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Experts Call L.A. Subway's Trouble Deeper Than Most : Transit: MTA says all such projects have difficulties. But problems here range from devilish geology to bad PR.

August 08, 1995|RICHARD SIMON and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In London, subway construction has been blamed for a three-millimeter tilt in Big Ben, prompting one wag to note that England had its own "Leaning Tower of London." In Munich, Germany, a bus plunged into a sinkhole above tunneling, killing four people. And in Buffalo, N.Y., a tunnel wall that was supposed to be a foot wide turned out to be 2 1/2 inches in some spots.

Things happen.

That at least has been the message from local transit officials in recent months as a state Senate committee prepared to convene today's hearing on the Los Angeles subway. A growing list of problems--from thin tunnel walls and sinking streets to tainted contracts and criminal investigations--have threatened to derail the project for good.

"No one anywhere has ever built a system of this size and complexity without difficulties," Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Franklin E. White said recently, echoing an assertion he has made with increasing frequency as the project's political fortunes have waned.

Well, yes and no.

Some cities have built subways of incredible complexity with only minor blemishes. Others have experienced serious problems. But few have run into such major roadblocks, vying with Los Angeles for the title of the most infamous public works project in the nation.

"Tunneling is a very tricky business," said Richard Gallagher, retired chief engineer of the defunct Southern California Rapid Transit District. But, he said, "this project has been plagued with an unusual amount of trouble."

After subway construction was blamed for causing portions of Hollywood Boulevard to sink up to 10 inches last year, a project official remarked that tunneling projects in other cities "all experienced not just sinkages, but actual surface collapses, something the management of the Red Line has been able to prevent."

He spoke too soon. Just a few months later, Hollywood Boulevard caved in.

$5.8-Billion Project

The $5.8-billion, 22-mile subway project is one of the costliest public works projects in U.S. history. It dwarfs the $4-billion State Water Project, which included a 444-mile aqueduct from Northern California to Southern California built during the 1960s and early 1970s. In a project of this scale, some unforeseen setbacks are sure to develop.

But this sentiment "is a very convenient skirt to hide behind," said Jim Pott, a Long Beach engineer and former member of the MTA's defunct Rail Construction Corp. "Underground work is inherently a dirty, dangerous job. There's no doubt about it. But that does not provide anything more than a fig leaf for some of the things that are happening here."

And Jack Lemley, an Idaho businessman who was chief executive of the recently completed Channel Tunnel linking England and France, called the construction snafus "a deplorable situation."

Not that Lemley's "Chunnel" project was without major glitches of its own. It was finished months behind schedule and billions over budget, and when it was finally ready to go last fall, its high-speed trains broke down three times while carrying VIPS who were getting an advance peek at the system.

Still, Lemley says the Los Angeles project's setbacks stand out. With other subway projects across the United States, he said, "you're just not having the same kinds of problems."

MTA officials wish they could say that being over budget and behind schedule were their biggest problems. Walls were built thinner than designed; tunnels were misaligned; ground sinkage--blamed in part on substandard wedges used in the tunnel's support system--shut down tunneling for five months last summer; a 1990 tunnel fire forced closure of part of the Hollywood Freeway for three days; a 1994 welding-related explosion injured three workers; evidence of favoritism canceled the award of multimillion-dollar contracts; flooding in the tunnel shut down work for six months; and a runaway rail construction car injured three workers in 1994.

Local officials contend that their problems have been exaggerated and that transit projects in other cities have suffered similar troubles. For example:

* The English Channel tunnel cost twice the original estimates, partly because of the boring machine going out of alignment.

* In Denmark, twin waterway tunnels suffered what was termed "complete paralysis" in 1991 after a fire, the threat of flooding and other problems set back construction by months.

* In Boston, soil problems may add to costs and delays for the Boston Harbor Tunnel, the nation's costliest public works project.

* A Portland, Ore., tunnel project had to abandon its tunneling machine because of unanticipated hard rock conditions.

In a historical footnote that must send shudders down the spine of Los Angeles subway officials, New York City began building a subway under 2nd Avenue in the early 1970s but abandoned the project because of money troubles. New York officials took out an ad seeking commercial uses for the unused subway tunnels. One company proposed storing wine there.

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