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Dumping the Driver Won't Stop the Wreck : MTA: The Hollywood subway boondoggle will worsen as long as politics influences the board.

December 17, 1995|TOM HAYDEN | Tom Hayden is a Democratic state senator whose district covers parts of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley

It's scapegoating time at the Metropolitan Transportation Agency. With public criticism reaching national levels, the MTA board is poised to fire Franklin White as executive director this week.

No doubt the axing will be portrayed as "reform" in response to months of scandals and embarrassment climaxed by an unflattering report scheduled for tonight's "60 Minutes" program.

I asked an investigative reporter for a national network what usually happens after a "60 Minutes"-style expose. Only half-joking, he said, "We expose them, two days later they fire someone, then a week later they either hire him back or hire one of his friends."

That's the danger if the MTA dumps White. His replacement will be a more pliable yes-man for key players on the MTA board, especially Mayor Richard Riordan and City Councilman Richard Alatorre and the transit-industrial complex whose contractors feast off public funds.

So what's the problem with White? He is a competent transit professional, a presentable spokesperson. He supports the status quo on the MTA agenda, which means building the Red Line subway through the Hollywood Hills to Universal Studios at whatever cost or criticism.

His problem is that he can't go along with boondoggles proposed by every board member. The money isn't there. The agency already spends 19% of its budget on debt service, and the fiscal sinkhole is deepening.

White offended Riordan and Alatorre two years ago by questioning funding for the proposed Pasadena Blue Line, on the sensible ground that the agency was broke. They haven't forgotten.

Funds for the MTA are shrinking. The federal government provided $85 million this year, 40% less than the agency requested. Sales tax revenues are being encumbered by debt. Voters will never support more bonds. All this creates a kind of cannibalism among contractors and board members. Like the Donner party whose members turned on one another when they ran out of food, anyone like White who says "no" gets eaten.

In fact, if they really want to assess responsibility, the whole MTA board might start by looking in the mirror. Shame is not an option in American politics, but if it were, certain board members would step down before voting to fire White.

The root problem is a mindless L.A. boosterism that says great cities must have subways, a mentality that is reinforced by power, perks, profits and promises of subway stops in the district of nearly every board member.

The present battle is over control of gravy, not over transit needs. The proposed 6-mile, $1.6-billion subway line to North Hollywood benefits contractors, campaign contributors and the Music Corporation of America, which gets a subsidized subway to carry customers to MCA's CityWalk and Universal Studios. The subway's projected ridership, even 15 years from now, will not be even a blip among 25 million daily commuter trips.

The MTA has it backward. Its board members plan to fire the conductor when they should be stopping the gravy train. They will bankrupt the agency on a boondoggle when transit funds for worthy projects are becoming scarcer by the day.

The MTA should call a moratorium on the tunnel through the Hollywood Hills. Members should heed the call of longtime City Councilman John Ferraro, who represents that area, for a new environmental impact report. They should question why they hired a construction combine that has caused worker death and community distress in its work in Oregon to handle 250,000 pounds of dynamite 24 hours a day for 14 months in the Hollywood Hills tunnel.

I wish that Franklin White would resign and blow the whistle on the real conductors of the MTA. Honorable professional that he is, that's not likely. The public will have to replace those conductors or the wild ride to Universal Studios will continue.

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