WASHINGTON — A key House committee today approved a $130-million appropriation to build the first leg of the Los Angeles Metro Rail subway, but an amendment to the funding bill threw the next phase of the embattled project into new doubt by calling for a rerouting to avoid potential underground gas hazards in the Fairfax area.
The form of the bill with its amendment set the stage for a fight over safety issues when the measure reaches the full House, possibly next week.
In an unsuccessful last-minute effort to win back the support of Westside Rep. Henry A. Waxman, who has threatened to oppose funding for the subway because of concerns about tunneling through hazardous methane gas pockets, the funding bill was amended on a motion by Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles) to require studies of alternative routes that would avoid the Fairfax area. An explosion of natural gas pockets below a clothing store there last March ripped through the store and injured 21 people.
"The issue of safety I don't think has been resolved. Let's take the issue of safety off the table by not drilling in this area," Dixon told the House Appropriations Committee. Dixon, a leading supporter of the subway project, said his amendment would essentially reopen the question of routing on the Westside, but control language the committee approved would limit the alternative routes to an area bordered by Western Avenue on the east, La Cienega on the west, Olympic Boulevard on the south and Hollywood Boulevard on the north. "My intent today and on the floor will be to keep the Metro Rail project going," Dixon said.
Waxman Not Satisfied
But after the vote by the committee, Waxman said that he is not satisfied and that any spending on the project should be deferred until the entire route is reevaluated for safety. The influential congressman, a past supporter of the project whose district includes much of the proposed route, said the study "does not assure us of anything at all. I would prefer that they not use any of the funds until we are assured of the safety of the whole route."
Waxman is concerned that once the first leg of the project is begun, it could continue into the Fairfax area as originally planned.
If the question of the route is reopened, it could trigger a new round of environmental hearings and political struggles by neighborhood groups and elected officials. For example, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) told the Appropriations Committee that he welcomes studying alternative routes because he believes that the subway should go east out of downtown Los Angeles rather than along the Wilshire Corridor.
The funding bill, an $11-billion transportation package, is expected to go to the full House next week. It would allocate $130 million for the first 4.4-mile section of the $3.3-billion downtown-to-North Hollywood rail line and includes language that would earmark more than $400 million needed to complete the first phase.
Backed by Both Senators
Rapid Transit District officials said construction on the line can begin early next year if the funding bill makes it through the House and Senate and is signed by the President. However, the Reagan Administration has strongly opposed the bill, and there may be resistance to it in the Republican-controlled Senate, despite bipartisan support from California Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson.
RTD officials said they are pleased with the committee vote, but there is concern that a floor fight with Waxman could jeopardize the project.
Waxman said he will introduce amendments on the floor that would prohibit use of any funds for the first segment of the subway until an alternative route is identified and studied.