Council Panel Favors Bunker Hill Tunnel : Committee Would Spend Funds for Project That Has No Apparent Use

Times Staff Writer

Brushing aside criticism of the project, a key Los Angeles City Council committee Friday called for millions of dollars worth of construction to proceed on a downtown transit tunnel that has no clearly identified use.

The recommendation by the Transportation and Traffic Committee came after officials from the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is building the so-called Bunker Hill Transit Tunnel, defended the project as a long-planned and irreplaceable asset that will be needed to reduce Central City traffic congestion. The full council will consider the recommendation in the next few weeks.

"It's important in terms of redevelopment activity in downtown . . . in solving transportation problems and permitting growth and development," CRA Commissioner Chris Stewart told the committee.

At issue is a partly built 1,500-foot concrete-walled corridor through Bunker Hill, roughly paralleling 3rd Street between Hill and Flower streets. Over the years, the city has provided space for stations and ordered walls and floor space built for the tunnel in several Bunker Hill office projects. The value of those easements and improvements was estimated Friday at nearly $25 million.

The tunnel, parts of which are now sealed up or used for storage, was supposed to serve the Downtown People Mover--a federally funded $259-million automated downtown shuttle system that was killed by the Reagan Administration in 1981.

Despite its decision to shut down the project, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration agreed in 1982 to provide about $3 million to complete the tunnel, with the city agreeing to add $760,000. The CRA is preparing to award a $1-million contract to build a small piece of the tunnel under Olive Street.

While the city has no specific plans for the tunnel--or how to finance a transit system that might go through it--CRA officials said Friday the most likely use would be for a shuttle system that would ferry commuters from proposed parking garages on the fringe of downtown to office buildings in the core of the city.

Citing a recent story in The Times that prompted the council's review, CRA Commission Chairman Jim Wood urged council members to "reaffirm our commitment and say that we can plan more than a newspaper story away. . . . It's a 'Tunnel to Nowhere' only if you allow it to be."

Wood also warned that if Los Angeles does not spend the federal funds they could be lost to another city.

Council President Pat Russell, who chairs the Transportation and Traffic Committee, voiced strong support for the project. Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a critic of both the CRA and the People Mover, said he was "shocked" at the uncertainties of the project and what he termed a "spend-it-or-lose-it" attitude toward federal funds.

Meanwhile, a UMTA official in Washington said the agency is making a review to determine why the money was committed to the tunnel, particularly given the Administration's strong opposition to funding new local transit systems.

Bonnie Whyte, UMTA's public affairs director, said: "There are a number of things we're looking at. A lot of things were done back in 1981 and 1982 and the people involved, frankly, aren't here anymore."

City officials have said UMTA agreed to provide the funds because it recognized the value of the tunnel and also had potential liabilities to the city for canceling the People Mover.

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