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A faceoff between experts is on the horizon as 'Subway to the Sea' drama continues

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At a sparsely attended Beverly Hills Unified school board meeting earlier this week, a team of engineering geologists presented the first part of their findings after months of digging, drilling and trenching for active faults under the district's only public high school.

Their conclusion? There are no active earthquake faults under the Beverly Hills High School associated with the West Beverly Hills Lineament.

The extensive study has cost the school district more than $2 million thus far for work by Leighton Consulting, Inc., the Irvine-based engineering consulting firm that embarked on the multi-month investigation to determine the accuracy of information released in an October Metro report on the Westside Subway Extension.

The Metro report by a team of experts found it would be unsafe to tunnel or build a metro station along Santa Monica Boulevard — as preferred by Beverly Hills — because of the active Santa Monica fault zone below. The team concluded that a site on Constellation Boulevard, which would tunnel under Beverly Hills High School, would be safer despite crossing the West Beverly Hills Lineament, identified in the report as the northern part of the deadly and active Newport-Inglewood fault.

The district's findings "call the entire Metro seismic fault study report into question," said Tim Buresh, a consulting engineer on the project for Beverly Hills Unified. "Every single one of the predictions they've made so far we've refuted. There's not just a disagreement. It's not there."

The consulting group aims to complete two more studies by the end of May, including one that looks at possible faults under El Rodeo School and a third that addresses Metro's recommendation that the area be included as an Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zone.

"If Metro's reports were correct, you're impacting hundreds, if not thousands of structures all over the west side of L.A.," Buresh said. "Metro's basically done the geologic equivalent of yelling fire ... and we are not finding evidence that supports their conclusion."

Metro officials stand by their recommendation that the area be identified as an Alquist-Priolo zone, said spokesman Dave Sotero.

Officials received the Leighton Consulting report from the school district earlier this week but will need time to review it, Sotero said. The agency has already responded in detail to two previous reports commissioned by the city of Beverly Hills, one which found it safe to tunnel under the high school, Sotero said.

On Thursday, the Metro board voted 11-1 to certify the final environmental impact report on the Westside Subway Extension and chose the route and stations for the first part of the line.

The Metro board decided to hold off on finalizing the last segment pending a public hearing requested by the city of Beverly Hills this week under a clause in the state's Public Utilities Code. The hearing must be held within 15 to 60 days.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Metro board member told KPCC Wednesday that the hearing was "a blip" in the subway plans.

"It’s a blip, it’s a delaying tactic frankly," Yaroslavsky said. "There's nothing that’s going to be discussed at this hearing ... that’s not going to be discussed in court when the city of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills School District challenge our environmental impact report. So to have a second trial, effectively, on the experts and to have dueling experts will be interesting, but it's not going to be fatal."

On Thursday at the hearing, Yaroslavsky asked Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who is one of Metro's experts, about her thoughts on Beverly Hills Unified's assertion that the trenching study found no active faults under the high school and that this called into question other conclusions.

Jones said the finding doesn't change Metro's finding "that there is no safe way of building the station on Santa Monica Boulevard," according to a Metro report.

But Beverly Hills City Councilman Barry Brucker told KPCC that he believes the engineering studies Metro commissioned may have been flawed.

"Thus the experts evaluating them for Metro and even for the city [of Beverly Hills] may have been working off inaccurate data and formed a hypothesis which we think may have been based on assumptions rather than hard science," Brucker said. He said the Leighton Consulting work follows the "gold standard" of such research by using multiple trenches.

Thursday's Metro vote means the agency can now enter the final design phase for this project and work to secure federal matching funds to help fund the work, Sotero said.

"We have to move forward," Yaroslavsky said. "Traffic on the Westside is impossible. At best we’re not going to get to Beverly Hills and Century City for another 10 years, at worst it can be another 20 to 25."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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