Panel Rips MTA for Not Firing Builders : Subway: Agency chief tells legislators at hearing that dropping tunnel contractors would have cost too much money and time.


State legislators sharply criticized local transit officials Wednesday for their decision to stick with the firms building and supervising the troubled Los Angeles subway project, as new measurements show that surface sinkages in Hollywood have grown to 10 inches.

During a lively joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate transportation committees, Sen. Tom Hayden chided Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer Franklin E. White for his treatment of the contractors.

White decided late last month not to terminate the contracts of either the tunneling contractor, Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, or the MTA's construction management firm, Parsons-Dillingham. Instead, White plans to gradually phase out Parsons-Dillingham from its role on the next segment of subway construction and to more closely supervise the work of Shea-Kiewit-Kenny.

"I just want to thank Mr. White for giving the greatest defense of rehabilitation as an approach to crime that I have heard this year," said Hayden (D-Santa Monica), referring to construction shortcomings and alleged violations of safety laws.

"You mess up," he said. "You get more money. You get better supervision. And you get back on the job."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Quentin L. Kopp also questioned the MTA's decision to retain the two contractors.

"When are we ever going to hold people accountable and say if mistakes are made, that's it?" asked Kopp (I-San Francisco), who took the unusual step of swearing in witnesses. "Why don't you yank them? Get rid of them. . . . I disagree with keeping on the job firms that haven't cut it."

White defended his decision to retain the firms, saying it would prevent any increased costs and delays for the subway project.

"Although it would make us feel better if the contractor and construction manager were replaced," White said, ". . . our highest priority must be to complete these tunnels in a professional manner as expeditiously as possible."

John J. Adams, the MTA's acting chief of construction, has advised White that it would be too expensive to terminate the contractors and hire new firms to complete the work.

"We have made great changes in the way we're going to do business," Adams testified. "For us to take a vengeful attitude, I think is a disservice to the taxpayers."

Kopp mocked Adams' statement. " Vengeful ?" Kopp said, noting the millions of dollars of extra costs at stake for taxpayers. "It's incredible."

Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz said the decision to retain one or both firms was "short-term wise, long-term foolish."

"Somebody has got to be taught a lesson," said Katz (D-Sylmar). "It's worth it for the long-term gain in restoring public confidence."

The hearing was prompted by the Federal Transit Administration's announcement Oct. 5 that it was withholding $1.6 billion for future subway construction until the MTA proves it can competently manage the project. The hearing was held in Hollywood, just a few blocks from where tunneling has been stopped since Aug. 18.

Adams confirmed in an interview that the worst sinkage, at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Hudson Avenue, has increased to 10 inches, compared to nine inches two months ago.

White last week submitted to the federal government a plan designed to prevent the kinds of problems that have plagued the construction. The MTA proposes, among other things, to take greater direct responsibility for quality control and safety inspections and to implement new construction procedures, such as using metal struts--not wooden wedges--for the tunnel bracing.

An independent engineering firm retained by the MTA reported Oct. 18 that the substitution of the wooden wedges for the metal struts was "inappropriate." Earlier studies concluded that failure of the wooden wedges contributed to the sinkages in Hollywood.

The head of the firm building the tunnels along Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue defended the work and blamed the problems on the MTA.

Speaking publicly for the first time, John F. Shea, head of Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, said the partnership was concerned as of late July when project officials became aware that sinkages of four inches had occurred. Shea and his cousin, Peter Shea, said they recommended that soil-stabilizing grouting be performed to prevent worse sinking. Peter Shea said project officials, whom he did not identify, rejected the suggestions to perform the grouting, saying they would be too costly.

"When I became aware of the four-inch subsidence . . . I brought up the subject of chemical grouting and compaction grouting," Peter Shea said. "However, the attitude of the construction manager (Parsons-Dillingham) was such that they . . . considered compaction grouting and chemical grouting as too costly."

Under questioning by committee members, the Sheas said they had been unable to locate any memo or document verifying their earlier suggestion.

Asked later during the hearing about the matter, Chris Dixon, an executive with Parsons-Dillingham who has helped oversee the work, said he could not remember whether the Sheas had suggested performing chemical or compaction grouting.

"What major project of this size has not had problems?" John Shea told the committee. He said he believes that the ground sinkages in Hollywood were caused by the "highly unusual loose soil conditions," not because of the wood wedges.

The tapered, 32-inch-long wedges--one of which was on display at the hearing--have become for some a focal point of the problems. Substitution of the wedges was approved in 1992 by Parsons-Dillingham and the project's chief design engineer, employed by the firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

The hearing also focused on whether the MTA, created by the state Legislature, has the financial capacity to build the rail projects without siphoning money from a bus system that largely serves the poorest residents of the county.

"The time has come to question whether the problems that MTA is having reflect merely growth pains of a fledgling agency or whether we have given birth to some kind of fiscal Frankenstein," Hayden said.

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