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Standard Car for Metro Rail Proposed : Transit: Plan is seen as a way to foster local industry and save $70 million on Green Line.

January 22, 1992|MARK A. STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under fire for authorizing a rail transportation system that would rely on an array of conflicting technologies, county transportation officials Tuesday proposed developing a "standardized" hybrid car that could be purchased in bulk and used on any of the system's proposed lines.

The idea is to save money and make it easier to launch a transportation industry in Southern California to manufacture the 6,000 buses and 600 rail cars that county agencies plan to buy over the next 30 years.

To further encourage local manufacturing, seven of the 11 Los Angeles County Transportation Commission board members proposed to build or lease a government-owned assembly plant. Companies chosen to build rail cars and buses could be required to use the plant.

Local assembly not only would create jobs, but could provide an advantage to a large number of local subcontractors that provide the seats, gaskets and thousands of other components that go into a modern transit vehicle.

"We're talking about the potential for a hub for a transportation industry that can both help clean up the air and put people to work," said Ray Grabinski, whose term as commission chairman ends today.

The proposal emerged on the eve of a critical meeting by the commission, which is expected to cancel a $121.8-million contract with Japanese-owned Sumitomo Corp. of America to build 41 automated cars for the controversial Metro Green Line. Commissioners also are expected to reopen the debate on the use of driverless cars, the fourth type of car the commission once planned for its proposed 300-mile rail transit network.

The commission has been harshly criticized for "exporting jobs" to Japan by awarding the contract to Sumitomo. An Los Angeles County Transportation Commission analysis asserted that awarding the contract to losing bidder Morrison-Knudsen would have resulted in 79 additional jobs in the county and 3,150 more jobs throughout the United States.

In a last-minute attempt to salvage its contract by raising the number of American workers on the project, Sumitomo said late Friday that it was negotiating with General Electric Corp. to be a "meaningful U. S. participant" on the Green Line contract.

Sumitomo did not say what General Electric might do, but the company was enlisted to supply electric motors to losing bidder Morrison-Knudsen Corp. Its bid was rejected despite a lower price because the Transportation Commission decided that Morrison-Knudsen and its subcontractors--including General Electric--lacked adequate experience.

Proposed development of a standard car came in response to complaints that buying different kinds of cars for each line would result in increased costs, inefficiencies and a bias in favor of foreign car makers like Sumitomo with established factories.

Neil Peterson, the Transportation Commission's executive director, said that if the commission adopts a standard car design at its meeting today--and seven of 11 board members indicated their support Tuesday--it could replace the controversial driverless cars on the Norwalk-to-El Segundo Green Line at a savings of about $70 million.

Adopting the new car design would postpone the opening of that line until September, 1995--nearly a year behind schedule--but Peterson said limited service could start as early as February, 1995, with a modified version of the cars used on the Long Beach-to-Los Angeles Blue Line.

The standardized cars would be based on conventional Blue Line trolleys, but redesigned to allow automation in the future. For example, adding different on-board computers in under-seat slots and removing the cab partition could turn one of these cars into a driverless train.

Such conversions also may require costly changes to trackside signals, communications and the central control room.

Advocates say the new, standard "L. A. cars" could be used on several lines, including the Blue Line, Green Line and a Los Angeles-to-Pasadena line now being planned, as well as future lines that might run from Los Angeles to Glendale, Santa Monica and South El Monte.

But they would not be compatible with a proposed San Fernando Valley monorail supported by incoming commission Chairman Mike Antonovich, nor with a Westchester-to-Palmdale high-speed train advocated by Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City).

The legislator and the county supervisor said their proposals would not interfere with the effort to build more transit vehicles locally.

Grabinski, who has long advocated standardization and local assembly of rail transit cars, said he hopes the furor over the foreign assembly of some cars will prod state and federal lawmakers finally to support legislation to nurture the development of domestic transportation manufacturers.

Antonovich agreed.

"Had Congress and the Legislature acted before the (Green Line bids) went out, we would not be facing this situation today," Antonovich said, referring to the controversy over the selection of Sumitomo.

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