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MTA Chief Ousts Head of Subway Construction : Metro Rail: Action is aimed at regaining $1.6 billion in frozen U.S. funds. Search for successor is planned.

October 12, 1994|DAVID WILLMAN and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a move aimed at regaining federal funding for the Los Angeles subway, the chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Tuesday ousted a top agency executive responsible for managing the troubled construction project.

The removal of construction President Edward McSpedon was ordered by Franklin E. White, the MTA's chief executive officer. White's action came six days after the Clinton Administration announced suspension of $1.6 billion of future funding for subway expansion. The funding will be unfrozen, federal officials said, when the MTA demonstrates that it can competently manage subway construction.

"I believe a change of leadership and a different management approach is what is needed at this time in our Metro Rail construction program," said White, adding that an interim replacement will be named as early as today. A nationwide search will be conducted for a permanent successor.

A majority of MTA board members appeared ready Tuesday to support one of White's central proposals, to dissolve the subsidiary that oversees construction, called the Rail Construction Corp. White first sought the dissolution last May and again last month. But the board--again at the request of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan--postponed acting on the matter until at least the end of the month. Riordan is vacationing in Europe.

"I would have liked to have it considered today," county Supervisor and MTA Chairman Ed Edelman told reporters, adding: "The mayor asked . . . for the opportunity to be here when it is discussed."

Rae James, Riordan's transportation aide, said the mayor was briefed Tuesday by phone regarding developments at the MTA and backed White's prerogative to remove McSpedon. The mayor has not taken a position on dissolving the RCC.

White did not criticize any specific decision by McSpedon, saying only that the MTA's management of rail construction needs new direction.

"I want to make it clear that Ed McSpedon has done outstanding work," White said at a news conference. He said he notified McSpedon of his decision late Monday.

Reached at home, McSpedon said Tuesday night, "Working on this great project has been a labor of love for me. I sincerely hope that the MTA's action will benefit the delivery of transportation services to the citizens of our county."

Within the last 14 months, controversy has built over the quality of the construction of the subway, the most expensive per mile in U.S. history.

The existence of concrete that was thinner than originally required in tunnels Downtown was reported in August, 1993, by The Times and repairs have been under way for the last seven months. A chief subway inspector also told specialists hired to examine the matter that necessary patches were not made to a damaged plastic liner designed to keep explosive and toxic gases out of the tunnels.

The structures now open to passenger service mostly were completed before McSpedon took control in mid-1990. But more recently, decisions by McSpedon's staff and MTA consultants regarding tunneling and incidents of ground sinking up to nine inches along Hollywood Boulevard have come under fire.

Excavation there has been halted since Aug. 18 and workers were evacuated two days later when the contractor feared that one of the twin tunnels could collapse.

White reiterated Tuesday that he would await agreements from both the city of Los Angeles and federal transit officials before authorizing a resumption of the tunneling. The MTA will submit its plan for how to resume the construction to city and federal officials by Monday, White said.

"I absolutely expect the Federal Transit Administration and the engineers employed by the City Council to reach agreement with us on that," White said. He did not speculate on when federal officials might agree to lift the suspension of funding for extending the subway to the San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles and elsewhere.

In announcing McSpedon's removal and other changes, White said he is seeking tighter control over construction quality and the supervision of the multibillion-dollar work. The federal government has contributed about half of the funding, by far the greatest share, for the Los Angeles subway project.

Federal authorities, including the FBI and the inspector general of the federal Department of Transportation, have been investigating aspects of the earlier subway construction.

White said that it has yet to be resolved whether McSpedon, who had overseen building of the Downtown subway and other Metro Rail lines since 1990, would remain at the MTA in a different capacity. He had defended his performance in recent days and said that he wanted to retain his position.

White announced other steps in response to the construction problems:

* The inspection-management firm of Parsons-Dillingham would be "phased out" of its role in supervising extension of the subway to Universal City and North Hollywood, White said, if he wins approval of the MTA board.

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