MTA Probes Unauthorized, Costly Changes to Rail Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local transit officials have discovered at least several million dollars in unauthorized design changes on a planned rail line to Pasadena, prompting them to demote the head of the $1-billion project and open an internal investigation into what went wrong.

Disclosing about $14 million in cost overruns, visibly embarrassed staff members at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority acknowledged Thursday that the agency's procedures were violated when a private engineering consortium was allowed to initiate a string of unapproved design changes on the Pasadena line. But the explanations did little to mollify some MTA board members at a meeting of the agency's construction committee.

"Why would we pay somebody for work that we did not authorize?" Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky demanded of MTA staff members seeking board approval of the higher costs. "I've never heard of such a thing. . . . That's a prescription for bankruptcy. Where's the control? Where's the accountability?"

The Pasadena project is an above-ground, 13.6-mile-long rail line that is to be completed by 2002. It will connect Pasadena and Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles, the hub of the region's rail and subway network.

Construction work has been done on two bridges for the line, but questions have persisted about how the MTA--facing layoffs and large-scale cutbacks in federal funding--will find the money to complete the project. Thursday's disclosures underscored those questions, revealing that the project has suffered what officials called substantial overruns and cost increases while still in its design stages.

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Officials now estimate that they will have to spend an additional $14 million above budget because of changes in various aspects of the rail design, including seismic retrofitting, traffic control, rail station plans and other issues, some of which were not authorized.

To date, MTA officials say they have discovered $1.9 million in unauthorized work that a private consortium, Engineering Management Consultant of Los Angeles, has done on the project in recent months. They said they expect that figure to rise as the agency's review continues.

An outside consultant has already reviewed some of the cost overruns and delivered a report to the MTA, but the agency refused to release it Thursday.

Staff at EMC said company officials were not available to talk about the contract.

The MTA board is supposed to give final approval to any contract changes totaling more than $200,000, but that policy appears to have been violated repeatedly on the Pasadena line, officials said.

Even as MTA board members questioned staff members extensively at Thursday's meeting, it was unclear where the breakdown in authority had taken place, and some board members said they were confused.

Joseph E. Drew, the new deputy chief executive officer at the MTA, said the agency's inspector general will be examining the problems in more detail. "This is troublesome for us," Drew said. "We did have some pretty serious faults in process internally. . . . Quite frankly, [there was] some substantial inattention to detail."

As a result, officials said the agency late last week removed Laurence Weldon as project manager of the Pasadena rail line for failing to properly oversee the design work. MTA officials are seeking to determine what Weldon may have known about the unauthorized work and, in the meantime, are refusing to pay any costs considered "unjustifiable," said interim construction chief John Adams.

"Our present rules do not allow what has happened here to happen," said Franklin E. White, chief executive officer of the MTA. "We have a lot of fixing to do, and we acknowledge that."

Weldon, who did not attend Thursday's meeting, said later: "I'm afraid I have no comment." He has been reassigned to other duties at the agency.

Staff members asked the construction committee Thursday to approve nearly $7 million in increased expenses for the Pasadena line. But the committee authorized less than half that amount and expressed frustration over lax accountability.

"I have some questions if we're not just throwing our money out the window somewhat recklessly," said board alternate Vivien Bonzo.

Even as the trouble-plagued MTA confronted its newest problem, agency officials sought to put to rest an old one Thursday, picking a new manager to oversee construction of the $1.3-billion North Hollywood subway after months of uncertainty.

The construction committee recommended Jacobs Engineering of Pasadena for the massive job--the same firm that it had picked two months ago, before a cloud of allegations over favoritism forced the agency to cancel the contract.

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Staff originally recommended Jacobs for the job in March. But White ordered a rebidding on March 31, after an article in The Times disclosed a confidential report raising questions about the contract award.

The report by MTA Inspector General Arthur Sinai found that the award had been effectively tainted when MTA officials shredded documents critical to the selection process, allowed secret data to be leaked to Jacobs and other firms, and misled supervisors about possible conflicts among agency officials with financial and professional ties to Jacobs. In one case, a private consultant was allowed to work for the MTA on the bid solicitation documents even though she was also in line to work on Jacobs' project team if it won the job.

For this most recent round of bids, White said Thursday that outside consultants were brought in to help evaluate the competing firms and "to make sure there were no missteps."

The full MTA board will consider the Jacobs recommendation later this month.

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