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U.S. Cuts Off Future Funding for Subway : Tunnels: Numerous construction problems must be addressed, officials say. Move jeopardizes Metro Rail extension to San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles.

October 06, 1994|DAVID WILLMAN and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The federal government took the extraordinary step Wednesday of cutting off all expected future funding for the Los Angeles subway project until local officials demonstrate that they can competently manage the construction.

Pointing to the litany of engineering, construction and inspection problems that have emerged, Federal Transit Administrator Gordon J. Linton said that about $1.6 billion of funding for subway construction will be frozen immediately.

"Quite frankly," Linton said at a Washington news conference, "the quality of the work has not met our standards."

The announcement jeopardizes plans for extending the subway to the San Fernando Valley and East Los Angeles. But construction of tunnels and stations along Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue will not be affected, because funding for the work is already in hand.

Transit officials in Los Angeles said that they are moving swiftly to address all of the federal government's concerns.

The chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said he is considering terminating the contractor who is building the problem-plagued subway tunnels along Hollywood Boulevard, as well as the agency's inspection firm.

The announcement from Washington comes as a stinging blow to the contractors and officials who are building and administering the multibillion-dollar subway project--the most expensive, per mile, in U.S. history.

The federal government has provided the greatest share, nearly 50%, of money for the subway. Other funding comes from special sales tax revenue collected in Los Angeles County and from the state of California.

Linton ordered the MTA not to resume tunneling in Hollywood, where failure of tunnel bracing and surface sinkages have halted excavation, until federal officials are assured that the work can be performed safely.

The transit administrator also delivered to Los Angeles officials the long-awaited findings of engineers retained by his agency to review the problems in Hollywood. Their report raises more questions about the design, construction and supervision of the tunneling.

The federal engineers said that the greatest cause of the sinkages and related difficulties was the crushing of wood wedges used for bracing, which Metro Rail engineers approved two years ago as substitutes for metal struts. Local engineers "incorrectly calculated" the ground forces that the wedges could withstand, according to the federal report.

The report also called for more and better stabilizing of the soil, with grout, whenever excavation resumes.

Linton said he was taking action with the full support of his boss, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena.

"These steps," Pena said in a statement, "are meant to deliver a firm message that the Clinton Administration believes in the (Los Angeles subway) project, supports its continuation, but insists that it be built in a safe and fiscally responsible manner."

The federal transit agency's confidence in the Los Angeles project has been shaken by revelations last year of thin concrete in Downtown tunnels already open to passenger service, followed by the structural troubles in Hollywood.

The thin tunnel concrete, the inadequate grouting of the tunnels in Hollywood and the decision by project engineers to authorize the wood bracing instead of steel struts were brought to light over the past 14 months by The Times.

"The management of the Red Line project must make sure quality assurances can be fulfilled, and the American public can be confident that safety issues can be resolved," Linton said, adding:

"Unfortunately, new technical problems continue to emerge while proposed corrective measures remain incomplete or inadequate. After considerable effort to correct these difficulties, our patience has been exhausted and I have no alternative but to take action."

In a letter Wednesday to the MTA's chief executive officer, Franklin E. White, Linton said: "We perceive there to be inadequate management controls at the (MTA) for executing the (subway) project."

White, who has been blocked by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and City Councilman Richard Alatorre in his efforts to gain more direct control of rail construction, said he would move swiftly to satisfy the federal government's concerns.

"We're looking at everything, including (changing agency) personnel," White said. "All of the options are on the table."

White also said for the first time publicly that he is examining whether the MTA will seek to terminate the construction contractor of the Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue tunnels, Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, along with the MTA's construction management firm, Parsons-Dillingham.

"We're looking at the appropriateness of continuing construction with these two firms," White said. "But it isn't a simple matter."

Representatives of Shea-Kiewit-Kenny did not return calls seeking comment.

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