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U.S. Senate to Probe Metro Rail Handling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citing evidence of “a series of abuses . . . that threatens the appropriate use of billions of taxpayer dollars,” the chairman of a U.S. Senate subcommittee announced Thursday that his panel will launch an investigation into the construction of Los Angeles’ Metro Rail subway system.

Delaware Sen. William V. Roth said in a letter to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich that the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, which he chairs, will examine the project “to determine what must be done to correct mistakes, to provide a quality subway to the people of Los Angeles and to hold accountable those who may have defrauded the system.”

For years, critics of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called without success for such a high-level congressional review of its $5.8-billion subway construction project. The Republican senator’s action came in response to correspondence from Antonovich that called attention to a report in The Times quoting a former MTA consultant who alleged that the agency had ignored widespread fraud by contractors.

A Senate source who declined to be identified said the committee is likely to look at issues of “incompetent engineering and management, cost overruns and inattention to safety issues.”

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Hearings are expected to commence in Washington next month.

The announcement of a new hurdle for Metro Rail was made on the day when the MTA acknowledged that it suffered an embarrassing setback in its attempt to prove to federal authorities that it has overcome problems with worker safety.

For the first time in the history of the troubled project, Cal/OSHA, California’s workplace protection agency, had to obtain a court order to inspect suspected safety hazards at a subway construction site, officials said.

Metro Rail contractor Tutor-Saliba-Perini refused to allow a state safety investigator to inspect the subway station it is building at Sunset and Vermont boulevards in Hollywood on June 5 on grounds the inspection constituted harassment, according to a declaration filed in Los Angeles Superior Court to obtain a search warrant.

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Cal/OSHA spokesman Rick Rice called the contractor’s action “outrageous,” saying it was “rare, if not unprecedented,” for the agency to be denied permission to inspect a public works project.

The warrant was granted and the inspection proceeded a week later.

MTA project manager Stephen J. Polechronis did not defend the contractor, calling Tutor-Saliba’s action, though legal, a “serious error” that angered agency executives.

“This is very frustrating,” he said. “We have a safe work site there, and yet we’ve got a dispute with a safety agency that calls our record of performance into question.”

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Tutor-Saliba vice president Charles B. Scarrott, who denied the inspector access last week, declined to comment on the incident.

Safety has been one of the persistent problems at the MTA that have triggered intense concern from the federal government, even though no workers have been killed. The General Accounting Office has investigated the MTA, as has the federal Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

The Federal Transit Administration pulled its 50% funding of subway construction in 1994 after portions of the ground along Hollywood Boulevard sank up to 10 inches. Funding was restored five weeks later after the MTA promised it would better manage the project.

Rae James, interim chief of staff at the MTA, said Thursday that she found Roth’s decision to launch a new investigation “disappointing.”

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“The MTA has been the subject of numerous internal and external reviews, and we have always come away with public support for our program,” she said.

She said MTA Chief Executive Joseph E. Drew and board Chairman Larry Zarian would travel to Washington next week to discuss Metro Rail funding with House Transportation Committee members and “would seek an audience” with Roth to discuss his investigation.

Last week, a house transportation subcommittee slashed the MTA’s request for $158 million in federal funding next year to $90 million. The recommended appropriation must still be reviewed by the full committee, the House, the Senate and the president.

James also said that Zarian, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke had sent a letter to California’s congressional delegation two weeks ago declaring that Antonovich--for years an outspoken critic of the subway project--did not speak for the MTA board.

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She characterized his letter to Roth and frequent attempts to draw additional national scrutiny to Los Angeles subway construction “detrimental” to the region’s transportation system.


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