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MTA Seeking Buyers for Unused Subway, Light-Rail Cars

Transit: They were bought for use in a system that may never be built. Glut complicates the agency's fiscal woes.

April 04, 1998|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOR SALE: Rail cars. Top of the line. Never used. Contact: the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The MTA is looking into selling spiffy new rail cars that it bought for a rail system that now may never be built.

The agency is placing an advertisement in a transit industry trade paper offering cars for lease or sale. No price is specified.

Acting MTA chief Julian Burke said he wants to test the marketplace. Among other things, he wants to find out how much other transit agencies will pay for the vehicles. It's all part of a train car glut that is complicating the agency's seemingly endless financial woes.

Even the cars that don't get sold are a problem. The MTA must spend another $5 million to make some of the new cars work on existing rail lines.

All told, the MTA has spent $160 million on 52 custom-made light-rail cars and faces a possible $10-million penalty for cutting back on its original order. The agency has spent an additional $145 million for 74 new, Italian-made subway cars.

The cars were intended for subway extensions to the Eastside and Mid-City and for a light-rail line from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. But the MTA has mothballed the projects, making it likely that the rail lines won't be built for years, if ever.

Burke took a major step Friday toward turning around the MTA's bad fortunes by completing a so-called recovery plan, the third one prepared by the agency in response to federal demands. The document says that the MTA's suspension of rail projects demonstrates "its financial house is being put in order."

Sources say the MTA is considering a 10-cent increase in the $1.35 cash bus fare, effective in November, to help reduce a projected $85-million deficit in next year's budget. Bus fares have been frozen under a federal consent decree, but the MTA is permitted to adjust the fare this fall in line with increases in the consumer price index. Civil rights attorneys, however, say they and the courts must be consulted before any fare increase is implemented.

The MTA also apparently has put on hold a controversial 50-cent increase in the rail fare.

As Burke prepares to present the recovery plan to the MTA board next week, the new rail cars have begun arriving, becoming a further source of embarrassment to the agency. Rows of sleek, stainless steel subway cars sit in a yard near Union Station while bus riders pack into some of the nation's oldest public transit buses.

Some of the cars were destined for the Pasadena line. But officials are studying using a different kind of car--one that allows passengers to board from ground level rather than from a high platform--in order to save money and get the Pasadena line back on track.

"You would have relatively plain stations right at ground level until you got a ridership developed rather than having very substantial buildings for stations," Burke said.

Acting Pasadena City Manager Cynthia Kurtz said MTA officials have assured Pasadena line supporters that cars will be available when needed but have said they want to "simply manage their resources better." But she added that Pasadena officials are fearful that talk of using a different kind of car on the line may be an effort to keep the project in "perpetual design."

Burke has yet to determine how many cars are excess.

An MTA spokesman was quick to point out that the cars were ordered at a time when the agency fully anticipated moving forward with expanding the county's rail system.

This is not the first time that rail cars have been a problem for local transit officials.

In the 1970s, Los Angeles County owned a $2.1-million seldom-used train, ridiculed as "Baxter's Choo-Choo" because it was bought at then-Supervisor Baxter Ward's urging, before it was sold to tour operators in Mexico.

County transportation officials caused an international furor in 1992 when they awarded--and then canceled--a contract with Japan's Sumitomo Corp. for rail cars during a "Buy American" frenzy. In the end, the MTA bought cars from Sumitomo anyway and ended up spending millions of dollars more than the original deal.

After that, the MTA required new cars to be made mostly from U.S. components and assembled in California.

So far, 31 of the 74 new subway cars have arrived. The cars are manufactured in Italy by Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie and shipped to San Francisco for assembly.

Although the shipment gives the MTA double the number of cars it operates on the subway, the new cars are not gathering dust. The MTA plans to rotate the cars into service to check out their performance while still under warranty.

Burke has succeeded in slowing down the delivery of the subway cars, allowing the MTA to defer a $17-million payment for a year.

Some of the new cars will be put into service once a subway extension to Hollywood opens next year. Others will be used on a subway extension to North Hollywood, due to open in 2000.

But more keep coming.

Two of the new light-rail cars have arrived, and two more are scheduled for delivery every month.

Some of the new light-rail cars are intended for the Green Line because they are capable of traveling up to 65 mph--about 10 mph faster than the existing cars. The MTA also is exploring adding cars to the crowded Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Blue Line.

The MTA must spend another $5 million to put train control systems in some of the new cars so they can operate on that line.

The agency has purchased train control systems so that the cars can operate on the Green Line.

But in another example of the sometimes screwy world of the MTA, the train control systems used on the Green Line cannot operate on the Blue Line.

The train control system was designed so that the Green Line could be fully automated, but the MTA board decided not to implement the technology because of union opposition and expected public anxiety over riding driverless trains.

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