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

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

During a hearing near a sunken stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, state legislators sharply criticized local transit officials Wednesday for their decision to stick with firms that are building the troubled Los Angeles subway.

The hearing of the Assembly and Senate transportation committees came as new measurements showed that surface sinkage above the tunnels in Hollywood has grown to as much as 10 inches.

Sen. Tom Hayden chided Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer Franklin E. White for his treatment of the contractors who are involved.

White decided last month not to terminate the tunneling contractor, Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, or construction management firm, Parsons-Dillingham. Instead, White plans to phase out Parsons-Dillingham from the next segment of subway construction and 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. I only wish it would apply to everyone--and not simply to contractors in subway fiascoes."

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

"When are we ever going to hold people accountable?" asked Kopp (I-San Francisco), who took the unusual step of swearing in witnesses. "Why don't you yank 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 be too expensive to terminate them. "Our highest priority must be to complete these tunnels in a professional manner as expeditiously as possible," White said.

John J. Adams, the MTA's acting chief of construction, told the committee: "We have made great changes in the way we're going to do business. 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 construction until the MTA proves it can competently manage the project. Tunneling in Hollywood has been stopped since Aug. 18.

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

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 to take more direct responsibility for quality control and safety inspections. New procedures and materials also are to be used, including metal struts--not wooden wedges--for bracing the outer tunnel shell.

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 state has provided the third-largest share of funding for construction of the subway.

The head of the firm building the tunnels along Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue defended the work and placed blame for problems on project officials.

Expanding upon comments made in a recent letter to the MTA, John F. Shea, head of Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, said the partnership was concerned as of late July, when sinkages of four inches had emerged.

His cousin, Peter Shea, said they recommended that soil-stabilizing grouting be performed to prevent worse sinking, but the idea was rejected by project officials, whom he did not identify.

"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 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.

The legislators did not question the Sheas regarding what engineers have found to be improper installation of the wedges. The wedges, placed in gaps of precast concrete segments, were not surrounded with high-strength grout material, as required. The Sheas also were not asked to explain why wooden wedges were used that fall short of the strength specified in advance of construction.

"What major project of this size has not had problems?" John Shea told the committee. He said he believes that 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 by the project's chief design engineer, employed by the firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

The hearing also focused on whether the MTA, created by the Legislature, has the capacity to build proposed rail projects without siphoning money from a bus system that largely serves the poor.

"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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