WASHINGTON — A last-minute compromise in a controversy over the safety of the proposed Los Angeles Metro Rail subway was approved by the House on Wednesday, assuring that funding to begin the $3.3-billion project will be included in a transportation bill expected to be passed by the House today.
After a series of meetings and telephone conferences late Tuesday and early Wednesday by Los Angeles' major political officeholders, an agreement was struck that would subject the entire 18.6-mile, downtown-to-North Hollywood route to a new safety review.
"It's a victory . . . a cause for celebration," said a slightly haggard Nikolas Patsaouras, president of the Southern California Rapid Transit District's board of directors, who had spent three days scurrying around Capitol Hill to shore up support for the beleaguered project.
The compromise amendment by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles) requires that a later phase of the subway would be rerouted to avoid the Fairfax District, the scene last March of an explosion of underground methane gas in a clothing store that injured 21 people.
A separate agreement apart from the federal legislation calls for a new review of the hazards of underground gas pockets and annual reports by RTD to Congress on the section from Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street to North Hollywood. City officials also agreed, as part of the settlement, to establish a technical panel that will hold public hearings on the safety of the first 4.4-mile segment of the line under downtown Los Angeles, where high readings of underground methane gas have also been found.
That 10-member panel, whose recommendations would not be binding on the RTD--the builder and operator of the system--would report to the Los Angeles City Council's Transportation and Traffic Committee headed by Council President Pat Russell. Russell would name eight of the members and Waxman would name two. The report would have to be submitted by the end of the year.
"I think I've gotten everything I wanted," said Waxman, who, after the clothing store explosion in his district, announced that he would attempt to kill the entire project if Metro Rail's backers did not reexamine the hazards of tunneling through gas pockets.
A longtime supporter of the project, Waxman said: "It was not my objective to keep (the project) from getting funded. My objective was to keep them from being so locked into an idea that they had to claim it to be safe and refused to look at evidence to the contrary."
The $10.1-billion transportation bill, which if approved as expected today, will go to the Senate for consideration later this month. It would earmark $429 million for the first phase of the subway. That would include $129 million being withheld by the Reagan Administration now and $117 million for fiscal 1986. The 1986 appropriation had been $130 million in an earlier version of the bill but was trimmed Wednesday by the House as part of a $1-billion cut aimed at meeting overall federal budget targets.
More important than the appropriations themselves, however, is language included in the bill that would order the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration to issue full-funding contracts for the first segment of the subway within 30 days of approval by the Congress and the President. The Administration, which is opposed to Metro Rail and other new rail projects as too costly, has caused ground breaking on the subway to be delayed nearly a year by its reluctance to release funds.
This year's Metro Rail battle in the Senate, where the project continues to enjoy bipartisan support, despite the Administration's opposition, will be over the amount of next year's funding, given concerns about the deficit.
"We don't think it's a bad project," said a Republican Senate staff member knowledgeable about transportation issues.
The dispute with Waxman, who chairs a powerful subcommittee that investigates health and environmental safety issues for the House, triggered the major battle this year. After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations to avert a fight that both sides insisted they did not want, issues remained unresolved as the transportation bill made it way to the House floor.
Waxman went public with his objections, hoping to force RTD officials to compromise and agree to reopen the route safety question. In the end, the main stumbling block, which arose to threaten a bloody political floor fight that could have killed the project, was whether the first section of the route under downtown Los Angeles should be restudied.