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Environmental Challenges to L.A. Rail Line

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A shopping center in L.A.'s Little Tokyo neighborhood sued federal and city officials to try to stop construction of a 1.9-mile underground rail line in downtown Los Angeles.

Japanese Village LLC, owner of the Japanese Village Plaza, sued the Federal Transit Administration, which approved funding for the light railway line, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and two top FTA officials, in Federal Court.

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority would run the railroad.

The shopping center wants the project, known as the Regional Connector Transit Corridor, enjoined, citing violations of federal environmental, administrative and transit laws.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites hotel has filed a similar complaint against the same agencies, claiming the project will disrupt its business and cost it money.

The Japanese Village claims the FTA failed to consider an above-ground alternative, or look at ways to reduce the impact on Little Tokyo Historic District's residents and businesses.

The new rail line would connect the Metro Blue Line, Metro Gold Line and Metro Expo line, reducing transfers and travel time for 90,000 daily passengers. It includes three new underground stations: at 2nd and Hope, 2nd and Broadway, and 2nd and Central.

But Japanese Village claims: "FTA failed to analyze feasible mitigation measures or alternatives for many of the project's significant environmental impacts. These impacts are concentrated on the residents and businesses of the historic Little Tokyo community, including Japanese Village Plaza, owned by plaintiff Japanese Village LLC. The project's severe environmental burdens - including an intensive four- to five-year construction effort and 88,200 daily passenger-trips after project completion - will be disproportionately borne by Little Tokyo's minority population."

Calling the project "unprecedented in the community's history," the shopping center claims that construction will "blockade the community" with trucks, bulldozers, excavators, cranes and drill rigs.

"The project would require tunnel-boring machines to drill directly beneath Japanese Village Plaza, creating two tunnels in a 75-foot wide envelope located a mere 15 feet below the surface and only 10 feet below Japanese Village Plaza's building's foundations. These activities entail significant noise impacts and subsidence risks that may impair Japanese Village Plaza's ongoing commercial viability," according to the complaint.

After digging up 20,000 cubic yards of soil for an underground launching shaft, tunnel-boring machines will drill tunnels beneath the 92,000 square-foot plaza, which includes 40 restaurants and stores, the landowner says.

"After construction of the launching shaft, the tunnel-boring machines could operate continuously, with two 10-hour shifts occurring every day of the week. Excavated material from the tunnel-boring machines (called 'spoils') would be loaded on mine cars, transported back through the railway tunnels beneath Japanese Village Plaza to the launching shaft, hoisted out of the shaft by a crane, and loaded on haul trucks for transport and disposal, which would further clog Little Tokyo's streets and create a morass of traffic, safety, access, and parking impacts for local businesses and residents," the lawsuit states.

The project would exceed the FTA's "annoyance thresholds," with noise from passing trains expected to reach a frequency of 63 Hertz, the shopping center says.

The FTA calls surface cracks and damage to residences and storefronts "insignificant impacts," according to the complaint.

"This apparent disregard for the project's burdens on local businesses and residents is precisely the type of unfairness that NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] and the tenets of environmental justice are designed to disclose and prevent," the complaint states.

It adds: "Upon completion, the project will create daunting new challenges for Little Tokyo's residents and businesses. The project will displace a substantial amount of the off-site parking that is the lifeblood of local businesses, while at the same time increasing the demand for parking near a new perimeter rail station serving Los Angeles's Central Business District and the City's westside. The never-ending passage of trains beneath Japanese Village Plaza will be audible and highly annoying to the Plaza's businesses."

In short: "The construction of the railway directly beneath the heart of Little Tokyo will also severely restrict development potential in the area, stifling the community's ability to address its future commercial, residential, and infrastructure needs."

Japanese Village wants the project enjoined for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and The Federal Transit Law. It also seeks courts costs, and a court order vacating approval for the rail line.

It is represented by Robert Crockett, with Latham & Watkins.

Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told Courthouse News that the Federal Transit Administration knows of the complaint but declined to comment.

Metro spokesman Dave Sotero told Courthouse News it would continue to work with Japanese Plaza and Little Tokyo community stakeholders "to address their concerns in the development" of the rail project.

"Based on their input during the environmental process, Metro developed a new, completely underground alignment to avoid at-grade crossings in this historic district," Sotero said in an email. "The final underground alignment requires that the tunnel be shifted slightly to travel underneath Japanese Village Plaza."

He added that the action represents "specific Little Tokyo community mitigation to reduce construction-related impacts from cut and cover operations and to minimize property acquisitions to as few as possible."

"Metro has committed to perform additional noise mitigation and preserve vehicular and pedestrian access during construction, as it does with all its construction projects," Sotero said.

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