LOS ANGELES — The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun receiving the first of dozens of expensive, new Italian-made subway cars for Metro Rail extensions that won't be completed for years, if ever.
Although the MTA plans to rotate the surplus cars into service, rows of sleek, stainless-steel vehicles will still sit empty--like a train with nowhere to go--at a yard near Union Station.
The transit agency has received the first six of the 74 cars, purchased at a cost of $145 million. The full complement is scheduled for delivery by the end of 1998 or early 1999, bringing the total fleet to 104.
Some of the cars will be added to the subway as the line is extended to Hollywood in late 1998 and North Hollywood in 2000. But many others will not be needed until the subway reaches the Eastside in 2004 and the Mid-City in 2008.
Critics say the purchase comes at a time when the MTA has trouble filling seats on its five-mile subway. And, they say, it illustrates the excesses of an agency pursuing rail at any cost at the expense of an overburdened and underfunded bus system.
Mayor Richard Riordan, who took over as MTA board chairman Tuesday, called the excess cars "outrageous" and said through an aide that it should be a "wake-up call" for the transit agency.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky said: "How come we can't afford to buy new buses that we need today but we can afford to buy rail cars that we're not going to need for 10 years? That's the common sense that's missing in this agency."
An MTA spokesman said that when the cars were ordered in 1994 and 1996, it was believed they would be needed sooner. But subway extensions to the Eastside and Mid-City have been delayed by funding shortages, geological problems and political indecision.
"We had to order the cars in a quantity that made economic sense . . . based on what the plans were at that time for future extensions of the system," said Dana Woodbury, MTA deputy executive officer for operations planning and scheduling. "Those plans changed. At that point, since we already ordered the cars, it would have cost us money to reduce the order."
MTA officials also say that the federal and local funds used to pay for the cars could only be used for rail-related expenses.
The MTA board in May 1994 ordered 42 cars at a cost of $80 million and in March 1996 voted to buy another 32 for $65 million.
The cars--similar in appearance to the MTA's existing fleet of 30 vehicles--are being manufactured in Italy by Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie. Made mostly from U.S. components required by the MTA during the "Buy America" debate several years ago--the cars are shipped by boat to San Francisco for assembly, then trucked to Los Angeles.
MTA officials say they saved the taxpayers money by exercising options to buy the cars under a contract negotiated in 1988. The alternative, they say, would have been waiting until the subway extensions were closer to completion and then going on the open market for new bids. A Breda spokesman estimated that it would cost the MTA about $500,000 more per car to buy the vehicles today.
The cars won't be gathering dust, according to MTA officials who plan to rotate them into service--like an automobile owner who owns three cars and drives a different one to work each day.
Woodbury insisted that there is no additional cost. "If you use the entire fleet, each vehicle gets used less than it otherwise would," he said.
But another official said: "If you operate them, obviously you have to maintain them, and that costs money. On the other hand, if you don't maintain them, there may be greater costs associated with cranking them up."
Another transit expert said the agency needs to run the cars while they are still under warranty. "You're going to have certain failures. And failures increase as the vehicles are in service. It's not a good policy to buy a new vehicle and have it sit and let the warranty expire."
Some have suggested that the MTA lease the surplus cars to another agency, or place them in storage and negotiate with the manufacturer to postpone beginning the warranty until the cars are in service.
Yaroslavsky said the purchase "reminds me of the person who says: 'That sports car is on sale. Let's buy it now because it will cost us more if we wait,' without regard to whether you can afford it."
Twenty of the new cars are assigned to the Mid-City subway extension, but some officials--including Riordan--have questioned whether the MTA can afford the 2.3-mile extension to Pico and San Vicente boulevards. The estimated cost has jumped from $490 million to $682 million.
Asked what happens to the cars if the Mid-City project is dropped, Woodbury said: "Then we'll have more cars than we need, but they'll last longer than they otherwise would have."
Ultimately, how many cars are needed will depend on how many people ride the subway.