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MTA's Got the Message--Now Let's See the Follow-Through : L.A.'s eye is on a key phase of subway construction

February 11, 1996

It shouldn't, but the following amounts to one of those "brace yourself" moments. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's contractors are working to complete the next, 6.3-mile segment of the Red Line subway tunnel.

The work will eventually add the San Fernando Valley to the system, joining a Lankershim Boulevard station in North Hollywood to a segment that will meet up with the Hollywood Boulevard-Highland Avenue station. A little more than two miles of it will be bored beneath a mountain. It figures to be one of the most carefully watched 6.3 miles in the history of mass transit construction, and with good reason. It was the Hollywood section of this line that collapsed and subsided, made the cover of Business Week, earned a "60 Minutes" TV segment and ultimately led to the firing of then-Chief Executive Officer Franklin White.

This time around, we're pleased to note a couple of genuine reasons for a certain amount of calm. After the sinkhole, and a degree of ground sinking that was up to 10 times above national tunnel construction standards, we were left with a question: Was it lousy construction or was the city's soil simply unsuitable for tunneling? Now, extensive geologic studies have shown that the ground beneath Los Angeles is suitable for subways, as long as they are properly built. That's a relief, and there's more. Experts say that the work from Hollywood-Highland moves into solid granite, which is a lot less dicey than the kind of young alluvial soil found in other parts of the city. In layperson's terms, the tunneling ought to be less troublesome.

But, of course, we need more assurances that there will be no repeat of the kind of gross construction mishaps that may have already lost the city tens of millions of federal transit dollars. Fortunately, the MTA seems to understand the gravity of the situation. "We have to earn back confidence," says Stan Phernambucq, the MTA's executive officer for construction.

For the below-mountain segment, Phernambucq says that the blasting formerly planned has been cut by half. Also, he says the blast charges will be smaller to further reduce the chance of damage or irritation to mountainside residents.

In fact, the MTA's promises run the gamut this time, including above-ground vibration sensors, plans for immediate payouts should anyone's home be damaged, huge insurance policies for every home and much more grouting along the regular tunnel segment to minimize the possibility of sinking. As proof of the MTA's more thorough work, (and of the value of grouting), Phernambucq says that the North Hollywood-to-Universal City tunneling is 40% complete without any serious problems.

We hope this is a sign of better things to come. The only way to ensure that is through the kind of close construction performance monitoring that was so lacking in the past.

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