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A Red Flag for a Red Line Consortium : MTA: Before shelling out another billion, ask questions about two groups bidding on the Eastside Metro extension.

May 12, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

For a decade now, I've been one of the few people in Los Angeles willing to publicly defend the Red Line, our notorious $5.8-billion subway-to-nowhere with the thin concrete walls that may or may not be able to withstand a major earthquake. (Let's hope we never find out.) I even ride the Red Line, and other forms of mass transit, whenever feasible. Our new trolleys, especially the Blue Line to Long Beach, are better than folks who never ride them realize. In a few years, they will be running all the way to Pasadena's Old Town.

The MTA's buses need improvement--badly. But that's another column.

For now, suffice it to say that the Red Line does go somewhere. It runs from Union Station, where commuters come in on Amtrak and Metrolink trains, to MacArthur Park, where it helped save L.A.'s best deli, Langer's, from going out of business. That's only a little more than three miles, but Langer's pastrami-on-rye was worth saving.

On July 17, the Red Line will go as far out as Western Avenue, where it will probably help save the landmark Wiltern Theater. And by the turn of the century, tourists who stay downtown will be able to ride the subway all the way to Universal Studios and such popular attractions as City Walk.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 16, 1996 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 9 Op Ed Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Red Line: A column by Frank del Olmo on Sunday mentioned that the Red Line subway will extend to Western Avenue on July 17, as The Times had earlier reported. The Metropolitan Transit Authority says that the extension of the line will take place as of July 13.

Truth be told, that's the vision that kept me believing the Red Line was viable even amid tunnel fires, contracting scandals and, last year, the Sinkhole That Ate Hollywood Boulevard. As a native Angeleno, I knew the Red Line would never be used by many local residents. We are too wedded to our cars, except when gas prices rise or freeways collapse in earthquakes. But I figured the Red Line would become a tourist attraction of sorts. It would help some locals, and many out-of-towners, get from Olvera Street to the Chinese Theater with a minimum of hassle and maybe even a little fun. Sort of a sleek version of San Francisco's cable cars, which also don't get local residents to all the places one might want to go in that city.

But the Red Line is nearing a point where I may have to get off, politically speaking. It's heading to a part of town I know pretty well, the Eastside, and building it may involve some local characters I also know all too well.

This week, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board may pick the team of private contractors to build the first 3.5 miles of the Red Line's eastward extension, from Union Station to Boyle Heights. Among four groups that have submitted bids for a $1-billion contract, the leader (for now) is a consortium that includes major construction firms and two politically potent companies based on the Eastside--the East Los Angeles Community Union and Cordoba Corp.

TELACU is a community development corporation that expanded beyond its antipoverty program roots to become a conglomerate that builds low-cost housing and even runs a popular restaurant. Cordoba is a firm founded by a former TELACU vice president, George Pla, specializing in government contract work. As anyone knows who follows the Latino-dominated politics of the Eastside, both companies are part of the political machine that supports L.A. City Councilman Richard Alatorre.

Given that Alatorre is one of three city representatives on the MTA board, it's no surprise that a construction team that includes his allies is favored to get the big Eastside contract. That's just good politics. But is it good engineering?

Unfortunately, the only person asking such questions so far is Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, another MTA board member whose political battles with Alatorre's rival machine are legend. That has clouded the issue, leading folks (like the 11 other local officials who sit on the MTA board with Alatorre and Molina) to assume this is just another round of Richard-versus-Gloria infighting.

I'm not so sure.

Not after reading the reports that Sara Fritz of The Times' Washington bureau has been writing lately on a political scandal brewing in the nation's capital around Cordoba Corp. It appears that Pla badly mishandled a $3.2-million U.S. Department of Commerce contract. The money was to be used to set up a big consulting center in Los Angeles to help minority businesses in California and six other states. But according to documents leaked to Fritz, the three-year contract was awarded over the strong objections of Commerce Department staffers, who questioned Cordoba's ability to fulfill it. Although Pla claims to have helped some minority businesses, in less than a year the project did indeed have to be shut down.

Now there are questions not just about Cordoba's ability to build a subway, but even about its competence at doing the one thing everyone assumed it could do: help set up minority-run businesses.

The MTA board had better get those questions answered before shoveling out another billion bucks for the Red Line, this time to tunnel under the densely populated heart of Los Angeles' oldest barrio.

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