An engineer who played a key role in approving the ill-fated plans that led to the Hollywood Boulevard sinkhole disaster four months ago has never been licensed to practice engineering in California and is now being removed from the job, records and interviews show.
And at least three other engineers who played active though lesser planning roles on aspects of the trouble-plagued project are not licensed by the state, records show.
Subway officials maintain that the engineers were well qualified to do design work on the Los Angeles subway, but disclosure of their status with the state licensing board threatens to revive credibility questions that have dogged the professional staff on the troubled $5.8-billion project for more than a year after a series of design snafus.
"If we have people that don't have [state engineering] licenses, and they've had time to get it and don't do it, that really displeases me," Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member James Cragin said.
A member of the MTA's construction committee, Cragin said he wants the agency to certify the licensing status of all engineers on the troubled rail project--and to follow up by reviewing the engineering work done by anyone not licensed in California.
The issue of whether the MTA is improperly using unlicensed engineers comes at a time when the agency is already grappling with broader questions about the quality of hundreds of millions of dollars in design work for the mammoth subway project.
An independent report released last week concluded that faulty and "unrealistic" design work triggered the June 22 sinkhole that swallowed an 80-foot-wide swath of Hollywood Boulevard as up to 20 workers scrambled to escape. The sinkhole has meant months in delays and more than $6 million in damages for the project, and it has given new ammunition to critics who want to pull the plug on the subway.
County Supervisor Gloria Molina is proposing a motion at today's MTA board meeting to study ways of bringing more "accountability and competition" to the design work for the planned extension of the Red Line subway into East Los Angeles. But opponents are pushing to move ahead with the award of up to $4 million in design work to subcontractors of Engineering Management Consultants (EMC), which has had an exclusive hold on subway design work.
MTA officials say EMC's chief tunnel engineer, Timothy J. Smirnoff, ultimately approved the plans last year to remine the subway under Hollywood Boulevard--although analysts concluded last week that there was insufficient support for the water-soaked ground. Crews need to reroute one tunnel stretch because alignment was off by up to 18 inches.
In a memo dated March 17, 1994, Smirnoff offered the construction manager a range of design specifications that should be met before the remining plan could be approved. The plan was later adopted, but sources said some of the needed design steps--including the calculation of "bearing capacities" to ensure that the tunnel could support the load--do not appear to have been adequately carried out.
At the directive of the transit agency, EMC is removing Smirnoff from the job, said Norman E. Ross Jr., vice president of EMC's principal partner, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas. The firm notified the MTA of the move in a letter dated Monday.
EMC says it is not to blame for the design problems because its engineers were never told that there had been a significant rise in the ground-water level in the remining area. But the firm is complying with the MTA directive to remove Smirnoff, Ross said, because "he was the one who had oversight responsibility for the approval of the contractor's plans."
Smirnoff declined to discuss details of the case Tuesday but said in a brief interview that he is licensed to practice engineering in about a dozen states. He is not licensed, however, in California--which requires different standards than most states for certifying competence in seismic and surveying issues. Smirnoff applied for his state license last year but has to retake one portion of the state exam on surveying in March, 1996, because he didn't pass it the first time, he said. Smirnoff is now on medical leave from work.
Stanley Phernambucq, MTA construction chief, said in an interview that he believes that Smirnoff clearly should have been licensed in California to make the engineering decisions that he did on the remining project. "The guy that's signing off on our [design] documents should be a professional engineer in the state of California," he said.
Less clear, however, are the requirements on the many other professionally trained engineers who make regular decisions on the subway project.