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Make or Break: MTA Is at a Decisive Point : One more big snafu could cause the ax to fall at agency

Let’s be clear about it: This is make-or-break time for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in general, and its Red Line subway project in particular.

One more example of serious lack of oversight, one more major disclosure about wasted money, one more construction snafu worthy of a national television news anchor’s attention and Southern California may very well be kissing the MTA as we know it goodby, along with its self-celebrated “it will make perfect sense to you later” 20-year plan.

With local lawmakers urging the federal government to turn off the subway funding spigot, it’s easy to reach a conclusion like this. In addition, criminal charges may be filed against supervisors of a fired Red Line contractor, Sacramento lawmakers are threatening again to reduce the sizable flow in the state funding pipeline and state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) is calling for the ouster of the MTA’s chief executive, Franklin E. White. Also among the rain of blows was a recent audit warning of a huge potential for waste and fraud.

* The MTA as its own worst enemy. The authority’s casual responses to avoidable problems are ever more troubling, and common sense at times has seemed absent in the goings-on. Example: Routinely, government agencies of various sorts advise the public to check carefully before hiring anyone to design, perform or oversee construction work. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, victims were repeatedly urged to make sure that contractors were licensed in California. Those who took that precaution often avoided construction mishaps, long delays, shoddy work, increased costs and the like. Did the MTA check to see whether its key subway tunnel engineers were licensed in California? Are the licensing requirements the same for all states? The answer to both is no. What happened? Construction mishaps, long delays, shoddy work, increased costs.

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And here is a related reason why the MTA’s problems won’t be solved by just offering up a sacrificial lamb in the form of Franklin White. The lines of accountability and authority on MTA rail project contracts are diffused and convoluted. So much so that even the state Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors could not determine whether one key MTA contract required state licensing. Finally, local transit officials simply agreed to agree and will no longer allow unlicensed engineers to make key decisions on the subway project. Brilliant move.

All of this, of course, comes at a time when the MTA is gearing up to use 125 tons of high explosives under the Hollywood Hills over the next several years (on an active earthquake fault) to continue the subway project.

The familiar promises about how smoothly everything will go won’t wash anymore. Not when it has been recently disclosed that faulty and “unrealistic” design work by MTA engineers was responsible for the sinking and subsequent collapse of the subway tunnel along Hollywood Boulevard.

* Franklin White: “Do I look worried?” That was the director’s cool response to the call for his ouster. We need to hear much more, such as a public acknowledgment from the MTA of the gravity of its own beleaguered situation.

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The region also needs proof of something far more important: that the MTA understands that only a dramatic turnaround in accountability and oversight will produce a mass transportation system that can work for Los Angeles and its environs. To say that the next several months will seal the verdict is hardly an exaggeration.


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