Transportation officials voted Monday to spend up to $7.9 million to speed construction of San Fernando Valley's Orange Line busway, which is six months behind schedule.
In a separate action, directors of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority also postponed a controversial vote aimed at removing legal obstacles to extending the Metro Red Line subway.
"It's going to be a long march for all of us to put together a [subway] plan," said MTA board member and Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge, who sponsored the motion intended to lay the groundwork for someday expanding the subway. After more than an hour of rancorous debate, the directors sent the motion back to an MTA committee.
On the Orange Line, after approving a revised environmental impact report, MTA directors authorized the extra spending for contractor overtime and the hiring of additional work crews. They had been told that it would cost $8 million to $10 million if they did nothing to reduce delays, because the agency would have had to extend building and equipment leases and pay for extra contractor and consultant time, said Rick Thorpe, the agency's construction chief.
Under the new plan, contractors must complete the busway by Aug. 26 or repay $2 million to the agency as a penalty.
In the last year, the $329.5-million, 14-mile dedicated bus corridor has been dogged by design problems, litigation and the discovery of contaminated soil. In the summer, a state appellate court found that the MTA had failed to adequately consider a network of rapid buses as an alternative, and halted construction for a month.
The courts later permitted construction to resume. But the MTA then had trouble getting subcontractors to return, because many had found other work.
The east-west busway will run between the Red Line subway station in North Hollywood and Warner Center in Woodland Hills. The new environmental report, prepared in response to the appellate ruling, found that the busway would lure more people from their cars than would a network of rapid buses running on city streets.
At Monday's meeting, busway advocates urged the MTA board to expedite the project, even as they expressed longing for a light-rail line instead.
"The Orange Line is not the best solution, but it's the best solution that is currently feasible," said Peer Ghent, a Valley Glen resident.
Opponents criticized the new environmental report as flawed and vowed to continue pressing their case in court to halt the half-built project.
The report had "extremely poor selection of rapid bus lines" to ensure that they would compare poorly against the busway, said Tom Rubin, a former MTA official who now works as a consultant for busway opponents.
On the subway issue, LaBonge's motion spurred heated disagreement among the directors over whether a more extensive network of underground trains was a good idea for the region.
The motion would have directed the board to support lifting a 1986 ban against using federal funds for tunneling in the Mid-Wilshire area. The legislation was passed after a methane gas explosion at a Ross Dress for Less in the Fairfax district raised doubts about the safety of building an underground rail line.
The motion also would have directed MTA planners to analyze the effect of overturning a ban on using local tax dollars for subway expansion. In 1998, after cost overruns and construction debacles that included a giant sinkhole developing along Hollywood Boulevard, outraged voters passed a ballot measure prohibiting the use of local transportation sales tax revenue on new subways. A reversal would require voter approval.
"We're not saying we're going to do it right away," said board member and L.A. Councilman Ed Reyes, in support of subway expansion. "But we need to start expanding our toolbox ... to give people options."
People "shouldn't be so afraid" of tunneling through the Mid-Wilshire area, L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn said. "As any engineer will tell you, methane is just an issue with an engineering solution."
But others decried new subway construction as too expensive and perhaps too problematic.
"What you're really doing is opening Pandora's box again," said board member and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. "Let the city -- if this is their will -- do this on their own."