Despite objections from bus riders and the losing bidders, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved a $20.8-million contract Thursday to begin engineering work for a six-mile light rail line from Union Station deep into the Eastside.
As is often the case with the MTA, the decision to award a key contract for the $760-million rail project was immediately controversial.
This time, the losing contractors said there is a serious conflict for the major firms that won the contract and that also are doing the environmental impact study on the project.
Attorneys for the losing bidders said the MTA's contract for the environmental study specifically barred the firms doing it from also bidding on work that resulted.
The MTA's legal counsel, Steven Carnevale, said he could not comment while the agency prepares its response to the formal protests, filed by partnerships led by the Jacobs Engineering Group and the engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall.
The winning bidder was Eastside LRT Partners, a joint venture of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas, and the firm Jenkins/Gales & Martinez.
When the MTA tried to award a major contract to manage construction of an Eastside subway extension four years ago, a furious fight ensued. with hints of scandal and courtroom drama.
That pitched battle ended abruptly when financial problems forced the MTA to halt subway extensions to the Eastside and Mid-City areas, and Los Angeles County voters prohibited the use of local transit sales tax money for any more subway construction.
So this year, the Eastside project was reborn as a light rail line that would run from Union Station across the Los Angeles River before traveling in a tunnel beneath Boyle Heights.
The 1.7-mile tunnel would include two underground stations. The light rail line would extend to Atlantic and Beverly boulevards, beyond the Long Beach Freeway, nearly twice as far as the subway would have gone.
The MTA board heard Thursday from dozens of students and bus riders who demanded that the agency spend money on more buses, not light rail.
Jennifer Trochez's fourth-grade class at Foshay Learning Center in South-Central said they would like to see cleaner, safer, less crowded buses with lower fares and better service.
Students from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles protested MTA plans to eliminate and restructure almost three dozen bus lines across the county. They also objected to construction of the Eastside rail line, saying it would take too long.
"It isn't fair to working-class people," said student Laura Cruz.
While Eastside residents and elected officials have turned out in the past to back the subway and later the light rail line, they were not much in evidence Thursday.
Lupe Lopez of the Mothers of East Los Angeles repeated her support for the project, as did another rail backer.