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Congress Leaves MTA With Less Subway Funding

September 12, 1996|RICHARD SIMON and JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles officials are scrambling to figure out how to keep subway construction on schedule after a congressional panel Wednesday gave them less than half of the federal funds they wanted for the region's biggest public works project.

House-Senate conferees allocated $70 million for Metro Rail--far short of the $158.9 million requested for extending the subway along three routes, to the San Fernando Valley, the Eastside and the mid-city area.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said the shortfall would leave a $53-million hole in next year's $450-million subway construction budget and could slow the project.

"We are talking about years of delay, not just months," said MTA board member and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The subway now runs from Union Station to Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. Work is underway to extend the line through Hollywood to North Hollywood. Tunneling on an extension to Boyle Heights is scheduled to begin in the spring. No schedule has been set for the mid-city extension, running from Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue to Pico and San Vicente boulevards.

Mayor Richard Riordan called the funding shortfall a "stinging blow" to the region's transportation system and expressed concern that it would harm bus riders.

Bus riders have complained that the MTA has neglected the bus system to fund rail construction. But MTA executives said Wednesday that bus service would not be affected.

The county's transit authority was still assessing the impact of the funding shortfall and looking for options to present to the MTA board next month.

Extensions of the subway to the Eastside and mid-city could be set back, officials warned, as could completion of a trolley line between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. They believe the North Hollywood segment would be unaffected because it is already under construction.

"This does not mean we are not going to build rail, and it certainly does not mean that our bus program will be impacted," MTA board Chairman Larry Zarian said. "It may mean, however, that the schedule of our construction may need to be extended."

The $70 million is the lowest amount provided to the much-maligned subway project in three years. It represents a compromise between the $55 million the Senate wanted to give the MTA and the $90 million the House proposed providing. Both chambers must still approve the allocation. The federal government is paying for about half of the $5.9-billion subway.

On Tuesday, MTA staff had said that even the higher figure would present a major blow to subway construction plans. But after Wednesday's vote, the agency's public relations office attempted to put a positive spin on the news out of Washington, declaring in a release that the MTA, in "overcoming a Senate recommendation of $55 million . . . was successful in achieving a federal grant of $70 million."

But Yaroslavsky said that the project's litany of problems, including a 70-foot sinkhole on Hollywood Boulevard, cost overruns and engineering mismanagement, "made us a sitting duck" for the congressional action.

He also expressed doubt that Congress will ever make up the shortfall, even though the MTA has a contract calling for the federal government to pay $1.4 billion, half the cost of extending the subway to North Hollywood, the Eastside and mid-city.

"I don't know if we'll ever make up the money," he said. "I wouldn't bet on it. Not only have we been cut, but other projects around the country have been catapulted to an equal or greater status with us. . . . We'll be lucky to meet this level next year."

Yaroslavsky said the agency has overextended its ability to issue bonds, and is now hamstrung. "We're not going to borrow more money, and we're not going to take it out of the bus system."

Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), the only Californian on the conference committee, said the MTA will have to live with the $70 million.

"There is no question it will hurt the project, but it will force the agency to look for other funding mechanisms or lengthen the time of the project," he said. "None of those are good alternatives, but sometimes they are the only alternatives with a short supply of money."

Critics of the subway said the congressional decision proves that the project was too expensive.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member and a subway foe, said: "Characteristic of an alcoholic, the MTA staff continues to be in denial and the MTA board refuses to recognize that Uncle Sam will no longer fund a $300-million-a-mile subway system.

"The Congress has taken away the bottle. The binge is over, and a cost-effective, above-the-ground transit system is now required for fiscal responsibility."

James Moore, a USC professor of urban planning and civil engineering, said he believes the MTA has always been overoptimistic in its plans to receive federal funding for rail construction.

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