Trouble Keeps Following the Los Angeles Subway
By TODD S. PURDUM
LOS ANGELES -- For two grueling decades, in the place where drive-through
banking was invented and where people think nothing of driving 45 minutes
to see a movie, a convenient, reliable subway system has remained an
But the last few months have marked a new low for the troubled
transportation project, which is among the most expensive public works
programs in history, and the litany of problems reads like a passage from
Job: two construction deaths since February, a continuing investigation
into corruption, repeated rejections by the federal government of the
system's spending plan, and the withdrawal last week of the man recruited
to head the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Many transportation experts say the project, driven by pork-barrel politics
and the self-conscious city's perpetual striving to be seen as world-class,
no longer makes any sense in a megalopolis that has become a collection of
semiautonomous communities strung together in a way no rail system could
"Origins and destinations are ubiquitous, which means that we need a system
that connects everything with everything," said Peter Gordon, a professor
of urban and regional planning at the University of Southern California,
who has been a harsh critic of the system. "The idea that we need to
connect everybody with a center is way out of date."
The system has already cost as much as $500 million a mile for one short
stretch of underground track, and indefinite delays are expected in the
next phases of the project.
Other problems have plagued the project. Digging tunnels through the hills
north of Hollywood has lowered the water table so much that canyon streams
and a 50-foot-high waterfall have dried up. Preservationists were outraged
by a plan to pry up and replace 122 bronze and terrazzo stars on the
Hollywood Boulevard "Walk of Fame" -- including those of Mickey Rooney, Bob
Hope and Martha Raye. Two weeks ago, the inspector general of the sprawling
agency that oversees the project criticized its senior managers for
choosing this moment to approve more than $1 million in merit raises.
Since last year, an investigation has been under way by the agency's
inspector general and federal prosecutors into accusations of contracting
irregularities on part of the project, but no indictments have yet been made.
None of the politicians responsible for overseeing the system have yet
suggested pulling the plug on the proposed network of light rail and subway
lines that is expected to cost about $75 billion over 20 years.
But last week, Mayor Richard Riordan and other leaders called what amounted
to an official timeout.
The latest straw came last Thursday when Michael Ascher, the head of the
Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in New York City, decided not to
head the Metropolitan Transportation Authority here after his appointment
had been made public. Ascher attributed his withdrawal to press leaks of
his contract negotiations. Local officials who recruited him had offered
him as much as $235,000 a year.
The agency has been without a permanent leader since its last chief
executive resigned under fire in December, after serving only a year.
Riordan's efforts this spring to recruit a senior executive of Bechtel
Corp., Theodore Weigle Jr., failed when Weigle turned down the job after
weeks of negotiations. Riordan, who assumed the rotating chairmanship of
the transportation authority's board last month, exploded at what he called
"political interference," and he named an old friend, Julian Burke, to take
over as a temporary president.
"The agency has become so incredible that it was difficult to have control
be assumed by a new CEO, except one who might be interested in doing it as
a pro bono matter," said Burke, once Riordan's colleague in a law firm. An
expert in corporate turnarounds, Burke agreed to take over for up to a year
and straighten out the agency's books in a $15,000-a-month contract.
In the meantime, the search for a permanent CEO has been suspended, a task
force has been set up to review the merit pay raises and determine whether
the employees who got them should be asked to give them back. Burke is also
trying to determine whether the agency's $3 billion annual budget --
financed from a one-cent sales tax surcharge and matching federal money --
So far, the system consists of about 40 miles of track -- a light-rail link
between downtown and the port city of Long Beach, a modest light-rail line
that runs along the south side of the city and stops just short of the
airport, and a single underground Red Line that runs from Union Station
downtown to the southeastern edge of Hollywood. Tunneling is nearly
finished for an extension of that line across the Hollywood hills, past
Universal Studios and into North Hollywood. The line is scheduled to be
completed just after the turn of the century.
But last week the transportation authority's board declared a moratorium on
new design or construction work for long-overdue extensions to Pasadena,
East Los Angeles and the mid-city area, pending approval of spending plans
by the Federal Transit Administration, which picks up about half the cost.
The administration has repeatedly dismissed the agency's plans as
overblown, unrealistic and filled with "serious deficiencies, both
technical and financial."
Part of the problem is politics. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority,
created by state law in 1993 in a merger of the existing regional bus and
rail systems, is governed by a 13-member board (26 members, counting the
alternates who often attend), including all five of the powerful Los
Angeles County supervisors. Critics have long contended that this system
meant plans were based on winning construction jobs for individual
districts, rather than on sound planning. In an effort to meet those
concerns, Riordan and others have backed bills for a board appointed by
elected officials, and these measures are pending in the state Legislature.
"Transportation is the mechanism by which they're getting to spend big
bucks and to reward their constituents," said Martin Wachs, director of the
University of California Transportation Center at Berkeley. "Transportation
is not the end in itself."
Another problem is that, unlike the populations of New York and other older
cities, the middle class here has no recent history of reliance on mass
transit, and so exerts little political pressure for better service.
Many experts argue that the best way to improve mass transit is simple and
relatively cheap: Improve bus service on a system that is among the most
crowded in the nation. Instead, over much of the last decade until
recently, bus service has been cut, fares have increased and ridership has
fallen as money has been diverted to pay for the subway system. Under
intense public criticism and pressure, Riordan and some other board members
support buying more buses for the 1,800-unit fleet, including express buses
that could carry up to 160 people and take advantage of specially timed
traffic signals to transport riders in the suburban San Fernando Valley area.
At the moment, the existing section of the Red Line, which runs through
several mostly seedy sections in the older downtown, is a marvel of clean
tile and new marble, well-lit cars, comfortable upholstery and quiet,
rubber-wheeled trains -- which are practically empty. Weekday ridership is
estimated at about 35,000, most of them former bus passengers, not
motorists weaned from their cars. The problem: At the moment the rail
system does not connect much of anything to much of anything else.
Riordan's chief of staff, Robin Kramer, recently confronted that paradox
when she returned to the Los Angeles subway from a vacation during which
she rode on the crowded London Underground and the Paris Metro.
She said the mayor's move to bring in Burke, who has been involved in
fiscal restructurings from the Penn Central bankruptcy to a pension fund of
the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, marked "a kind of shift."
"It was a moment to do something, and to do it differently," Ms. Kramer
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