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Tunnel Supervisor Got Job Back Despite Safety Issue : Subway: A top MTA official reversed expulsion of superintendent, calling him a 'valuable asset.'

October 08, 1994|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four months after the expulsion of a tunneling contractor's superintendent from the Los Angeles subway project for allegedly unsafe work practices, a top executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reversed the decision, records show.

The removal of the superintendent had been ordered last March by the agency's inspection-management firm after a tunnel accident along Vermont Avenue. Edward McSpedon, president of the MTA's rail construction unit, withdrew the expulsion.

McSpedon and his staff have come under increasing criticism for a series of management decisions on what is the most expensive subway project per mile in U.S. history. The Clinton Administration on Wednesday froze $1.6 billion of future funding for the Los Angeles subway, citing design, construction and engineering problems.

The superintendent, Norm Hutchins, has headed Shea-Kiewit-Kenny's tunneling efforts along Vermont and Hollywood Boulevard since the firm began work 15 months ago, except during his ouster last spring. Excavation was halted Aug. 18 because of ground sinkages in Hollywood.

Shea-Kiewit-Kenny officials fought the expulsion of Hutchins earlier this year, describing him in letters to the transit authority as an exemplary employee, crucial to successfully completing the largest-ever subway contract in Los Angeles.

McSpedon defended his decision in an interview Friday.

"We were not happy with Norm Hutchins' performance, no question about that," McSpedon said. But he added: "This was a judgment call made on the best advice" possible, in consultation with two board members of the MTA's subagency, the Rail Construction Corp.

McSpedon noted that all aspects of Shea-Kiewit-Kenny's role with the subway work remain under review by the transit authority. The MTA's chief executive officer, Franklin E. White, said earlier this week that he is considering whether to terminate the contracts of Shea-Kiewit-Kenny and the inspection-management firm of Parsons-Dillingham.

Federal Transit Administrator Gordon J. Linton said he is waiting for MTA officials to make changes and demonstrate that they can competently manage the project.

The local agency's first challenge is to begin resolving the problems with the Hollywood tunnels.

Asked to comment, Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said the decision by McSpedon to allow Hutchins back on the project "should be reviewed."

"It's very troubling," said Yaroslavsky, an appointee to the MTA board. "This is the kind of thing that bothers me about the diffused accountability on this project."

Yaroslavsky has called for the MTA board to give White tighter control of the construction that McSpedon has helped oversee.

Yaroslavsky said McSpedon's decision to reinstate Hutchins may be added to the management decisions to be discussed Tuesday, when the MTA board will meet in a special session to address the federal government's cutoff of $1.6 billion of future subway funding.

County Supervisor Ed Edelman predicted that the MTA board would vote to dissolve the rail construction unit that McSpedon heads. "Their time is running out," said Edelman, who also serves as MTA board chairman. "It's got to be changed. There is no question about it."

State Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz, dissatisfied with the MTA's performance, has called for McSpedon's firing. McSpedon has said he wants to remain and believes he has performed well.

Hutchins was ordered removed from the project on March 11, the same day that a construction locomotive he was driving careened out of control. He was hospitalized and several workers were less severely injured in the incident. Alleging "unacceptable safety and (construction) quality performance," transit officials announced the expulsion and a temporary shutdown of tunneling in a press release and pledged to take a firm stand against Shea-Kiewit-Kenny's alleged deficiencies.

Later, the state labor department fined Shea-Kiewit-Kenny $250,750 for "willful/serious" violations related to the accident.

Records show that McSpedon withdrew the expulsion of Hutchins in July, when a Disputes Review Board for the project was considering the matter at the urging of the contractor. McSpedon told The Times that he acted before the dispute board ruled, in advance of a second hearing scheduled to review the matter. He said he did not know how the panel would have ruled.

In a July 14 memo addressed to transit authority board members, McSpedon offered this explanation for allowing Hutchins to return:

"As these difficult hearings progressed, it became increasingly obvious to both parties that no matter how the (review board) process finally concluded, there could be no winners and, in fact, the project would likely suffer" if the expulsion of Hutchins was not dropped.

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