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Valley FlyAway Contractor Gets a City Warning

Sylmar public works firm is ordered to fix problems at the airport park-and-ride in Van Nuys or face removal from the project.

March 11, 2004|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Tutor-Saliba Corp. must fix numerous problems on an airport park-and-ride construction site in the San Fernando Valley within 15 days or face removal from the project, a top city official warned the Sylmar firm in a letter on Wednesday.

The four-page letter represents the first legal action taken by the city's airport department against the public works giant, and sheds more light on a project that officials say is plagued by shoddy workmanship, substandard materials and repeated violations of city building codes.

Kim Day, interim executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, also warned in her letter that Tutor-Saliba could be liable under provisions in its contract for damages of $15,000 for each day that project segments are delayed beyond agreed-upon completion dates.

The $34-million Van Nuys FlyAway expansion, initially scheduled for completion in stages this summer, is weeks behind schedule.

"If they make a concerted effort ... there might be a second notice that would give them some more time on the open items," Day said in an interview Wednesday. "If there is no progress, then we could send a letter of default."

A letter of default would be the first step toward removing a contractor from a project and would represent the airport's last resort, Day said.

Mayor James K. Hahn said Wednesday he expects Tutor to live up to the provisions of its contract and he directed airport staff members to provide the Airport Commission with a project progress report on April 5.

"I am very concerned that Tutor-Saliba is not living up to its contract with Los Angeles World Airports in expanding the Van Nuys FlyAway," Hahn said in a statement. "I expect all city contractors to be held accountable when they are entrusted with the public's money. Contractors must deliver exactly what they agreed to on time and on budget."

Ronald N. Tutor, the corporation's president, did not return a call seeking comment.

The dispute over its work at the Van Nuys FlyAway presents a significant challenge for the company. Tutor-Saliba is trying to re-establish a positive track record with the city after a Superior Court jury ordered the firm to pay the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $29.5 million in 2001 for submitting false claims while building portions of the Metro Rail Red Line subway. The company is appealing the award.

After that verdict, Tutor-Saliba faced increased scrutiny from contracting officials in Los Angeles, and for a time had problems obtaining contracts. As city attorney, Hahn raised questions about the firm's fitness in 2000, citing its legal problems with the MTA. Tutor would ultimately become a major contributor to Hahn's mayoral campaign and his successful effort to keep the San Fernando Valley from seceding from the city.

Tutor, his employees and their spouses donated $39,000 to Hahn's 2001 mayoral campaign. Tutor also spent more than $75,000 to fund a last-minute mailer in the race. He contributed $100,000 in 2002 to L.A. United, Hahn's anti-secession campaign. More recently, Tutor gave $1,000 in August to the mayor's legal defense fund, which paid a $53,522 city ethics fine last fall for improper fundraising in the 2001 campaign.

Before awarding Tutor-Saliba the contract for the Van Nuys FlyAway, the airport agency expressed reservations in late 2002 about the company's fitness. Despite those reservations, the agency considered Tutor-Saliba because it was the lowest bidder on the project and awarded it the contract in January 2003.

City officials consider the project a prototype for a series of park-and-ride facilities that would connect passengers to Los Angeles International Airport. The 29-year-old Van Nuys FlyAway last year served 732,921 people who parked there and boarded buses for LAX.

Since work started at the site in April, the airport has kept a close watch on Tutor through a special monitoring panel and a construction manager. The manager has filed extensive monthly progress reports with color photographs.

But Day's letter for the first time reveals the magnitude of the problems at the project site, even with the airport's extra efforts to closely monitor the firm's performance.

Day's letter sets forth multiple problems that must be rectified in the next 15 days, directing the company to:

* Provide a full-time, licensed land surveyor on the site. City building inspectors shut down work on the site in November after finding that several concrete columns on the parking structure were not aligned properly, documents show. The slope of a ramp in the structure also violates city building codes and the thickness of concrete on a second-floor deck is inadequate, the letter states.

* Ensure that all concrete on the site meets building standards. Concrete used in the parking structure has repeatedly failed strength tests, and Tutor-Saliba continues to bring subpar concrete onto the site, according to the letter.

* Cease using alternative materials in construction. Tutor-Saliba installed materials in the parking structure and terminal building that were not called for in architect's plans and failed to notify engineers of the change, the letter states.

* Fix problems noted in 170 citations issued by city building inspectors since last April. Many of these are duplicates of past violations because Tutor-Saliba repeatedly failed to remedy construction defects, Day said.

* File updated construction schedules with airport officials. The firm repeatedly failed to provide these documents to the airport agency and its project manager, the letter states.

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