is absurd. The very reason

for the project is to address long term transportation concerns.”

On the last point, NFSR attorney John Bowman cited an opinion issued last week in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. Sunnyvale, in which the appeals court invalidated an environmental report because it used future conditions as its baseline of comparison.

McKnew invited both sides to file briefs on the case before he issues his final ruling.

A cover story in the L.A. Weekly last month detailed some of the problems on the first phase of the Expo Line, which will run from downtown L.A. to Culver City. That project is currently a year behind schedule and $287 million over its original budget.

Expo officials say they have learned from the mistakes of Phase 1. Where Phase 1 employed a unique “negotiated design-build” contract, which led to conflicts between the Expo Authority and its contractor, Phase 2 will use a more traditional design-build contract. Expo officials also say they will get faster approvals from third parties — such as regulators and utility companies — which held up construction on the first phase.

LA Weekly