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City Manager Reflects on the Gold Line After Pedestrian Fatality

Saturday’s death of a man struck by a train on the notorious Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue crossing rekindles concerns about safety issues.

South Pasadena City Manager Sergio Gonzalez in his office at City Hall. (Photo credit: Ajay Singh).
South Pasadena City Manager Sergio Gonzalez in his office at City Hall. (Photo credit: Ajay Singh).

For South Pasadena, the holiday season ended this past week on a traumatic note: On Saturday afternoon, a Gold Line train hit and killed a pedestrian near the railway crossing along Monterey Road and Pasadena Avenue. The accident once again cast a grim spotlight on the intersection, which has long been a byword for confusion and will henceforth be remembered for a tragic fatality.

South Pasadena Patch sat down with City Manager Sergio Gonzalez on Monday for an in-depth interview about the Gold Line and the thorny safety issues surrounding the Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue intersection. Excerpts:

South Pasadena Patch: What are your hopes for 2014?

City Manager Sergio Gonzalez: I’m a big believer in even numbers and on top of that I’m an optimistic kind of guy. So the glass is always half full for me. For our city, the hopes are to kill the 710 tunnel proposal, to open the Rialto, to accelerate our infrastructure improvements and to continue to move our city forward financially. If I were to have a very successful 2014 as a city manager, it would be to achieve those things, which are within reach, while continuing to run the city appropriately.

Patch: We got off to a distressing start, with the death of a pedestrian on the Gold Line on Saturday. What more do we know about that tragedy and the person who died?

Gonzalez: At this point we don’t have any additional details as to who the person was or what are the potential reasons why he was on the [railway] tracks. Whenever there’s a homicide or loss of life, we typically turn that over to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which has the capacity to handle those investigations more than we can. So, the investigation has been turned over the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and they will be releasing the information as they see appropriate.

Patch: It appears as though the train’s driver sounded the horn but the person on or near the tracks didn’t move away in time. There’s also a bend in the tracks in that area of the crossing on Monterey and Pasadena Avenue.

Gonzalez: Whenever you have an at-grade crossing, there tends to be a lot of risk. And a lot of it has to do with basically mixing a very fast, heavy, moving train with cars and people. So I think the investigation is going to include the speed of the train, interviewing the driver, other factors concerning the [deceased] individual, and if it were the case that the person didn’t move and the horn was sounded, it’s still very difficult to find out exactly what happened when you can only interview one side. So, unfortunately someone lost his life, and it was not a great start for 2014. We’re very sorry for the loss of life and we hope the investigation will come up with more answers than questions.

Patch: What exactly is an at-grade crossing?

Gonzalez: A crossing where there is no separation between the street and the tracks—where the street is on the same level as the tracks, and the tracks neither go over nor under the street. All the crossings in South Pas are at-grade crossings. Some other cities have a combination of both, like Pasadena. The difference is that it’s very expensive to do grade separations. And when you have a construction budget, as the [now defunct] Blue Line Construction Authority did for the Gold Line, you have to determine which intersections to allocate [grade separation] funds for. You try to be within a certain budget, and obviously there was a decision made back then about which intersections would get grade separation and which would not.  

We all know in South Pas that the Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue intersection is a very difficult intersection to maneuver, not only if you’re walking but if you’re also driving. It has also contributed to what we feel is a loss of energy to the Ostrich Farm area down by the city border near the York bridge. The perfect solution would be to do a grade separation. But when you’re looking at $20 million to $30 million, the question is where does that money come from. Our city’s annual budget is $22 million. We certainly couldn’t close down the city to do everything we want to do.

The other thing is that once the construction authority turns the Gold Line over to the local operating agency, which is Metro, then they [the construction authority] are basically removed from any cost considerations and issues of financial support. We would basically have to appeal to the operating entity, which would be Metro. But any changes to the intersection would have to be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees rail crossings for safety. It’s not an easy solution, unfortunately. Little resources are available. And keep in mind that this is a system that is countywide. There are many intersections throughout the county that, I believe, are also dangerous.

Patch: You say everyone knows the Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue Gold Line crossing is a difficult one. What are the difficulties?

Gonzalez: It’s a confusing intersection. You have several streets merging into one [Monterey Road] and you have the train crossing two of them [Pasadena Avenue and Monterey Road]. The signage—whether you’re making a left or staying straight on Pasadena Avenue—is confusing, unless you know exactly where you’re going.

Patch: But at all times when the train is coming, the lights are flashing and the railroad crossing arms are down. What’s the difficulty there?

Gonzalez: Well, we haven’t heard of any of the [crossing] arms malfunctioning. The arms come down, the bells go off, the train slows down at the intersection for safety reasons—there’s no confusion about all that. What’s confusing is the actual configuration of that intersection. When you’re crossing and there’s no train, you still have to maneuver that intersection. There’s a lot of signage, which can be confusing. Thankfully, we haven’t had a car stuck in the middle of the intersection or anything like that.

Patch: Isn’t Pasadena Avenue a needless addition to an already confusing configuration? Why give a stretch of the road that’s a mile or less an exclusive name?

Gonzalez: You know, I don’t have an answer to that. If you’re on Monterey Road and make a left, you’re still on Monterey Road because it takes you into the City of L.A. But the funny thing is that if you stay on Monterey Road and go straight, it turns into Pasadena Avenue, which becomes York in the City of L.A. So, Pasadena Avenue ends at the city limits, which is York Bridge. In fact, Pasadena Avenue starts at Mission, near Arroyo Drive. It’s a residential area with a school, the Arroyo Vista, and traffic there has reduced considerably—some say in a positive way—because people don’t like to take Pasadena Avenue. Because then you get caught up in that [Gold Line] intersection. So people take shortcuts on Hawthorne and other streets heading straight into Monterey Road to avoid that intersection.

Patch: Some longtime critics of the Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue intersection say that the city had the opportunity 10 years ago to set things right but that it bent backwards to please Metro and allowed the Gold Line to go through South Pasadena. What’s the background to that? Was the Gold Line seen as a boon for South Pasadena? Did the city have an option for a grade separation?

Gonzalez: The city was obviously trying to protect its residents and business community. Having the Gold Line come through the city was a significant consideration back then. I can tell you today that the Gold Line is in line with what the city proposes and pushes for—and that’s getting people out of their cars and into public transportation. The Gold Line has really improved the Mission-Meridian area. The Mission Village complex is highly regarded throughout the county as one of the premier transit-development-oriented projects—as an example of what can happen when public transportation is near a residential area. So, the Gold Line has really improved the looks and the economics of the area.

But with that come some drawbacks. In order to have public transportation you’re going to have trains going through your city. And when you have trains, people and cars, you’re going to have all the safeguards in place to make sure things are safe. And so we have many at-grade crossings—it’s much cheaper than having a subway. So, I’m sure that the [City] Council fought as much as they could for the city. There is always going to be give-and-take. I know that this council, just like any other council, will put its residents first, before anything else.

The double-edged sword for grade separation and public transportation systems such as the Gold Line is that what makes a community economically viable, what attracts residents to move closer and businesses to open up is a place like the Gold Line station on Mission. Could you imagine if we had a subway instead? We would never have had a revitalization of the Mission-Meridian complex because you need to have people come out and experience the city when they’re getting off a [train] stop. So, a subway would have alleviated all these at-grade concerns. But at what cost? In any case, the bottom line is that the Gold Line Construction Authority could not afford a grade separation back then. That would have probably been the solution for many people.

Patch: So, the City of South Pasadena didn’t contribute a penny toward the Gold Line project?

Gonzalez: I don’t know the specifics, but the way it usually works is that sometimes when a city wants something bad enough then they can contribute their own dollars toward improvements. I know that our station was originally designed to be just a very typical station—and that was not the way our council wanted it to look. And that’s the reason why we got a station that has an updated look, with enhancements, instead of a boilerplate look. So every city has the ability to get a unique look to their own station.

Patch: So the city contributed to the construction of the Mission station?

Gonzalez: I believe the city did contribute to the Mission station. 

Patch: What can residents expect to happen with the Gold Line in the near-term to mid-term future?

Gonzalez: Right now, the Gold Line Construction Authority is finishing Segment 2-A, which will open up the Gold Line to the City of Azusa. Once they finish construction, they’ll turn it over to MTA.

Patch: And when the Gold Line expands all the way to Azusa, the train traffic will increase, won’t it, along with wait times for cars?

Gonzalez: Well, there are a couple of possibilities. Depending on the ridership—I believe a million riders use the Gold Line every month right now—there can be more trains more often. Or you can have the same amount of trains, but with more cars [carriages]. So you’re either going to have longer waits because the trains are going to be longer. Or you’re going to have more delays. Most likely, they’re going to be adding cars, and there will be a longer wait. But they’ll move people faster. 

Patch: With the increase in train traffic, will there finally be a possibility for a grade separation on the Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue crossing?

Gonzalez: That’s certainly something we’ll be asking if the construction authority for the next phase has funds left over to improve other stations. But again, once they turn it over to MTA, it’s out of their hands.

Patch: And does MTA have the authority to construct grade separations?

Gonzalez: If they’re looking at intersections that are causing problems—and the fatality that we had is certainly an issue—we’ll certainly want them to turn their attention to a grade separation at Monterey Road and Pasadena Avenue.

Betty Jean January 07, 2014 at 11:46 AM
"Some longtime critics of the Monterey Road-Pasadena Avenue intersection say that the city had the opportunity 10 years ago to set things right but that it bent backwards to please Metro and allowed the Gold Line to go through South Pasadena. What’s the background to that? Was the Gold Line seen as a boon for South Pasadena? Did the city have an option for a grade separation? " THANK YOU AJAY FOR ASKING THIS QUESTION. "The city was obviously trying to protect its residents and business community." ---- Sergio Gonzalez . HA!!!! What a joke! The west side of SP and its neighborhoods are now CLOGGED with CONSTANT traffic cutting through the neighborhoods because of the closure of Monterrey @Pas Ave. Pasadena Ave was a main artery from west to east but now is basically closed BECAUSE of the city. I don't recall problems when the Santa Fe was rolling through the city and when this intersection was at its original configuration and Pasadena Ave was OPEN for free flowing traffic.
Justanotheropinion January 08, 2014 at 02:07 AM
By Sergio's response, it almost seems like the city put it's dollars and backbone where their economic interest was poised for the largest return - Mission & Monterey. Meanwhile, the cries of 'we don't have the money and it ultimately wasn't our decision' left the residents on the West side screwed. My fam & I live on S. Monterey before the train and not too long after the construction was complete. Sometimes it took 30 mins. to get out of our townhouse structure to make the drop at Arroyo Vista. It's one (but not the only) reasons I moved when I did. The writing was on the wall then that this particular section of town (the South West side) was of no concern to the city (I had been there less than 2 yrs when I sold the unit and moved more central). After 10+ years in So. Pas, it doesn't surprise me that nothing has been done. My personal feeling is that this area of the city is remote enough and cannot generate enough of a business tax base for the city to actually give a damn. Until it is a "profitable area" (which it will never be since it's 98% residential), nothing will change. Thanks Ajay for asking the question, but would love to see you have pressed a bit more for a realistic answer - not the staid city response.
David Galt January 08, 2014 at 12:13 PM
Actually thought Mr. Gonzalez' arguments were candid and persuasive. This was a trade off between money vs. safety. The cost of grade separation here would be equivalent to the entire city's annual budget. Case closed. Transit is already held to a much higher standard of safety than cars who kill people every day in or near S. Pasadena. Also, while a deaths resulting from accidents (transit-involved or otherwise) can be good catalysts for charge they are rarely indicative of an intersection actually being dangerous or not. The reason is that they are simply too few to provide a valid statistical sample. To really identify problem intersections you have to consider accidents that involve fatalities, injuries and property damage. I wish Mr. Singh would have asked if the City had created any accident-analysis maps that identified problem intersections. If so, what were their findings for this intersection and others? If not, why not?

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