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U.S. May Hold Back Funds on L.A.'s Tunnel to Nowhere

Times Staff Writer

A top federal transportation official said Wednesday that he will demand stronger guarantees that a controversial downtown Los Angeles transit tunnel actually be used for transportation before his agency releases any money to complete the project.

In an announcement that drew immediate criticism from city officials, Ralph Stanley, chief of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, said he will require city officials to establish a deadline to begin operating a transit system through the so-called Bunker Hill Transit Tunnel--a partially built, concrete-walled corridor for which city officials have no clearly identified use.

If that deadline is not met, his agency will require Los Angeles officials to repay the federal funds, Stanley said.

“We’ll negotiate a date (to ensure) it will not sit there in perpetuity,” Stanley said in a telephone interview from Washington.

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Given the uncertainties of the tunnel project, Stanley said, he would like to explore with city officials the possibility of transferring the tunnel funds to other transit improvements, such as expansion of bus service.

Local Official Reacts

“I would like to engage in a discussion of the best transit use” of the tunnel funds, he said. “I don’t want people to think if they don’t build the Bunker Hill tunnel, they can’t keep the money. . . . We are not the ones who are going to lock them into what they are going to spend it on.”

City officials charged that Stanley was trying to change the conditions of the existing financing agreement with the federal government. “They negotiated an agreement and we expect them to honor the agreement as negotiated,” said Jim Wood, chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency. “There is no basis on which they can reopen the negotiations.”

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Both the federal transportation agency and the City Council initiated reviews of the project last month after The Times reported that the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency was preparing to spend nearly $1 million to build another piece of the tunnel, which roughly parallels 3rd Street between Hill and Flower streets. The tunnel, up to 28 feet wide and 15 feet high, was intended as a component of the Downtown People Mover, a federally funded $259-million automated downtown shuttle system, but the Reagan Administration killed the project in 1981.

There are now no specific plans for how the tunnel will be used, or how the transit system that would travel through it would be financed. Nonetheless, city officials argue that it should be finished because it preserves the option of adding a long-sought east-west shuttle system through downtown’s congested core.

Even before the People Mover project was first proposed in the mid-1970s, the redevelopment agency had begun constructing the tunnel by incorporating sections of it into Bunker Hill office developments, such as Security Pacific Plaza. City officials now warn that not completing the tunnel would waste millions of dollars already invested in the project.

Despite withdrawing its support of the People Mover, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration agreed to pay about $3 million toward completion of the tunnel, with the city agreeing to add $760,000. Stanley, who joined the agency in 1983, said he was not aware of the agreement until the recent news stories and that there had been confusion among his top aides as to why the tunnel funds had been promised.

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Loss of Right

However, Stanley said Wednesday that the city gave up the right to file financial claims against his agency in return for the tunnel funds. He said the federal transportation administration will honor the agreement as long as it reaches accord on when the tunnel will be used.

As for Wood’s claims that the Urban Mass Transportation Administration has no right to add conditions to the project now, Stanley said, the funding agreement requires the city to “bring (the tunnel) into a mass transit use” and “a tunnel with nothing running through it isn’t that.”

“What we are saying is it is now five years later and we want a commitment of a time certain of when that will come into use. . . .

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