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Becerra Calls for Halt to All Subway Work

April 09, 1998|JEFFREY L. RABIN and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The latest plan to stabilize the troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority careened onto a siding Wednesday when an influential Eastside congressman called for a halt to all subway construction, including work on the nearly completed North Hollywood line.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) stunned the MTA board by declaring that the county transit agency should stop the subway and refocus all its resources on building light rail lines and improving bus service.

Becerra served notice that the battle over the future of the Metro Rail subway--to the San Fernando Valley, the Eastside and Mid-City--has become inextricably enmeshed in Washington's hardball congressional politics.

Becerra is a legislative force to reckon with not only in the increasingly powerful Latino Caucus, but also in the California delegation. His reservations also may strike a responsive chord with one of the MTA's most important congressional backers, Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), a powerful member of the House's Black Caucus, whose constituents have long waited for the Mid-City line.

And Becerra's alliance with county Supervisor Gloria Molina portends a full-scale political clash over the future of mass transit in Los Angeles. The tug of war over the massive public works project has been made all the more complicated by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's recently launched campaign to pass a ballot initiative banning local funding of subway construction beyond North Hollywood.

"If we're so in the hole," Becerra said, "we ought to try to do the darndest to meet the needs of the most transit dependent, the poorest and the least-served areas of the county."

In an ironic twist, Becerra used Yaroslavsky's own arguments for his anti-subway initiative against the North Hollywood line, which is being built in the supervisor's district. In other words, if the Eastside doesn't get a subway, neither does the Valley.

The Latino congressman said the cost of building the subway is four to five times greater per mile than constructing a light rail line. "If it's really true," he said, "then let's abandon heavy rail."

Mayor Richard Riordan, chairman of the MTA's board, flatly rejected the idea of halting the $1.2-billion North Hollywood subway, which is 60% complete.

"We have been the laughingstock of this country by not completing things that we start," Riordan said. "'We would be highly, highly irresponsible to stop construction on the North Hollywood line."

But the congressman's demand that all subway projects be put on hold instead of just future extensions to the Eastside and Mid-City had the immediate effect of stalling for several weeks the MTA's board's third effort at adopting a "recovery plan" acceptable to federal officials, who provide much of the agency's critical funding.

Unless the plan passes muster in Washington, said Julian Burke, the MTA's acting chief executive officer, the agency cannot receive this year's federal funding for the North Hollywood subway and next year's funding is also in jeopardy.

Yet the agency's directors never even heard Burke formally present his thick plan to confront the agency's financial and construction difficulties. The document calls for completing the Red Line subway to North Hollywood and attempting to meet a federal court order to reduce overcrowding and improve service on its heavily used bus system.

But instead of acting on the plan, the special MTA board meeting dissolved in disarray, without a quorum needed to vote.

Riordan later expressed confidence that the recovery plan would be approved by the end of the month, when more members of the board are present.

Echoing Becerra's sentiments, Molina said the MTA board must retake control of the decision-making process from Burke, a corporate turnaround specialist brought to the MTA last summer by Riordan.

"This disorder must stop," Molina said. "I cannot be a 'yes' person for management and a turncoat for bus riders and the taxpayers."

And civil rights attorneys who won the court order requiring bus improvements contended that Burke's plan doesn't go far enough to ensure compliance with the consent decree.

"This is a great document for us," said Constance L. Rice, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It confirms noncompliance with the decree."

In another sign of the the MTA's inability to move in any direction, the agency reversed course and agreed with the Bus Riders Union to reestablish in a limited form late-night bus service that had been terminated in an economy move.

Burke's plan is the latest drafted by the agency to satisfy federal concerns about the MTA's spending practices.

Nearly a year and a half has passed since federal officials first directed the MTA to prepare a plan assuring that it can complete subway construction to North Hollywood and the court order mandating bus improvements. Two previous plans were rejected as inadequate and financially unsound.

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