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Light Rail Costs Up Sharply

Transportation: A projected increase of $288 million for two lines causes concern.

October 04, 2002|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The price tag for two planned Los Angeles light-rail lines has increased by a combined $288 million, resurrecting concern about the county transit agency's ability to control spending and questions about whether an outside builder should be created to construct one of the railways.

According to an internal Metropolitan Transportation Authority memo obtained by The Times, projected costs for the Expo Line railway, which would connect downtown Los Angeles with Santa Monica, have shot up $202 million since last year. The expected cost is now one-third higher than when the agency's board gave approval last summer to a first phase of the line, which is to end in Culver City.

The new cost estimates put the price for the first segment of the Expo Line at $632 million.

The same memo, a briefing to top MTA officials on the state of the projects, showed projected costs for the Eastside Line, a six-mile railway from downtown into East Los Angeles, have risen $86 million. Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

In the case of the Expo Line, which is still being engineered and is three years from the start of construction, the new projection makes some officials worry that the railway is in for years of spiraling costs. The line was conceived as a cost-effective and predictable project, because it would use an existing right of way and run almost entirely at street level.

The revised Eastside Line estimate is considered less surprising, because the railway would involve complicated tunneling in Boyle Heights and because projections often increase as the construction date approaches. Also, the addition of $86 million is a relatively small slice of a project that will cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion.

At the MTA, an agency known for large construction cost overruns, the new numbers are being downplayed. MTA officials say the revised projections reflect more accurate accounting and changes in the economy. The matter has not been a topic of conversation at recent MTA board meetings, and some board members know little about it.

However, two MTA board members, Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who are also Los Angeles County supervisors whose districts will include the Expo Line, made clear this week that they were deeply troubled.

Burke said she was disturbed that the railway costs have risen so much since the MTA board approved the project last summer. Yaroslavsky compared the two planned railways with the Pasadena Gold Line, a 14-mile railway connecting Pasadena and downtown that is set to open next summer.

The Gold Line is being built by a construction authority with no ties to the MTA and a clear mission: Get the job done fast and on budget. The authority was created by the Legislature in 1998, because attempts by the MTA to build the line were proving too costly. So far, the authority is delivering. The railway should open next summer with few, if any, cost overruns.

"The MTA is headed for trouble on this one. Our costs are out of line and outpacing not only the national norms, but what is happening in Pasadena," Yaroslavsky said. The Gold Line is being built for $62 million per mile; the Expo Line's cost for new track is now projected at $84 million per mile. "The agency is doing a lot of things better recently, but it's becoming clear that it does not know how to build light rail," he said.

In the MTA's revised estimates, costs for engineering, consulting and extra staffing have doubled. Contingency costs, to cushion blows from construction foul-ups, are more than four times as high as previously estimated. The price the MTA expects to pay for construction of the rails is six times as high. The MTA expects to pay nearly $4.7 million per light-rail car, about twice what most transit agencies spend.

"We've just taken a more detailed look at the budget, and we are more comfortable with these numbers," said James de la Loza, director of MTA planning. De la Loza said the agency would do everything it could to keep costs from ballooning further.

Costs could easily rise. USC wants the railway tunneled near its campus, and the agency is studying whether it makes sense to build bridges or trenches for the line as it crosses at least four heavily congested intersections on Exposition Boulevard. That might improve safety, but it would also increase costs--by $5 million to $20 million per intersection.

Worried that the costs could keep rising, the MTA has decided to create an overview body that will review design and budget.

Yaroslavsky said this week that might not be enough. Stating that the MTA's design plans are too lavish and that the agency is planning for too much unnecessary staff, he said he would back the creation of another building authority similar to that created for the Pasadena railway.

Last month, Yaroslavsky approached state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), whose district the line goes through, asking her whether she would sponsor legislation to wrestle construction from the MTA.

Kuehl, a longtime proponent of the railway, said she might do so. "I was shocked to see how costs have gone up," she said. "These cost increases make you think there is almost some agenda to keep the line from being built. You look at the way costs have gone up and you think, 'What, are they building this thing on quicksand?' "

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