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Experts Dig Into Subway Project

The mayor asks a team of engineers and transit whizzes to determine if the Red Line can be extended along Wilshire without igniting gases.

October 15, 2005|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's dream of building a subway to the ocean won't begin with digging.

Instead, the work will kick off later this month at a downtown hotel, where a handful of engineers and transit experts will tackle a question that has long stymied Los Angeles' subway system: Is it possible to tunnel below Wilshire Boulevard without blowing anything up?

That answer is the first bureaucratic hurdle to clear if Villaraigosa wants to fulfill his campaign promise.

On Friday, he announced that an expert panel would determine whether "further subway tunneling is a safe alternative." The five members will look at whether new tunneling techniques make it possible to dig through the Fairfax neighborhood, which has hazardous pockets of underground methane gas, without touching off an explosion.

If the panel determines that digging is safe, Rep. Henry Waxman, a Westside Democrat, has promised that he will rescind the 19-year-old federal law he sponsored that bans using federal money to extend the Red Line.

"I hope this study verifies that it can be done," he said Friday.

Waxman pressed for the legislation after a 1985 explosion at a Ross Dress For Less store near Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street, the site of an old oil field. Methane seeped into the building after migrating from several thousand feet below street level. More than 20 people were injured.

The scare effectively stopped any later westward extension of the Red Line, which opened in 1993. Today, the subway's Wilshire Boulevard spur runs from downtown to Western Avenue -- about 12 1/2 miles and billions of dollars from the beach.

Zeal for the subway was further dampened by cost overruns and a fear among some Westsiders that it would ruin their neighborhoods.

But the political climate has changed as Westsiders stew in creeping traffic. Other cities on the Westside now support an extended Red Line. And while Villaraigosa has said a subway to the ocean probably won't be realized during his time in office, making progress toward that goal has become a major preoccupation for his administration.

"Wilshire Boulevard is the most logical choice for mass transit investments," Villaraigosa said in a statement Friday.

Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, agrees that Wilshire, with its dense neighborhoods, high-rises and crowded buses, "has always been the most logical place to build a rail line."

There is currently no money for the Wilshire plan, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is closer to building a separate light-rail line that would eventually connect downtown to the ocean. Dubbed the Exposition Line, the project would follow a former freight route along Exposition and Jefferson boulevards to Culver City and, ultimately, Santa Monica.

MTA officials have already identified $590 million in state and federal money for the project, $50 million shy of the amount needed to build it to Culver City.

The project got a head start in part because it is cheaper -- and less complicated -- to build a commuter rail line above ground, especially in Los Angeles.

MTA officials have long maintained that tunneling under Wilshire is "a safe and feasible option." But Waxman has been skeptical of the agency, which botched aspects of the 17.4-mile Red Line construction.

In recent months, however, Waxman has been approached by a number of Los Angeles city officials -- including Councilman Tom LaBonge, former Mayor James K. Hahn, and Villaraigosa -- about rescinding the law, the congressman said.

He gained confidence in the expert panel when he was allowed to pick two of its members: Fred Kissell, a retired methane expert from Pennsylvania mining country, and John T. Christian, a geotechnical engineering expert who scrutinized the "Big Dig" freeway tunneling project in Boston.

They will join three members appointed by the American Public Transportation Assn., a lobbying group that represents the MTA and other regional transit organizations in Washington.

In closed-door meetings from Oct. 24 to 27, the panel will take a hard look at the volatile forces beneath Los Angeles that continue to pose serious challenges for local policymakers.

Millions of years ago, the L.A. Basin was under the Pacific, and centuries of dead sea life created rich reserves of fossil fuel. By the early 20th century, the fuel was being pumped out in a maze of active oil fields. Today, many of the old pumps are gone, but significant pockets of explosive methane and other subterranean gases remain.

The Fairfax area -- home to the bubbling La Brea tar pits -- poses a particularly vexing problem for diggers.

"There's methane gas all over the place in Los Angeles," Waxman said, "but none of the concentration of what we have in the Fairfax area."

Subway supporters hope that new tunneling methods and technology will convince the expert group that digging in the area is safe.

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