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Metro Rail’s New Danger

Los Angeles’ Metro Rail subway faces still another make-or-break vote in Washington this week. Congress should brush aside a late, rear-ending attack based on half-truths about the project’s safety and approve money for the bill so that construction can finally and actually begin.

Federal funding is absolutely essential for the 18-mile subway line between downtown and the San Fernando Valley; Los Angeles can no more raise the entire $3.3 billion for the project than could any of the cities now building new subways.

The House of Representatives will vote, perhaps today, on the transportation bill that includes $130 million to start building Metro Rail, and commits the federal government to pay $400 million more to assure that the first segment of the subway, 4.4 miles of line between Union Station and Alvarado Street, is completed. That vote is a key step in giving this region a modern mass-transit system. That is why it is so disturbing to find Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles)--one of the most influential and, normally, one of the more thoughtful members of the state delegation--raising such a misinformed ruckus over the subway’s safety.

Waxman claims that his concern stems from the gas explosion earlier this year at a clothing store near 3rd Street and Fairfax, in the heart of his Westside district. An investigation linked that blast to a buildup of methane in soil beneath the area, which is along the second phase of the Metro Rail route. Waxman wants absolute assurances that it is safe to build and operate a subway in the area, and threatens to personally hold up money for Metro Rail until he has them.

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He is either getting bad advice about Metro Rail’s engineering or is playing political games for some mysterious reason of his own that has nothing to do with safety. The technicians planning Metro Rail have been aware of the potential hazards of building and operating a subway in Los Angeles from the very start, and have contingency plans for every foreseeable eventuality--not just for buildups of methane gas in the sandy subsoil around the La Brea Tar Pits, but also for earthquakes. They are using the same planning and engineering precautions that any tunneling or construction project in Los Angeles, whether a high-rise building or a storm drain, must meet. Even the authors of the only engineering report that Waxman can cite to support his new position say that he is misusing their findings, and insist that the subway can be built safely.

Metro Rail is the most studied and discussed building project in Los Angeles history, and city leaders long ago reached a consensus that the subway must be built. Waxman should either get back on board or out of the way.


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