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No Light at End of the Tunnel : Subway: Contractor digging Red Line route through the Hollywood and Studio City hills faces critical tests, key questions about safety.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one can accuse Traylor Bros. of ducking tough assignments.

The heavy-construction firm chosen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to dig twin Red Line subway tunnels through the Hollywood and Studio City hills has taken on some of the nation’s most daunting assignments: In the past few years alone, it excavated two tunnels for the superconducting super collider in Texas and erected the nation’s longest cable-stayed bridge in Houston.

Seldom, however, have expectations been so high for the Indiana-based company and its joint venture partner, Frontier-Kemper, as they will be when engineers lower 48 truckloads of parts into an 80-foot shaft in Universal City next month and assemble two tunnel-boring machines.

The two 2.6-mile hard-rock tunnels that those mechanical moles will excavate will become the first critical test for the new management of the troubled transit agency.

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And they will test the mettle, too, of the Traylor/Frontier corporate team, which has recently had its once-golden reputation dented by the collapse of a floating bridge in Seattle, a waterlogged light-rail tunnel in Portland, Ore., and Oregon safety officials’ accusations of indifference to worker safety.

Traylor officials, who are managing the project, are prohibited by the MTA from talking about the Los Angeles tunnels. But others have not been silent about their views of the contractor’s role.

At an MTA board of directors meeting Wednesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich called for a moratorium on all digging in the San Fernando Valley until Traylor Bros.’ safety record is investigated.

Antonovich’s motion failed, but state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) echoed his effort at the meeting with an unsuccessful demand for at least a halt to Traylor Bros.’ excavation until the firm’s culpability in a Portland worker’s death is studied.

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“How was the decision to employ Traylor Bros. . . . ever justified?” Hayden wrote in a letter to the board last week.

MTA construction executive Stanley Phernambucq countered Antonovich and Hayden by arguing that Frontier-Kemper, not Traylor, managed the Portland tunnel joint venture. He also said his staff thoroughly studied Traylor’s 1991-94 track record before granting it the Red Line contract.

“Safety is priority No. 1 in my outfit,” he said.

Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro has separately demanded in a letter that the boring machines remain silent until the MTA drafts a new report studying the likely environmental impacts of the tunnel upon the flora, stability and water table of Runyon Canyon Park, a Hollywood Hills landmark.

Phernambucq on Wednesday dismissed that concern, saying it was covered in the MTA’s original environmental impact reports. He also said that an independent biologist recently informed him that hillside plants were sustained by surface, not underground, water.

Within the MTA, however, several questions are already being raised about Traylor Bros.’ efforts. The MTA last week ordered the firm to abandon its plans to store 10,000 pounds of explosives in a completed tunnel under Hollywood after learning that Cal/OSHA officials were not likely to permit it.

Also, an MTA board member has expressed dismay over what he considers the scant number of deep test borings the firm has ordered to determine the type of rock and amount of water in the mountains.

Meanwhile, skeptical hillside homeowners--who are being asked to sign away subway easements 200 to 800 feet directly beneath their properties, and to potentially endure explosives blasts 15 hours a day for 14 months--are asking more fundamental questions:

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Just what kind of an outfit is Traylor Bros./Frontier-Kemper?

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Traylor Bros., a family-owned firm founded half a century ago in Evansville, Ind., was the 127th largest construction contractor in the United States last year with $166 million in revenues, according to the trade journal Engineering News-Record. Frontier-Kemper, a largely German-owned firm also based in that small southern Indiana town, ranked 265th.

But even relatively small firms get major work because the job of building and refurbishing the country’s highways, tunnels and bridges is so vast. While the $136-million Red Line tunnel holds Los Angeles’ attention, Traylor is also building a $61-million highway in Texas and a $70-million bridge in Florida.

Despite success in attracting new business, Traylor Bros. continues to be shadowed by a wildly stormy night in Seattle five years ago. In one of the most spectacular engineering failures in that state’s history, an old interstate highway bridge the firm was renovating sank into Lake Washington after three steady days of rain.

The state sued Traylor for $69 million, complaining that poor construction work had cracked a pontoon in the middle of the floating bridge. The company counter-sued, asserting that the state had “fraudulently concealed” the extent of the bridge’s deterioration before renovation.

Traylor ultimately paid the state of Washington and the federal government $20 million in a 1992 settlement that did not assign blame. Yet state Department of Transportation inspectors’ accusations of disorganization, in documents published by the Seattle Times, stung the company.

“The charges were totally false,” said Roger Foreman, general manager of Traylor Bros., in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We pride ourselves on doing good work, and we always want to walk away from a project having earned the respect of the owner. Any time you fall short of that it’s disappointing.”

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More recently, the team of Traylor Bros. and Frontier-Kemper have grappled with delays and cost overruns in a Portland, Ore., light-rail tunnel strikingly similar to the one planned for the Hollywood Hills.

Managed by Frontier-Kemper, the job was won by a low bid of $103 million. But unanticipated problems have caused delays of nearly a year. In turn, the price tag has skyrocketed to $160 million, according to Jan Schaeffer, spokeswoman for Tri-Met, the Portland transit agency. One change order alone pushed the cost up $26 million, she said.

Unexpectedly brittle rock formations led to months of delays. Unexpected water flooded into the tunnel creating a mucky mess that local newspapers called “Waterworld.” The contractors and Tri-Met fought almost every day over the correct response.

Tri-Met officials admit that their engineers badly misjudged the characteristics of the rock. But University of Alberta civil engineering professor Dan Eisenstein, a tunneling expert hired by the MTA to study the Portland project, said in an interview that the joint venture partners may not have adapted quickly enough.

Indeed, Schaeffer said Frontier and Traylor negotiators at first engaged in macho “posturing” over their culpability in the delays.

“We’ve at least worked it out now to where we aren’t fighting each other,” she said.

Foreman, the Traylor Bros. general manager, acknowledged “major differing site conditions” that resulted in delays to the project. “The remedies for those conditions have been worked out between the contractor and the owner,” he said.

Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Frontier-Traylor $116,500 for negligence in one worker’s death in Portland tunnel project.

In that case, Jacques G. Mathieu, a 39-year-old construction foreman, perished last March after he accidentally flipped a remote-control switch that caused the hydraulic arm of a machine to crush him against a tunnel wall. Oregon OSHA said in a report that the machine, which positioned steel support ribs to tunnel walls, was a prototype that had not been fully tested.

Oregon OSHA has fined Frontier-Traylor $34,125 in 40 safety violations considered serious enough to potentially cause significant physical harm, such as amputation or a broken back, according to spokeswoman Jan Wagner.

Foreman said that all the fines are being appealed.

Two other deaths on the Portland light-rail project were not related to Frontier-Traylor construction.

Portland also provided a laboratory for Frontier and Traylor in the way underground explosives are felt in neighborhoods--an important concern in Los Angeles, where blasts will take place beneath homes and Runyon Canyon Park.

Frontier-Traylor halted nighttime explosions in Portland after three weeks of complaints last year, then installed heavy rubber blast doors at their tunnel’s mouth to contain the noise. The firm also cut cross-passages inside its tunnel to deflect the vibrations, and Tri-Met gave hotel vouchers to nearby residents who still felt rattled.

Schaeffer, the Portland transit agency’s liaison, said explosions felt like a “rolling underground thunder” that caused a few cups to fall off shelves but no structural damage to homes. She said homeowners directly above the blasts felt much less than homeowners downwind of the tunnel’s mouth, and that effects were minimal once the hole sank past 200 feet.

“We learned that it’s hard to predict how sound and vibration will travel,” she said. “You can be sure it won’t be predicted accurately, and that different people will feel it differently.”

Still, Frontier-Kemper and Tri-Met supervisors took two important precautions that Traylor Bros. and MTA initially forswore in Los Angeles.

In Portland, the tunneling contractor has never stored more than a day’s supply of explosives at a time at its construction site. And Tri-Met drilled 80 test borings over the three-mile tunnel route to better characterize the rock below, according to Schaeffer.

Here, Traylor Bros. asked Cal/OSHA for permission to store a week’s supply of explosives in a tunnel. The state rejected their application without review because of the danger that workers could be trapped in an explosion, according to Richard Hughes, principal safety engineer at Cal/OSHA’s mining division. MTA officials have told Traylor not to appeal the ruling, according to agency spokesman Steve Chesser.

Instead, a subcontractor will make daily deliveries of emulsion-gel explosives to the tunnel during the 14 months of blasting unless an alternative method of carving out the underground rooms is conceived.

The MTA has also only drilled 25 test borings to characterize the rock strata 800 feet below ground over its 2.6-mile route--about half as many as some mining experts consider prudent. The agency says 1950s-era water and sewer tunnels that traverse the same area of the mountains at a depth of about 300 feet provide much of the information that additional borings would provide.

That argument holds little weight with some experts, who said there is no substitute for knowing the exact rock type at the precise route and depth of the tunnel. This rock “characterization” procedure helps tunnelers determine how to fine-tune its boring machine for the most efficient excavation.

Said board member Nick Patsaouras: “I said months ago that the staff should spend as much as it takes to make as many borings as possible. What’s another few million dollars if it makes this a safer job?”

Foreman, of Traylor Bros., disagreed, saying that the Santa Monica Mountains rock is “not really as complex” as Portland’s.

“It’s a known geology and we don’t anticipate any problems,” he said.

For its part, the MTA has not blanched from spending more recently to hire two new sets of consultants to revisit the most controversial aspects of Traylor’s plans.

The international panel of experts it hired to study whether it is safe to tunnel in Los Angeles has had its contract extended long enough to prepare a report on Traylor’s two tunnel-boring machines. The experts, led by Eisenstein, examined the equipment in Ogden, Utah, last week, but have not yet presented their report.

And a Newport Beach-based explosives expert this week will reexamine Traylor’s blasting plans.

Still, many knowledgeable construction industry professionals believe Traylor will perform well in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“They are one of the finest half-dozen tunneling contractors in the United States,” said John Shea, president of the construction firm that helped to dig tunnels in Hollywood. “The MTA is lucky to have them.”


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