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L.A. Threatens to End Contract on Airport FlyAway

City official says Tutor-Saliba Corp. has been warned for months to fix safety problems at the Van Nuys park-and-ride facility.

June 08, 2004|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

City officials took the first step Monday toward removing contractor Tutor-Saliba Corp. from a park-and-ride project in the San Fernando Valley that has been plagued by construction defects that may force the city to tear down the five-story parking garage.

The city's airport agency took the rare legal action after spending months trying to get the Sylmar firm to fix deficiencies at the Van Nuys FlyAway, which includes the garage and a bus terminal for commuters traveling to Los Angeles International Airport.

In a four-page letter to company President Ronald N. Tutor, Kim Day, interim executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, cited "extremely serious public safety concerns" at the site and threatened to terminate the firm's contract if it did not rectify problems "promptly."

Tutor-Saliba's "inability to construct a parking facility that is structurally sound is a material breach of the intent of the contract and is obviously unacceptable," Day wrote.

Day said canceling Tutor's contract was her "last resort," and added that the company still had time to make the needed changes.

Monday's action followed several warnings issued by the city's airport agency to Tutor earlier this year. In two separate letters, the agency threatened to file a "notice of default" -- the legal term for the action officials took Monday -- if the company did not fix problems at the park-and-ride site.

"There's been silence," Day said. "There was no response to our last notice to correct. Zero."

Tutor said Monday that he was puzzled by the timing of the letter, adding that his firm met Wednesday with city officials and "discussed at length everything we had done, and no one expressed any issues or reservations."

He said that problems at the FlyAway were not a direct result of work performed by his firm, but rather by several subcontractors hired to provide materials.

"Every single issue that's been called out relates to the work of a manufacturer, or a subcontractor, that of course we know we're responsible for, but that's like shooting the messenger," he said.

He emphasized that his firm can resolve all the issues.

The $34-million airport park-and-ride project, which is months behind schedule, was seen as a way for Tutor-Saliba to reestablish a positive track record with the city.

The firm was charged with submitting false claims while building parts of the Metro Rail Red Line subway and was ordered in 2001 by a Superior Court jury to pay a $29.5-million fine. Tutor-Saliba, a major contributor to Mayor James K. Hahn, has appealed the award.

The company also is facing legal problems in San Francisco, where the city attorney is seeking millions of dollars from the firm for allegedly overbilling the city and manipulating minority contracting laws as the lead contractor on the expansion of San Francisco International Airport.

Tutor-Saliba currently has contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District to build two schools.

Tutor said Monday that his firm was well regarded by Los Angeles city officials, citing a call he received recently from a city employee "to thank us for what a great job we did" on refurbishing part of the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant. "No one ever calls to thank a contractor," he added.

Even so, the airport agency's action against Tutor on Monday could be a factor that the city considers when the firm submits proposals to build projects in the future, officials said.

The company failed to provide the airport agency with a solution to the latest in a string of construction defects found in the parking garage, according to Day's letter. City building inspectors virtually shut down work on the structure April 23, citing the failure of numerous steel "stirrups" to pass tests conducted by the city's Bureau of Standards.

The problem with the faulty steel "stirrups," which are meant to ensure that concrete beams supporting the structure do not fail under pressure, is "very widespread," according to city records. Tutor resumed construction on the garage Wednesday.

City officials are so concerned about the most recent problems that they hired an outside engineer to determine if the garage is structurally sound. The architectural and engineering firm on the project has also ordered a computer simulation that will show how the existing structure would perform in an earthquake.

City engineers have said that fixing the problems with the stirrups would be difficult.

"This could be major," Intissar Durham, chief airports engineer for the city's airport agency, told airport commissioners last month. "There is one solution, and if that's not accepted by the building department, then the structure will need to be torn down."

This solution involves drilling through the concrete slab that supports the structure and wrapping cables around beams inside the slab to shore them up, she said.

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