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Report Blames Contractors for Tunnel Collapse

October 20, 1995|ERIC LICHTBLAU and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Faulty and "unrealistic" design work by two of the main contractors on the Los Angeles subway project triggered the dramatic collapse of an 80-foot-wide chunk of Hollywood Boulevard four months ago, according to a troubling report released Thursday that rebuts past assertions from transit officials about who was to blame for the sinkhole.

The independent report, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, found that project engineers broke from standard practice by planning the realignment of the Hollywood Boulevard tunnel without adequate supports, despite a rainfall-driven rise in the ground water level that made the soil in the area less stable.

MTA officials said they are taking immediate steps to respond to the new report, including barring from MTA work those engineers found to have erred in the design of the tunnel. But critics accused MTA leaders of passing the blame for the mishap onto their contractors without acknowledging shortcomings in their own oversight system.

"There's no real accountability," said Rocky Rushing, an aide to State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a frequent critic of the MTA who has pushed for legislative reforms at the agency.

Rushing said that in light of a series of design snafus on one of the nation's costliest public works projects, it was "revisionist history" for subway officials to describe the sinkhole as an anomaly. "This isn't the first time this has happened, and I'd venture to say it won't be the last," Rushing said.

"It's a very serious indictment of the way our team has been conducting business," MTA board member and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Thursday. "There are going to be a lot of uncomfortable people after reading that report, [although] not as uncomfortable as I was when I almost fell in that hole."

The June 22 sinkhole has come to symbolize the $5.8-billion subway's many problems, and it has proven a disaster for the MTA on several fronts:

The accident has meant months in delays and up to $6.7 million in sinkhole repair costs for the subway project. It has intensified political pressure from MTA critics who want to pull the plug on the subway altogether. And it has led to a spate of fines against one contractor for allegedly risking the lives of workers on the morning the sinkhole appeared in an ill-conceived and last-minute attempt to shore up the tunnel before it collapsed in a sea of mud and water.

"It was tragic. It should not have happened," MTA Board Chairman Larry Zarian said at a press conference Thursday, as he and agency officials announced the findings of the new report. The $60,000 study was conducted for the MTA by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, an Illinois-based firm that has done reviews for the agency before on past problems.

When television stations nationwide first aired footage of the sinkhole four months ago, MTA officials asserted that a broken main controlled by the Department of Water and Power appeared to be at fault for the sinkhole. But Thursday's report rests the blame squarely on the shoulders of two of the main contractors--Engineering Management Consultants, a design partnership that has been paid more than $300 million under its no-bid rail contract, and Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, a tunneling giant that collected $155 million on the Hollywood work. The tunneling contractor was fired from the job last summer after the sinkhole and is now suing MTA.

The report found that the failure to turn off the flooding main for about 45 minutes does appear to have spread the damage, as the waterlogged street collapsed atop the subway tunnel some 65 feet below. But, the report said, it was the unstable soil from the poor tunnel design that caused the main to rupture.

Robert Giles, senior district operations engineer for the DWP, said the report offered a vindication for the water department after months of finger-pointing. "We believed all along that we did not have a leaky water pipe, that it broke only as a result of unsupported soil collapsing underneath it," he said.

That was the finding of Thursday's report as well, which concluded that engineers "never considered" how much weight could be adequately borne by the tunnel during the mining operation.

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