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U.S. Restores Funding for L.A. Subway Project : Transit: Official says MTA has addressed quality and safety problems. Tunneling in Hollywood will resume.

November 11, 1994|RICHARD SIMON and DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Five weeks after taking the extraordinary step of withholding $1.6 billion for future subway work in Los Angeles, a Clinton Administration official Thursday reinstated the funding and said he expects improvements in construction quality and safety.

Federal Transit Administrator Gordon J. Linton said local officials have adequately addressed his concerns by making a number of changes in the way that the multibillion-dollar subway project is to be managed.

Linton also announced that he is satisfied that tunneling can resume safely in Hollywood, where excavation has been halted since August and surface sinkage has damaged streets and buildings.

Areas of Hollywood Boulevard have sunk as much as 10 inches, and engineering reports have blamed soil conditions and the use of wood bracing in the tunnels, instead of metal struts. The Times reported Sept. 11 that project officials also did not order the tunneling contractor to do soil-stabilizing grouting procedures that could have minimized the sinking.

In only the second such action ever taken by the Federal Transit Administration, Linton on Oct. 5 announced that the government was withholding money for extension of the subway to East Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley until the Metropolitan Transportation Authority showed that it could competently manage the project. Linton also at that time ordered the MTA not to resume tunneling.

Officials expect to start tunneling again sometime in December. Linton announced his actions Thursday in a letter to the MTA, saying that the authority's recent changes stand to improve quality, safety and accountability for the work performed.

"This is a significant change," Linton wrote.

The federal government has provided about 50% of the funding for the Los Angeles subway.

The MTA, Linton said, has demonstrated its "commitment to . . . properly exercise stewardship of federal funds." But Linton said he has directed the federal agency's engineering consultants in Los Angeles to increase their monitoring of the project "to assure ourselves more fully that the (MTA's) recovery plan is properly executed."

Linton also said in an interview that his agency has directed the MTA to consider whether to seek remuneration from the tunneling contractor, Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, for its use of the less-expensive wood bracing. Transit officials approved use of the wood, instead of metal, bracing, in 1992 but did not demand financial concessions.

The stepped-up federal presence will result in more frequent visits to the tunnels and stations, meetings each week with local officials, and weekly--instead of monthly--written reports monitoring the MTA's performance.

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who has questioned the MTA's handling of subway construction, criticized as premature the Clinton Administration's decision to restore the funding and authorize the resumption of tunneling in Hollywood.

"The feds have performed inadequately as watchdog in their haste to resume construction," said Hayden, who organized a Senate Transportation Committee hearing last week regarding the problems.

Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), whose district encompasses Hollywood Boulevard, also was critical. "I can't believe they want to move forward with a project that is still structurally unsound. I feel that we're watching an accident about to occur and those who have the power to stop it have their heads in the sand."

As the federal government was giving the go-ahead for tunneling to resume, complaints to transit officials continued to grow. The owner of Mann's Chinese Theatre said in a letter that the hand- and footprints and signatures of such entertainment icons as Bette Davis, Lana Turner and Myrna Loy have sunk three-quarters of an inch. The manager of the nearby Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel also reported recent damage.

"Unless there's a full re-evaluation of the environmental impact report, the problems are going to continue," said Robert W. Nudelman, a business owner and director of the Hollywood Boulevard Community Council. "I'd have to go through more approvals than they did to resume tunneling if I was going to change a storefront in a building."

MTA officials, however, said their instruments have found no evidence of damage at the historic theater or the Roosevelt.

Other questions remain, such as who--contractors, taxpayers or both--will pay for the millions of dollars in damage caused by the sinkages in Hollywood.

On Thursday, Linton reiterated that the freezing of the funding five weeks ago was done in full consultation with U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and the White House.

"Unfortunately we had to take the action that we did," Linton said from Washington. "It's not something that we take very often . . . in the history of this agency. So that in itself was dramatic. . . . We have agreed to allow them to go forth with the understanding that they have responded to our concerns."

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