The president of the RTD said Wednesday that any last-minute change in the route of the proposed Metro Rail to meet safety concerns of Westside Rep. Henry A. Waxman would result in a delay that would kill the project.
Nikolas Patsaouras, who heads the board of the Southern California Rapid Transit, which would build and operate Metro Rail, noted that key congressional votes on hundreds of millions of dollars for the first leg of the project are scheduled in the next two weeks. Throwing open the issue of the route of the downtown-to-North Hollywood commuter line would trigger a new, months-long environmental review process that would cripple the subway's chances for funding.
"We can't wait," Patsaouras said. "Let's be honest. This project will live or die this year. If we fall by the wayside this fiscal year, I think the project is dead."
"If we say we aren't sure, they'll say, 'Great, when you're sure, come back,' " Patsaouras said.
Waxman, whose district includes about one-third of the proposed 18.6-mile line, was a supporter of the project until this week when he said he will actively oppose any additional federal funding unless RTD gives him "absolute assurance" that there will be no tunneling through potentially dangerous underground gas fields in the Fairfax area.
Blast Left 21 Injured
The currently planned route cuts through an area identified as "high risk" by a city task force that investigated the methane gas explosion earlier this year at the Ross Dress for Less store. That blast left 21 people injured.
RTD officials say that they have been studying the area for several years and that they can build and operate a subway system that would make the area safer by venting underground gases seeping from decaying organic matter and old oil fields.
In response to Waxman, the transit agency has offered to commission another study by an independent panel of experts that would review the safety of tunneling and, at a later date, to consider changes in the route if problems are revealed.
Waxman has said, however, that he wants the route resolved before funding is authorized.
He has criticized as ironic the RTD's contention that it cannot change the route to avoid the Fairfax area, without completing time-consuming studies required by state and federal environmental laws, which would in turn jeopardize the project.
"That's turning the environmental impact laws on their head," he said. "They're saying they can't look at (routes) that would be environmentally safer because of the environmental laws."
Behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed at bringing Waxman back into the RTD camp continued Wednesday, though no one was saying whether a settlement is near or what its elements might include.
Berman Sees Agreement
Attorney-lobbyist Mickey Kantor, who is directing negotiations with the influential Waxman on behalf of RTD, declined to comment. Waxman was en route to Washington and could not be reached.
Westside Rep. Howard L. Berman, a close ally of Waxman and co-leader of the influential Berman-Waxman political organization that has been a major force in recent state and local elections, said he believes that an agreement can be struck.
Berman discounted speculation by some political insiders that the 11th-hour fight over Metro Rail funding was part of a Berman-Waxman effort to undercut a possible second gubernatorial bid by Mayor Tom Bradley, who has invested considerable personal prestige in the subway project. Waxman has insisted that his only concern is safety.