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Rail Delays Spur Council to Freeze MTA Funds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Led by angry San Fernando Valley lawmakers, the Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to freeze $200 million in contributions to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority because of proposed delays to a long-sought Valley rail line.

The 9-2 vote--following nearly an hour of often emotional debate--blocks the payments until city and MTA officials rewrite a regional “recovery plan” to move up the start of construction on the Valley line.

“The Valley feels like it’s been shafted,” said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the northeast Valley and supported the freeze.

But critics of Tuesday’s vote fear that it will jeopardize federal funding of the entire plan by sending Washington the message that the long-troubled MTA does not have its act together.

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Councilman Richard Alatorre, an MTA board member who represents parts of East Los Angeles, voted against the funding delay, saying the Valley lawmakers are playing “chicken” with federal officials and warned that they may scuttle all rail and bus projects for the next few years.

“What you are saying is: ‘If I can’t have mine, I’m going to make sure you don’t get yours,’ ” he roared.

The federal government, which is picking up a big share of the $6.1-billion subway tab, has demanded that the county transit agency get its finances under control and stop promising more than it can deliver.

Under consideration in the next two weeks is the MTA’s request for $100 million from Congress for subway extensions to North Hollywood and the Eastside.

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The recovery plan--adopted by the MTA board last week to win Washington’s confidence--calls for pushing back the start of construction of the east-west Valley line from 2004 until as late as 2011.

Councilman Mike Feuer, who represents parts of the Valley, led the motion to hold up the payments because he believes the Valley suffers the biggest burden in the recovery plan.

“The plan subordinates the interests of transit-dependent Valley riders by pushing back the timeline for the Valley’s east-west line,” he said.

He added: “The burden on the table should be shared across the board.”

Feuer said he would like to see the start of construction of the Valley line moved to 2004 and assurance that work would begin no later than 2007. He added that he would like MTA officials to show that other projects in the region, particularly the light-rail line through the Eastside, have also been impacted.

Feuer argued that the city is in its best bargaining position now because the MTA cannot move ahead with its recovery plan without the city’s $200-million contribution. The city’s share will pay up to $90 million for cost overruns on the subway project.

In hopes of appeasing Alatorre, Feuer and others agreed to begin negotiations with the MTA immediately and return to the council next Tuesday with an update on the discussions.

But Alatorre was not placated, saying that the MTA does not have the money to move up construction of the Valley line. He argued that the Valley project lags behind other rail projects--including the light-rail line through his district--because Valley lawmakers and residents have been unable to agree on a rail route.

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“They are still fighting in the Valley,” he said.

Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represents parts of South-Central Los Angeles, also voted against the funding delay, saying the Valley should not hold up the entire recovery plan.

The seven Valley council members were supported by colleagues Jackie Goldberg and Nate Holden, who said they also want to renegotiate the recovery plan to ensure that the MTA adds more buses for low-income riders and transit programs for inner-city communities.

“I’m disappointed that this is coming out as a Valley-versus-MTA issue,” said Goldberg, who represents Hollywood and surrounding neighborhoods.

An aide to Mayor Richard Riordan said the mayor recently met with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House transportation appropriations subcommittee, in hopes of getting adequate funding for the region.

But the mayor fears the vote to delay payments “potentially could be bad” for the region’s rail plan, said Riordan’s transit aide, Jaime de la Vega.

“The mayor shares the concerns of the City Council members over the east-west Valley line, but we also think Los Angeles County needs a unified voice to maximize our chances of funding,” he said.

After the vote, the MTA’s acting chief executive officer, Linda Bohlinger, said she will study whether there are ways to speed up the start of construction of the east-west Valley line to at least 2007.

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“But if that’s not enough and they want something more than that, we’re just going to say, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ and go back to the original agreement,” she said.

Bohlinger repeated her warnings that if the city does not come through with the $200 million, it would delay subway extensions to North Hollywood, the Eastside and Mid-City and would further push back the cross-Valley line.

She also insisted that the “pain was shared” by all regions except North Hollywood, where construction is underway on an extension of the subway.

“We need to convince the city that the rail recovery plan is real and reasonable,” she said.

In a show of frustration, the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. called Tuesday for the creation of an independent transit authority to manage and build mass-transportation projects in the Valley, alleging that the MTA makes a “practice of defrauding Valley taxpayers and diverting their resources.”

A VICA statement said: “VICA believes that the 1.3 million citizens of the San Fernando Valley should have the right to deploy their transit dollars in their own service area.”

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this story.


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