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Metro Green Line Rail Contracts Approved by a Doubting Board

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under pressure by influential lobbyists, the Rail Construction Corp. board on Monday approved two key Metro Green Line contracts, but again pleaded with county mass-transit commissioners to rethink the use of driverless cars on the increasingly complex and costly system.

Similar concerns were expressed last week by the Southern California Rapid Transit District board after RCC engineers said the Green Line budget could soar to more than $1 billion, 41% above the initial budget, over the next two months.

So now, the agency building the system, the RCC, and the agency that will run it, the RTD, have expressed doubts about the efficacy of the technology being employed.

Final authority over contract awards and the use of automation rests with the policy-making Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. The LACTC, which has twice approved automation, is scheduled to discuss the troubled Green Line project when it meets Wednesday.

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In addition to questions of cost and technology, RCC board member James T. Pott challenged the subjective process used to choose the builder of the Green Line’s driverless cars. He said staff analysts appeared to have added criteria that favored one of two bidders.

The analysts lauded winning bidder Sumitomo Corp. of America because its cars on other systems had moved more than 3 million miles--an “experience threshold” worth extra credit. Losing bidder Morrison-Knudsen Corp. was penalized for using too many new subcontractors. Neither criterion was mentioned in the initial bid package, Pott said.

“As far as I’m concerned, this was a canned job,” Pott said.

The RCC’s main business Monday was confirming staff suggestions to award Sumitomo the $121.8-million car-building contract and Union Switch & Signal Corp. a related $57.8-million computer automation contract.

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After approving the contracts 5 to 1, the board unexpectedly debated the line’s growing cost and lagging schedule.

Four directors worried aloud about how costs, which they feared may not stop at $1 billion, could force the postponement or even cancellation of other elements of the county’s 350-mile, $45-billion rail transit network, to be built over 30 years.

“I have serious reservations about whether this automated line is the way to go,” said board member Donald F. McIntyre, the retired city manager of Pasadena. “I just think we’re putting too much money into the Green Line. I think the risk is too high.”

Pott said each Green Line car--even without costly automation electronics--will cost at least $2.9 million. “No one in the country pays that much,” he said. “It’s too much money--period.”

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By comparison, he said, the cars now being used on the Blue Line would cost far less--about $1.6 million today, after adjusting for inflation.

The 23-mile Norwalk-to-El Segundo Green Line, now swollen to a $1-billion project, has been one of the county’s most heavily and openly lobbied transportation projects.

For the car contract, Sumitomo enlisted former Gov. George Deukmejian as lobbyist, while Morrison-Knudsen hired the politically savvy law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and lobbyist Maureen Kindel, an associate of Mayor Tom Bradley.

Deukmejian sat quietly in the back of the room as the RCC voted. After Sumitomo was awarded the contract, gadfly transit activist John Walsh of Hollywood pointed at the former governor and shouted: “Congratulations, Gov. Deukmejian, you won. The check is in the mail.”

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It was originally estimated that the Green Line’s driverless cars would cost $64 million, although the estimate, in typical LACTC fashion, did not state how many cars this money would buy. The “contract synopsis” said the number of cars was “TBD,” or to be determined.

Staff engineers revised the estimated cost to $109.9 million, but even that was low. Sumitomo bid $121.8 million--nearly $5 million more than Morrison-Knudsen.

Similar budget creep has occurred in the train control system. It was budgeted at $31.7 million; Union Switch & Signal Corp. initially bid $79.9 million--a figure cut to $57.8 million by the time the contract was approved Monday.

Debate over costs and technology have rewritten the Green Line schedule. Car construction was to have started last February, and building of the train-control system was to have begun last April. Neither is likely to start until next year.

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Opening day has been pushed back to May, 1995, seven months behind schedule. Some RCC board members privately doubt that even the later date can be met.


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