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MTA to study reopening of Angels Flight

LOS ANGELES — The county transit agency’s board of directors agreed Thursday to study ways to re-open Angels Flight, a historic railway that travels a short distance along Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved a motion by Mayor Eric Garcetti, instructing CEO Phil Washington to return in 60 days with recommendations for resuming operations.

The motion also asks for information about the railway’s history and “a summary of state and federal safety findings pertaining to Angels Flight.”

Garcetti’s motion came on the heels of a petition circulated by local historians and fans of the 114-year-old funicular to get the rail running again. Tour company owners Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, who started the petition, have gathered more than 1,700 signatures since last week.

The funicular has been closed since one of the two rail cars came off the tracks in September 2013.

The six people riding the funicular at the time were not injured, but a National Transportation Safety Board report released a month later indicated that railway operators had been using a tree branch for months to bypass a safety feature on the railcar.

Garcetti said Thursday that Angels Flight is a “very important part of our transportation system” and fills “a special place in the hearts of Angelenos.”

The funicular has traditionally been operated by a nonprofit, not the MTA.

“I want to be very clear … I don’t think that MTA should take over operation of Angels Flight,” Garcetti said. “But MTA and this board should support the restoration of service on this historic gem that’s right now caught up in a lot of bureaucratic hurdles between federal and state agencies.”

The land underneath Angels Flight was once owned by the city of Los Angeles through its Community Redevelopment Agency and was put up for sale this month by the CRA’s successor agency as part of a portfolio of 50 former city properties.

Angels Flight Railway owns Angels Flight’s equipment, including its tracks and cars, and has a ground lease that allows it to operate the funicular, according to Hal Bastian, the nonprofit’s president.

Schave, one of the petitioners, told City News Service last week that the funicular has been vandalized since its closure and will continue to fall into disrepair if nothing is done.

“It is the last vestige of Victorian Los Angeles,” he said. “It is just an incredibly important structure and much beloved.”

Bastion said that efforts to re-open Angels Flight have been stymied by a lack of response from federal regulators.

He said federal officials and the California Public Utilities Commission are requiring Angels Flight’s operators to build a walkway next to the tracks before operations can resume.

Bastian said the nonprofit is trying to comply with regulators.

“We’re in the process of engineering and pricing” the project, which is not a fast process, Bastian said last week. He added that he disagrees the evacuation staircase is the best solution.

Bastian said he wants to propose some alternative ways of meeting safety requirements, but NTSB officials have not returned his phone calls and emails, while CPUC officials “won’t budge” and are deferring to the federal officials’ requirements. This has created a “bureaucratic stalemate,” Bastian said.

Bastian said he was recently elected head of the Angels Flight Railway group, which is run by volunteers, taking over for John Welborne, a “faithful steward” of the railway for 20 years.

Bastian said he had hoped that by taking up the baton, he could bring new energy to re-opening Angels Flight. He said he feels it might be better for the MTA to take over operation.

Bastian argued that the railway is not just a tourist attraction, but a “critical transportation linkage between the base of Bunker Hill to the top of Bunker Hill” and that climbing a stairway, which has about 150 steps, is akin to crossing an entire football field.

Col. J.W. Eddy first opened a funicular rail up Bunker Hill on Dec. 31, 1901, when rides cost a penny. It was dismantled and put into storage in 1969 because of the Bunker Hill urban renewal project, then rebuilt and reopened in 1996, a half-block south of the original site.

In 2001, an accident that killed one person and seriously injured seven others prompted another closure that lasted nine years. Angels Flight reopened in 2010, in time for the railway’s celebration of its 110th anniversary on New Year’s Eve 2010.

The PUC shut it down for almost a month in June 2012 when inspectors found that a wheel part that holds the cars on the track, the flange, had been worn down to a thickness that was unsafe on three of eight wheels.

The funicular re-opened July 5, 2012, after the operator installed all new wheels made of harder steel.

The railway still uses its original cars from 1901, named Olivet and Sinai.