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Modest Proposal : Keeping Red Line Project On Track With Neighbors

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ROBERT MOONEY, Director of public affairs, Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel

As Metro Red Line construction is extended from Wilshire Center to Vermont Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard and North Hollywood, such adverse community impacts as noise, dust, utility service interruptions, access problems and diminished visibility will come with it. But the severity of these impacts can be reduced if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is willing to learn from the mistakes that have taken place at Wilshire Center since 1991. As one who has the perspective of both a representative of a major business affected by the subway project and a former public affairs officer for the MTA, I offer the following suggestions to the MTA and its contractors for a more effective construction mitigation program:

* Plan construction with the community in mind. There can be no real construction mitigation without an understanding of the affected community and sensitivity to its needs. At the MTA’s Wilshire/Normandie construction site, around-the-clock construction with heavy equipment was undertaken in 1992. No one seemed to care about the 396-room hotel and a half-dozen apartment buildings in the immediate area. Had the needs of the community been properly considered, the construction would have either been scheduled differently or an effective noise abatement program would have been put in place. Instead, an angry public lost sleep for months before nighttime construction was finally curtailed.

* Act, don’t just react. Too often, adversely affected business and property owners on Wilshire received attention from the MTA staff only after complaining about their problems to the press or elected officials. This was true in the case of the Construction Enhancement Loan Program, or CELP, an economic assistance program that was established only after tremendous pressure was exerted by the community. Knowing that subway construction brings adverse economic impact, the MTA and its predecessor agencies could have designed an effective business assistance program in advance. Instead, the largely irrelevant CELP was created after much of the damage had already been done on Wilshire. The MTA should recognize that managing issues up front tends to be more effective than merely reacting to events after they have occurred.

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* Enforce the rules. Writing mitigation measures into construction contracts, as the MTA has done, can be effective--but only if those contracts are enforced. One of the major sources of subway-related problems on Wilshire has been the repeated violation of contract specifications and city regulations, apparently without any real penalties for the contractor. Numerous cases of unauthorized truck staging, equipment storage, street closures and driveway blockages have been documented on Wilshire. Encroachment of construction onto private property has also taken place. The construction manger’s contract enforcement efforts should be bolstered and strong penalties for noncompliance should be established and imposed as necessary.

* Settle legitimate damage claims in good faith. The MTA has created a reputation among some as an agency that would rather pay $1 million to defend an unnecessary lawsuit than $100 to settle a legitimate claim. This kind of approach is not good government. The MTA, the taxpayers and members of the community who suffer construction-related damages would all benefit from the adoption of a policy designed to fairly settle claims and avoid costly litigation. Standard claims adjusting procedures--investigation, evaluation and negotiation--are adequate safeguards that will ensure that only legitimate and justified claim settlements are made with taxpayers’ money.

* Patronize construction-area businesses. To its credit, the MTA has occasionally turned to the communities affected by rail construction to obtain such things as meeting room space, printing services and catering for special events. This is a positive approach that can help struggling businesses survive construction, while creating goodwill for the MTA. It should be made a standard practice.

The construction mitigation program undertaken by Caltrans during the emergency rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged I-10 freeway is an excellent example of how public agencies can show sensitivity to the needs of the community. While the Caltrans program was not perfect and did not eliminate all construction impacts, it went a long way toward demonstrating that government can be responsive to the people when it wants to be. Clearly the MTA is also capable of such responsiveness. But to achieve positive results in construction mitigation as the Metro Red Line expands, it will be necessary for the MTA to make a good-faith effort to both learn and apply the important lessons of Wilshire Center.

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