Overcoming a potentially crippling controversy over the safety of the Los Angeles Metro Rail, proponents of the $3.3-billion proposed subway won a major victory Thursday with House approval of a transportation bill that includes a strong expression by Congress for the first phase of the project to be financed quickly and fully.
But although the prospects looked good for getting the financing through the Senate and approved by President Reagan as part of a larger federal appropriation package--which if vetoed would kill off legislation the President does want enacted--it may not be all smooth sailing to a hoped-for ground-breaking early next year.
The Administration is still strongly opposed to the project, and there could be a series of attempts to throw political and administrative roadblocks in front of the financing for the first $1.2-billion, 4.4-mile segment of the project.
Also, local political support for the project could be tested again because of new uncertainties about where the second phase of the 18.6-mile subway would go. And a planned public review by technical experts of the safety of tunneling through downtown Los Angeles conceivably could, despite the confidence in safety expressed by Metro Rail backers, create a forum for opponents to raise new doubts over the wisdom of building the system.
Clearly, however, this year’s battle demonstrated again the tenacity and political pull on Capitol Hill of a powerful coalition of city officials, business interests, labor and members of the Los Angeles congressional delegation. “As long as the coalition holds together as it did this time, we can get what needs to be gotten,” said one congressional source supportive of the project.
If the House version of the transportation bill is approved, it would earmark $429 million for the first $1.2-billion phase of the project. The bill includes language ordering the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration to enter into a full funding contract for the first segment within 30 days of final approval of the bill. That would include $129 million in funds being withheld by the Administration and $117 million for fiscal 1986.
The bill also requires that route changes be made to avoid tunneling through the Fairfax District, where an explosion of seeping underground gas injured 21 people last March.
And an agreement between supporters of the project and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who questioned the safety of the project after the explosion, calls for a 10-member panel of technical experts to publicly review the risks of digging through gassy areas in the first phase of the project.
In an interview Thursday, Ralph Stanley, UMTA’s administrator and a key opponent of the project, outlined a series of problems and issues that could arise before construction begins. “They’ve still got some real obstacles,” he said.
Although he conceded that the language of the bill is explicit in ordering him to finance the project, he said he has questions about whether the requirement is legally binding. He said there may be a conflict with other legislation that restricts the UMTA’s ability to enter contracts involving future-year financing that is not currently available. The chief Administration argument against the project has been that there will not be enough federal transit funds available in future years to complete the project, a point disputed by congressional supporters of new transit projects.
Even if the financing order is legal, Stanley said, a complex contract must be negotiated between his agency and the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which would build and operate the subway. Stanley said that, among other things, he would demand a commitment by the RTD--and possibly other state and local agencies helping to finance the project--that they, not the federal government, will be completely liable for any cost overruns beyond the $1.2-billion first-phase estimate. Stanley said that such requirements have triggered debate and some dissension among political leaders in other communities. The $1.2-billion estimate for the first segment of the project is “the best number we’ve got,” he said. “My experience with every project (has been) none of them have come in at or under budget. The good ones are 10% to 15% over.”
RTD officials and congressional supporters of the project, however, discounted the significance of the possible obstacles cited by Stanley.
RTD President Nikolas Patsaouras said, “Once the President signs the transportation bill, it is the law of the land.” He said the cost-overrun language is standard in UMTA contracts and predicted that other agencies participating in Metro Rail would agree to accept it.
Congressional sources noted there has been support on Capitol Hill for the project and said that any bureaucratic interference that Stanley might attempt would probably trigger new, stronger legislative attempts to force him to release the funds. They also said there would be broad support for retaliatory measures because Los Angeles is not alone in wanting to start new rail programs over Administration objections. “Those (congressional) delegations would move together,” said one congressional staff member supportive of the project.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, RTD General Manager John A. Dyer indicated for the first time that the Metro Rail line may still go through the Fairfax area--but not underground.
“The Waxman-Dixon compromise talks only about subway construction,” Dyer said. He said that the House compromise bans subway tunneling through possibly dangerous pockets of methane gas but does not preclude an elevated or surface train through those neighborhoods. He conceded that such consideration could trigger a new round of debate over the environmental concerns and financing.
“We have to look at it,” Dyer said of the surface approach. “We have to look at all the options and alternatives.”
Restudy of Route
Under the congressional agreement, the RTD would have to restudy the entire Metro Rail route west of Alvarado Street and Wilshire Boulevard--or outside the initial 4.4-mile leg--and would take a year to come up with a new route. From 10 to 15 alternatives could be considered, Dyer said, but he added that he was still confident that whatever routing was selected, ridership would be just as high and would prove less costly than the original 18.6-mile route--an assessment that left Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, for one, wondering why such a route had not been selected earlier.
Yaroslavsky, a Metro Rail supporter who represents the Beverly-Fairfax area, also said he was concerned that a new route--bypassing a large part of the Wilshire Boulevard corridor--would mean diverting Metro Rail service from an area of the city densely populated with prospective riders to downtown jobs.
Yaroslavsky said he shared Waxman’s safety concerns but regretted that the area was automatically written off for subway routing before all studies were made.
“I would have preferred to have had the evidence before the final decision was made,” Yaroslavsky said.
Others in the Beverly-Fairfax area also greeted the news from Washington with mixed reactions.
“I think there is some disappointment on the part of some merchants and residents who felt that Metro Rail would facilitate their transit needs and enhance their mobility,” said Dave Tuttle, director of the Vitalized Fairfax Project, a neighborhood merchants’ group that is financed through the city’s Community Development Department.
Uncertainty Over Route
As for a new route, there was uncertainty over exactly what streets the line would follow. In 1980, before approving the subway route through the Beverly-Fairfax area, the RTD board had considered several alternatives.
One suggested route followed Wilshire Boulevard from the downtown business district, turned north on Vermont Avenue, and west on Sunset Boulevard into Hollywood and then on to the San Fernando Valley.
If resurrected, the Vermont route would be acceptable under the House compromise agreement, but some in the business community are chagrined at the prospect of a large part of busy Wilshire Boulevard being bypassed.
Gary Russell, chairman of the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce Planning and Transportation Committee, said many of the 900 chamber members think Metro Rail would help induce growth in the business district along the boulevard and help revitalize the area. He said Metro Rail should go west on Wilshire at least to Western Avenue.