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Common Sense Didn't Ride This 'Money Train'

NEWS ANALYSIS

January 15, 1998|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles may look back on Wednesday as the day the subway died.

By voting to suspend construction of new lines for at least six months, the board of the financially troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority convinced many transit watchers that no more underground railways will ever be built in the Southland after the Red Line's North Hollywood leg is finished.

"I don't believe there'll be another foot of [new] subway dug," said Goldy Norton, who observes the MTA professionally on behalf of the bus drivers union.

The board's actions, which included mothballing an above-ground rail line to Pasadena, splintered what remains of a nearly 20-year-old compact with Los Angeles voters, who agreed in 1980 to increase the sales tax to pay for all sorts of countywide trains.

The promise of widespread rail was even then an illusion--crafted by politicians who literally drew pictures of extra-wide tracks on the maps they included in voter pamphlets to make it seem that almost every neighborhood would be served.

Since then, efforts to keep a semblance of the promise have been herculean but largely ineffectual, producing two light rail lines and a multibillion-dollar subway to practically nowhere. The subway runs from downtown Los Angeles to Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, and--when its additional and possibly final leg is completed in 2000--it will extend to Lankershim and Chandler boulevards in North Hollywood.

Mayor Richard Riordan, who chairs the MTA board, has suggested that even this line may be too expensive to maintain, because its operating costs were calculated on the false premise that it would be the hub of a much larger system.

And he said Wednesday: "The consensus of the board is against subway. . . . I think subways have been a disaster."

Efforts to build the larger system crumbled for many reasons, ranging from a recession that produced far smaller sales tax revenues than anticipated to construction problems and unjustifiably rosy financial forecasts that reduced confidence in the MTA in Washington at a time when the agency was facing fiercer competition from other cities for federal matching funds.

But some argue that the biggest reason was the failure of MTA officials to face up to the common-sense notion that limited money, divided by huge political demand, inevitably yields less than enough to go around.

Instead of making hard political decisions to focus on just a few projects and do them well, transit officials squandered a fortune by beginning far more than they could possibly finish.

Encouraging them to bite off more than they could chew were work-hungry engineering and construction firms ever-hopeful that more money could be found from state and federal governments, and ever-happy to bankroll the campaigns of cooperative politicians on the MTA board.

One former MTA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blamed this symbiotic relationship for fostering an air of unreality at the agency that has cost taxpayers dearly.

"If you can only afford to do three things but you move down seven paths, you may not even be able to do the three," the official said. "That's the essential point, and that's the tragedy here.

"For lack of willingness to exercise restraint and good sense and to deal with these power groups that want the money," the MTA created a situation in which the people of Los Angeles "may end up with far less than they should have."

The handwriting that the MTA was oversubscribed has been on the wall for years. But until recently officials acted as if it were in invisible ink.

When Franklin White, a New York transit official who became MTA chief in the early 1990s, pointed it out, he was fired. White proposed radically scaling back the agency's original plans from 300 miles of rail lines to about 100.

Critics said White did not go far enough. Wednesday's mothballing brings the miles of track down to 60.

When Riordan, who criticized White's inability to straighten out the MTA's bus service, ultimately engineered his firing after a variety of clashes, White went out with a verbal bang, declaring that he had tried to step in the path of a "money train, and if you get between the people who want the money and the people who spend the money, you've got problems."

One of the projects White had tried to eliminate was the light rail line to Pasadena, saying there was not enough money for it.

But Riordan, who directs a bloc of four of the MTA's 13 votes, wouldn't buy it.

Privately critical of rail as incapable of solving his sprawling city's transportation problems, he was publicly noncommittal.

His unwillingness to take a public stand aided his close ally, powerful MTA board member and City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who wanted the Pasadena line as well as an Eastside subway extension for his district.

Alatorre subscribes to what one lobbyist described as the "pregnancy theory of construction."

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