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Officials Urge Shake-Up, More Control of MTA

October 06, 1994|RICHARD SIMON and NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Local officials demanded a major shake-up of the transportation agency's construction arm Wednesday, expressing outrage that the subway--intended to be the crown jewel in the county's transportation network--has instead become an embarrassment plagued with construction defects.

After learning that the Federal Transit Administration was withholding funds for subway tunneling, officials raised their voices in an increasingly critical chorus, asking for greater accountability from the county's transportation agency.

The federal action presented the Metropolitan Transit Authority with "an opportunity to finally set the MTA's construction apparatus in order," said Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who is an MTA board member. "It is frustrating and infuriating that the MTA board of directors, made up of elected officials from throughout the county, has missed opportunity after opportunity to clean up its own act."

Echoing that sentiment, Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said the MTA needs to consider the "whole reorganization of our construction program."

Earlier this week, MTA officials announced that stretches of subway tunnel had not been built to contract specifications.

Federal officials in Washington on Wednesday halted the flow of federal dollars to construct Los Angeles' first modern subway until it is clear that the project is being safely built with sufficient supervision.

Merchants and local business people said Wednesday that they were concerned that the federal actions would mean increased delays in construction--a blow to their businesses.

Paul Jacobs, president of the Universal City-North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are anxious for the Red Line subway to be completed on time in 1998. Construction has begun on the North Hollywood station, which is the linchpin in redevelopment plans for the area.

"If it's an extended delay, it'll hurt the Valley's transportation . . . it'll hurt business," said Jacobs, who owns an office supply store.

Some local officials, however, said the drastic measure of withholding funds demanded dramatic changes immediately.

Assemblyman Richard Katz, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, called for the immediate firing of the private contractors involved in the subway construction. He also asked for the elimination of the Rail Construction Corp., the semi-independent arm of the MTA, with its own board of political appointees, that oversees rail construction.

The proposal to disband the RCC has long divided the MTA board, but has been supported by the MTA's chief executive officer, Franklin E. White. It is now expected to gain increased political momentum.

The RCC and its proponents have long argued that as specialists, they can best oversee construction of complicated projects like the subway. Critics, however, counter by citing the RCC's track record and the recent disclosures of construction defects, including the discovery that the subway tunnel walls were built with less concrete than specified.

"I hope this is the final nail in the coffin for the RCC," Katz said. "The RCC has been out there like rogue operators. . . . Their arrogance and their focus on speed over quality has led to the problem we're seeing."

Molina said she hoped the federal agency's action would "open up the eyes to some of those members who want to continue the RCC."

The federal action, she said, "might get us to really develop an effective strategic plan of how we're going to be held accountable for construction."

City Councilman and MTA board member Richard Alatorre said the cutoff of funds is not a major blow to the project. "I think it is a wake-up call by the federal government that we have to get our act together," Alatorre said. "They need to have a sense of confidence in our oversight."

Several MTA board members contacted Wednesday by The Times said they were not prepared to dissolve the RCC.

"What we need to do is go forward by convincing Washington this is a temporary situation only," said MTA Vice Chairman Larry Zarian. "We need to start looking at the whole structure."

He said the agency needs to take drastic steps to rebuild confidence but that he was not ready to specify a course of action.

For others, the latest round of bad news meant an opportunity to promote an alternative to the underground trains.

County Supervisor and MTA board member Mike Antonovich, who has long promoted the idea of a San Fernando Valley monorail, said the federal action "allows the public to voice their opposition to further expansion of the subway. We don't need to have sinking homes and cost overruns."

With Mayor Richard Riordan vacationing this week in Europe, Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rae James asked MTA Chairman Ed Edelman to call an emergency meeting of the MTA board to discuss the federal action.

"We need to develop solutions to these management and construction issues as quickly as possible, put this behind us, and get our transportation plans back on track," James said.

Times staff writers Frederick Muir and Henry Chu contributed to this story.

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