Barely a year after it opened, the Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley is crumbling and transit officials are locked in a battle with the contractor over who is at fault.
The busway -- supposedly built to last 20 years -- began cracking even before the first bus rumbled down the Chandler Boulevard right-of-way in October 2005, according to a study released Thursday.
The problem has only worsened. And as transit officials explore the causes of the failed pavement, they also are reconsidering their own decision to use rubberized asphalt to reduce street noise in residential areas.
"Even though there is much more use along the Orange Line than we had expected, it shouldn't be falling apart," said Richard Katz, a Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member.
Last week, the MTA rerouted nearly two dozen buses so workers could rebuild a one-mile stretch of failed pavement before the rainy season escalates the deterioration.
The cost of the repairs, estimated at $1.5 million, would be split between the MTA and the project contractor, Shimmick Construction Co./Obayashi Corp., a joint venture, until responsibility can be determined.
"If the contractor failed to live up to the specifications, then he should pay for it," Katz said. "If the MTA incorrectly [wrote the specifications], then we should be firing somebody."
Transit officials aren't sure why sections of asphalt, some of it rubberized, are failing. The 14-mile Orange Line represents the agency's first effort at building its own transitway; it usually operates buses on roads built and maintained by others.
"We want to make sure these were isolated cases and not necessarily something that was a bigger problem throughout the busway," said Rick Thorpe, the transit agency's chief capital management officer.
In some cases, transit officials believe the asphalt does not meet specifications. In others, the soil under the asphalt might not have been packed as tightly as it should have been.
The contractor has told transit officials that the $330-million busway was built according to their design and specifications, but that rubberized asphalt never should have been used.
Shimmick/Obayashi also objected to the method used by the MTA's consultant to test the pavement, said Paul Camaur, the firm's managing partner.
"We are not in agreement as to why there are failures," he said, noting that his company is working with transit officials to try to address their concerns.
Camaur, however, declined to discuss specifics, citing speech restrictions placed on him by the contract with the MTA.
"We are trying to do what's best for the public," he said.
MTA officials, who contend the project's one-year warranty has not expired, have withheld $5.8 million of Shimmick/Obayashi's $165-million contract while repairs and other construction issues are resolved.
Last week, transitway buses were diverted in North Hollywood so workers could grind away the pavement, re-compact soils and asphalt, then repave, re-stripe and reinstall traffic signal detector loops.
The buses, which record more than 20,000 average weekday boardings, will continue to merge onto Chandler between Tujunga and Fulton avenues until the work is completed over the next week or so.
Meanwhile, transit officials must decide whether to repave other sections of the busway with rubberized asphalt that meets contract specifications or to do away with it altogether.
It was used for about one-fifth of the route to reduce noise near homes. But Thorpe said the material, used on some freeways and streets, lowered sound by a mere one or two decibels -- an indistinguishable amount for a bus that runs at 76 decibels.
These problems are not expected to affect plans to extend the busway six miles along Canoga Avenue from Warner Center in Woodland Hills to the Chatsworth Metrolink station. The $135-million expansion project should be completed by 2012.