As the result of some behind-the-scenes efforts by Mayor Tom Bradley, the battle between the area's two biggest transit authorities for control of the $3.4-billion Metro Rail project appears headed for a compromise settlement late this week or next.
The settlement, if accepted, would create an independent third agency to build Los Angeles County rail systems, transit officials said.
At the mayor's request, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission's transit committee on Monday put off discussion of a recommendation to cancel the Southern California Rapid Transit District's $19.7-million contract to design and engineer the second phase of the $3.4-billion Metro Rail project.
This postponement was an attempt to give RTD directors time at their meeting Thursday to put finishing touches on a compromise agreement creating the new rail construction agency, according to the mayor's office.
Such a new agency's board of directors would have three members appointed by the RTD board, three members named by the commission and a seventh tie-breaking member appointed by the mayor. The proposal, if passed by the RTD board, would be offered as a compromise to the commission's Metro Rail takeover plan, district officials said.
The compromise, put together by RTD Director Nick Patsaouras, was presented to the district's board of directors last week. But it was quickly tabled when it became apparent that Patsaouras did not have the votes to pass the measure.
The RTD board, while resisting the commission's efforts to take over Metro Rail and other rail projects, has been sharply divided on how best to forestall such a takeover.
"All we want to do is stop the war," said William Bicker, Bradley's transportation coordinator. Bicker said Bradley has been working behind the scenes to end the long-standing feud between the two agencies. "We hope to see less conflict and more cooperation," he added.
The city is a funding partner in the Metro Rail project and is responsible for paying 5% of any cost overruns.
Before the mayor stepped in, the commission staff and its transit committee were considering not only the termination of the RTD engineering contract, but nixing the RTD's plans for operating the Long Beach Light Rail Line as well. Called the Blue Line, this $752-million, 22-mile light rail line from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles is being built by the commission but is to be operated by RTD crews.
The commission controls the purse strings on all federal, state and local money spent on rail, except for the first phase of Metro Rail. The RTD, using federal funds, is building the first 4.4 miles of the big subway project.
It is unclear which agency now will control the engineering and construction of the final 13 miles of the subway project. While recognizing the commission's funding authority, RTD officials contend they have the authority to extend Metro Rail the full 17 miles into the San Fernando Valley.
The commission claims it has the responsibility for overseeing the $1.3-billion first phase of the Metro Rail work, which is two years behind schedule. A commission audit released last summer said the RTD was 10% over budget, a claim the district rebutted with its own audits that said overruns were not nearly that great.
The RTD has the authority to operate the trains under a contract between it and the commission. But the two agencies have not been able to agree on how much it should cost to staff and operate the Long Beach line.
"We are at an impasse with the commission over funding of the light rail operations," said RTD Director Marvin L. Holen. He contended the commission has grossly underestimated the cost of staffing the trains and the stations.
As for the Metro Rail project, Holen said, the agreement between the commission and the district clearly authorizes the RTD to design and build the project. "The (commission) is trying to subvert that role and take over," Holen said. "Therein lies the basic quarrel."
Holen called for an end to the fighting over both the subway construction and funding for the light rail. If the agencies cannot reach a settlement, he said, the Legislature may have to intervene.
Without a compromise agreement, the commission is expected to go ahead with its takeover attempt.
When a commission audit showed the RTD's $1.3-billion contract to build the first phase of Metro Rail was running 10% over budget, the commission stepped in and began immediate cost-cutting efforts as part of the takeover.
The first step of the takeover was to create a Rail Construction Corp. to oversee design and construction of the whole subway project. The RTD was offered three of the six seats on the new corporation's board of directors. The district ignored the offer and refused to participate in commission cost-cutting efforts.
"It is imperative that the commission have greater and more direct control of scope, budget and schedule for Phase II (of Metro Rail)," Neil Peterson, commission executive director, wrote in a staff report that was to have been considered by the commission's transit committee on Monday. Peterson was asking the committee to endorse his recommendation that the full commission strip the RTD of its $19.7-million contract to design and engineer Metro Rail's second phase.
According to Peterson, the U.S. Department of Transportation has agreed that the commission can take over the project. "Our discussions clearly establish the (commission) is the legal successor to the (RTD)" for federal funding purposes.
The transit committee deferred the report until after the RTD board meeting on Thursday. However, it did direct Peterson to put the item on the full commission's agenda for next week.