Tunnel to Nowhere : $1 Million in Tax Money May Go Into a Hole in the Ground in Downtown L.A.

Times Staff Writer

While the debate rages over funds for the proposed Metro Rail subway, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency is preparing to spend nearly $1 million to build a small piece of a little-noticed downtown transit tunnel that goes nowhere and may never carry passengers.

A $976,000 construction contract on the CRA commission’s agenda Monday is part of at least $3.8 million of federal and local public funds expected to be spent over the next several years to extend a partly constructed tunnel through Bunker Hill that roughly parallels 3rd Street between Hill and Flower streets.

The so-called Bunker Hill Transit Tunnel--a concrete-walled corridor about 15 feet high and up to 28 feet wide--was supposed to serve a Downtown People Mover. But plans for that automated, $259-million transit system of small coaches running above city streets along elevated guideways were torpedoed in 1981 by the incoming Reagan Administration and opponents in Congress.


CRA officials say they intend to someday incorporate the remnants of the people mover tunnel into a new transit project, although they concede that they do not know how or when that would be accomplished or even what destinations the system would serve. The projected tunnel section connects with no planned transit route--other than the defunct people mover line--at either end.

It is possible the tunnel, sections of which are now sealed off or used by private firms for storage, may never be used for transportation, officials admit.

Nonetheless, they argue that construction should continue because scarce federal funds for the project are now available, considerable city funds have already been invested and the need for additional transit systems will increase as downtown traffic congestion worsens.

“It’s planning for the future, keeping options open,” said Donald Cosgrove, acting administrator of the redevelopment agency.

Contacted in Washington, Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge), who led the successful congressional fight to kill the people mover, seemed shocked to learn that federal funds were still going into the project and vowed to try her best to cut the money off.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” she said. “They’re using funds for a project that has been specifically deleted by the United States Congress. . . .”

City Councilman Ernani Bernardi said spending millions on so uncertain a proposal is “unbelievable” and “flabbergasting.”

“I think they have an obligation to publicly state what they want to complete that tunnel for,” said Bernardi, who was a leading local critic of the people mover.

“If it (the people mover) was a bad deal in the first place, why pour more money into a bad deal?”

City officials said they fear that if they do not move ahead now they will lose $3 million in residual federal funds from the people mover project. The Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which strongly opposes using federal funds for new urban transit projects, recently has been warning the city that it may attempt to get out of its contract to fund the tunnel. “They’ve been after us,” said Yukio Kawaratani, a senior CRA planner who oversees Bunker Hill. “If we don’t spend the money, there is a possibility of losing the grant.”

Planned in 1973

The proposal to build a people mover first surfaced in 1973, as a wave of new development was sweeping Bunker Hill. Strongly endorsed by Mayor Tom Bradley, the CRA and developers, the plan called for a people mover that would pass through Bunker Hill and link two huge, commuter parking garages on the east and west edges of downtown.

The redevelopment agency began providing space for station landings and ordered walls and floor space built for the tunnel in new office projects, including the World Trade Center, Security Pacific Plaza and Crocker Center. Developers were compensated for the special improvements through discounts on the public land that they acquired as building sites.

Although city officials contend the tunnel is three-fourths finished, there is a large gap under Crocker Center, which was allowed to use the easement for underground parking after the people mover died.

The taxpayers’ cost of already completed parts of the tunnel has not been calculated, CRA officials said. But one estimate of the value of the existing pieces of the tunnel and easement and station-related improvements was placed at $15 million in 1981.

In 1976, the federal government selected Los Angeles to be one of a handful of cities where people mover projects would be built and their value demonstrated. The already-begun Bunker Hill tunnel quickly became part of the federal project.

City-Federal Pact

Five years later, despite the decision by then to shut down the project, UMTA agreed to pay 80% or a maximum of $3.04 million to complete the Bunker Hill tunnel. The city agreed to put in the other 20% or $760,000.

Brigid Hynes-Cherin, UMTA’s regional administrator in San Francisco, said she was not with the agency when it agreed to help pay for the tunnel and does not know why it was approved. She said the tunnel would not be funded today.

Asked if, given the uncertainty of the tunnel’s use, it is a project that UMTA believes makes sense, Hynes-Cherin paused. After a moment of silence, she said: “I don’t want to comment on that.”

Donald Howery, general manager of the city’s Department of Transportation, said UMTA agreed to help fund the tunnel “at a time when it was easier to give. . . . They felt guilty about pulling the rug out from under us.”

The $976,000 construction contract now before the CRA commission is just for the section of the tunnel under Olive Street. The remaining $2.9 million in federal and local funds is expected to be spent over the next few years for a station shell and additional tunnel sections beneath California Plaza--a huge office, residential and cultural center planned on both sides of Olive Street.

Costs Have Risen

Construction costs have escalated since the tunnel completion agreement was developed and the city’s share is now expected to increase, though CRA officials say they do not know by how much.

Even if the tunnel is completed, its uses and passenger-carrying capacity may be limited. The portion snaking under Crocker Center atop Bunker Hill was built at a time when city officials were certain that funding and design were assured for the Downtown People Mover. That final design called for only a one-way leg of the line to pass through the tunnel, so city officials permitted Crocker Center developers to narrow the tunnel and easement to just 17 feet.

Today, that means the middle of the tunnel is not wide enough to carry a two-track transit system, officials say, and probably cannot be widened.

“It definitely limits what can be done,” said UMTA’s Hynes-Cherin.

Those who support completing the tunnel, including developers whose projects would be served by it, predict that someday the tunnel will be needed for a people mover project or possibly a branch of the light rail trolley lines proposed for downtown.

Leaving an Option

Christopher Stewart, a CRA commissioner and a lobbyist for downtown business interests, said commission members, like others, have concerns about how the tunnel will be used and what it ultimately will cost the agency to complete. But he added that a finished tunnel would “leave open an option” of providing a “real viable way of increasing mobility” downtown.

Bernardi says if the tunnel is truly needed, it should be paid for by the developers of large office buildings who he said would benefit most from it.

But William Hatch, president of Metropolitan Structures West Inc., a general partner in California Plaza, said: “I believe it is in the long-term interests of the city to utilize the grant funds available. You lose it or spend it.”

Fiedler said such logic is “abhorrent” and “typical of the way we’ve gotten ourselves into the (federal) deficit problem.”