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Runaway Train Crushes Buses

Mike Davis


Until this summer, the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue was best known for Hollyhock House, the epic neo-Mayan mansion that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1919 for wealthy socialist Aline Barnsdall. But on June 22 a more sinister landmark appeared.

Passengers waiting for the overdue 6 A.M. bus at the foot of Barnsdall Park were startled by an eerie groan emanating from under their feet. Suddenly, Hollywood Boulevard began to collapse in front of them. Several stories underground, twenty subway construction workers were sprinting for their lives, a few steps ahead of falling steel and debris. Miraculously, everyone escaped serious injury, but the monstrous cavity, seventy feet deep and half a block in diameter, refused to stop growing. All morning long it continued to suck down slabs of pavement, as well as what remained of the tarnished reputation of Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (M.T.A.). Officially christened the Hollywood Sinkhole, it has become the taunting symbol of the biggest transportation fiasco in modern American history.

The Last Pork Barrel?
L.A. County currently consumes one-quarter of the federal government's rail-transit construction budget. As originally planned in 1980, the M.T.A. proposed to spend $183 billion over thirty years on a 400-mile network of subway and lightrail lines. Although an implacable regional recession forced the M.T.A. to scale back at the beginning of this year, rail construction remains budgeted at $70 billion over twenty years--the largest public-works program in fin de siecle America. The half-finished Red Line subway alone, which collapsed in Hollywood, has averaged $290 million per mile.

Although the Sinkhole is now plugged with several hundred tons of concrete, the political damage continues. Influential politicians, left

L.A. County currently consumes one-quarter of the federal government's rail-transit construction budget.
Metro Red Line train
and right, have demanded a halt to further construction. The Justice Department has intensified an investigation into fraud and corruption at all levels of the M.T.A. On July 22, the F.B.I. made its first arrest: a top M.T.A. administrator charged with operating a kickback scheme involving the agency's insurers. Meanwhile, on the city's buses, whose profoundly poor and mostly nonwhite riders are at the losing end of L.A.'s transit schemes, a militant Bus Riders Union has emerged. The sky is rapidly darkening for the M.T.A., Southern California's last great pork barrel now that aerospace employment has crashed.

The comparison fits. With its huge budget and a bigger swarm of lobbyists (nearly 1,100) than Sacramento, the M.T.A. walks and talks like the military-industrial complex. And as with that other behemoth, the design of its "product" owes less to real need than to special-interest agendas. The Red Line, for example, intended to connect Downtown to the San Fernando Valley and, at $5.8 billion, the most expensive subway in history, is the culmination of a seventy-year crusade by Downtown business groups to use mass transit to recentralize investment and commerce. Although L.a.'s middleclass voters twice approved hikes in the sales tax to support the subway project, the system fails to tap any significant residential concentration of Downtown automobile commuters. For poor and minority communities, dependent on the bus system, it is a vast diversion of resources.

Between 1925 and 1974 the old Central Business District Association and its descendants placed half a dozen subway or monorail initiatives on the county ballot. All were shot down by the combined forces of outlying city neighborhoods and the suburbs. Then, in 1980, Downtown interests used the promise of an enlarged system and federal pork to bring the suburbs aboard. In 1987 the California Congressional delegation flexed all of its muscle to override President Reagan's veto of the transit bill that contained the crucial funding.

If a single principle had emerged from decades of studying L.A.'s transportation problems, it was that only the Wilshire corridor, from Downtown to Westwood, had the minimum population density and concentration of activities to justify the cost of underground construction. Yet the

The project became simply an aphrodisiac attracting real estate investment to the city's three largest redevelopment projects--in the Downtown-Hollywood- North Hollywood corridor.
Wilshire main line was stopped in its tracks by Congressman Henry Waxman after a methane explosion in his district in 1987 (unrelated to the subway) injured twenty-one of his constituents.

This should have been the death knell for the Red Line, but the route was quickly reconfigured to run north, through Hollywood to the Valley. Abandoned was any pretense of serving existing transit demand. The project became simply an aphrodisiac attracting real estate investment to the city's three largest redevelopment projects--in the Downtown-Hollywood- North Hollywood corridor.

In the M.T.A.'s environmental impact report, the current Red Line is envisioned as generating its own ridership, virtually ex nihilo, through land-use policies that would concentrate most of L.A.'s foreseeable commercial and residential construction above its eleven stations. The report projects a fantastic 50 million square feet of such development over the next generation--roughly equivalent to two new Downtowns. Although construction on this scale is still science fiction, "transit- oriented development" has become the city's official growth strategy and the Red Line is already jacking up corporate land values in choice plots.

The Catellus Corporation, heir to the Santa Fe Railroad land empire, enjoys the sweetest of sweetheart deals at its Union Station property, where the M.T.A. is building new headquarters--derided as a "Taj Mahal" by State Senator Tom Hayden. Universal City, the unincorporated tax island owned by MCA in the Hollywood Hills, is getting its own deluxe subway stop as well as a new offramp and major street improvements--all gratis from its M.T.A. friends. Nick Patsaouras, the chief gadfly on the M.T.A. board, claims the deal "sells out the public.... MCA pays nothing; M.T.A. pays for everything."

Theaters of Confrontation
The #204 Vermont line, which serves a fifteen-mile corridor from Gardena to Hollywood, is the most congested bus route in America. On an average day it carries 61,000 riders, four times the current volume of L.A.'s subway.

Martin Hernandez, a full-time organizer for the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, practically lives on the overcrowded buses that some black passengers refer to as "slave ships." Since breakfast, he has made five complete circuits, handing out leaflets ("Sinkholes or Buses") that urge riders to protest M.T.A. plans to further reduce bus services. As Martin explains his postmodern theory of organizing, the buses are "factories on wheels," the new theaters of confrontation: "Since deindustrialization, buses are among the last public spaces where blue-collar people of all races still mingle."

Indeed, from front to rear the Vermont bus is an extraordinary

Then the driver, a sassy young woman, pipes in: "You know, the Red Line is total bullshit. The M.T.A. is just flushing your tax money down the subway." One of the homeboys mutters, "Yeah, fuck the choo-choo!"
kaleidoscope of the city's transit-dependent classes: an elderly black woman wearing a "Pray for O.J." cap, a young Latina with two restless toddlers and a huge bag of groceries, a blind man with a white-tipped cane, buffed young men with gang tattoos and gold neckchains, a weary maid on her long trip home from Beverly Hills, and so on.

No one pays much attention to Martin until he identifies himself, in English and Spanish, as a member of a group that last year won an injunction against fare increases and the elimination of the popular monthly bus pass. Interest immediately perks up, and even the blind man takes a leaflet.

Then the driver, a sassy young woman, pipes in: "You know, the Red Line is total bullshit. The M.T.A. is just flushing your tax money down the subway." One of the homeboys mutters, "Yeah, fuck the choo-choo!" Several passengers nod their heads and trade phone numbers with Martin. He gets off at Imperial Highway to work a northbound #204.

The Bus Riders Union, which draws about fifty members to its weekly meetings, is a project of the Labor/community Strategy Center. The union concept first emerged during grass-roots protests in the summer of 1993 when the M.T.A. board shifted discretionary revenue from buses to a Pasadena light-rail line (the Blue Line extension) favored by Mayor Richard Riordan. As the center's director, Eric Mann, pointed out at board hearings (before being hauled off by transit cops), rail commuters-6 percent of the total ridership-already monopolize over 70 percent of the budget. Moreover, for each rail passenger that the M.T.A. has managed to add, it has lost six bus riders through fare increases and reduced services. "Incredibly," Mann said, "despite billions of dollars of new transit investment, overall ridership has plummeted and gridlock has increased."

In addition to opposing the Blue Line's diversion of funds, the Strategy Center proposed a halt to Red Line construction and a reorientation of M.T.A. resources to buses. When the board ignored this proposal, the center put organizers on the buses. As Mann explained, "Buses have been symbols of the civil rights movement since the days of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery boycott. But the issues have fundamentally changed. Then it was the right to sit at the front of the bus; now it is the right to have a seat or a bus, period."

The M.T.A. did raise bus fares in 1994, while allocating another $123 million to the Pasadena project. The fledgling Bus Riders Union, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, promptly filed suit charging the M.T.A. with violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and "intentionally and unnecessarily imposing these extreme hardships on minority poor bus riders." After detailing L.a.'s history of transit apartheid, the union's brief argued that the M.T.A. used regressive sales taxes and lopsided subsidies to establish "separate and unequal" transit systems in Los Angeles. Or, as the union's lawyer put it, "Third World buses for Third World people."

Last September Federal Judge Terry Hatter stunned the M.T.A. by issuing a restraining order followed by the injunction. "It is unacceptable," he wrote, "for the M.T.A. to balance its budget on the backs of the poor." Judge Hatter's ruling has opened the road for a possible constitutional showdown-perhaps this fall-which the union hopes will affirm that "affordable transit is a fundamental human right."

'This Cursed Project'
If the competing interests of capital and the poor are the foundation of L.A.'s transit politics, the M.T.A. is its superstructure, doling out favors--none so extravagant as those it reserves for itself and its circle.

The M.T.A.'s equivalent of the military industry's notorious cost overrun is the "change order," a reimbursement to the contractor for "unforeseen" expenses. Change orders on the first two phases of Red Line construction have exceeded $230 million. And internal audits show that prime M.T.A. contracts typically end up costing taxpayers more than three times the original bid. M.T.A. staff have shredded incriminating documents, rigged bidding, leaked secret data to contractors and disguised egregious conflicts of interest.

The thirteen politicians on the M.T.A. board, meanwhile, reap huge campaign contributions from major contractors. A study by Hayden's office showed that ten contractors had expended $579,000 in campaign funding and lobbying over eighteen months from 1993 to 1994. The dividends for such investment are handsome: Board appointees of County Supervisor Deane Dana voted twenty-nine times to increase payments to the construction firm headed by a key campaign contributor despite dangerous defects in his work.

The most glaring conflict of interest, however, involves Mayor Riordan, who directly controls four seats on the board and has been the recipient of the largest single share of campaign money from M.T.A. contractors. Like a fat spider, Riordan is at the center of a complex web of lucrative connections. His old law firm, Riordan and McKinzie, has long acted as counsel for the M.T.A. It also represents Tetra Tech, the Pasadena-based engineering corporation in which Riordan is a major investor. As consultant on the Green Line, Tetra Tech used change orders to increase its income an incredible 118 times over the original bid. Moreover, it won a major contract on the controversial Pasadena light-rail extension. (That deal is now under investigation by the state.)

Riordan's close friend John Shea is head of the consortium Shea- Kiewit-Kenny, which managed to engineer the Hollywood Sinkhole. On July 11, F.B.I. agents raided S.K.K.'s offices, collecting evidence of safety violations and inferior construction. S.K.K's recklessness is not new. In 1993 it bored straight into an underground river, flooding the tunnels and stopping construction for nearly six months. The next summer, after ignoring contract instructions, S.K.K. undermined Hollywood Boulevard so badly that buildings began to sink, pipes burst and the Walk of Fame buckled and cracked. Apartments and theaters had to be evacuated, and a nine-block segment of the boulevard was closed for fear of collapse.

Eleven hundred angry Hollywood property owners filed a $3 billion lawsuit against the M.T.A., charging the agency and its contractors with corruption, influence peddling and the persecution of whistleblowers. The Federal Transit Administration temporarily froze $1.6 billion in Red Line funds.

Work resumed only after a supposedly contrite S.K.K. accepted new safeguards. Yet the kamikaze contractors again ignored elementary precautions when, early in the morning of June 22, they ordered their workers to remove the concrete liner that supported a huge column of wet, ungrouted sand. Suddenly Hollywood collapsed on their heads.

Catastrophic as the cave-in was, S.K.K. is not an exception when it comes to flouting safety standards. All of the major Red Line contractors, screened from effective oversight, have been allowed to run roughshod. Tunneling through hazardous subsoil conditions that include pockets of dangerous gas as well as treacherous water-saturated sands, contractors have routinely failed to build subway walls to the required thickness or to grout unstable soil. Plastic liners designed to protect tunnels from gas have been discovered full of punctures. In the few stations now operating, gas sensors have been installed above the passengers' heads, although deadly hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air.

Still, digging under the stars' footprints is the easy part. Technical difficulties will increase in the next phase of Red Line construction, as the M.T.A. attempts to bore twin 2.5-mile tunnels through the unstable rock of the Hollywood Hills. Geologists have criticized the agency's "simplistic" studies for radically underestimating the ground water and seismic hazards of this Runyon Canyon segment.

After surveying the debacle in Hollywood, Tom Hayden denounced the Red Line as "criminal folly" and demanded an immediate halt to "this cursed project." Simultaneously, County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a conservative from Glendale and former chairman of the M.T.A. board, urged his friend Newt Gingrich to "pull the plug" on further federal aid. "The taxpayers are subsidizing their own suicide," he said. Across the political dial, Eric Mann and his organization have turned up the volume on their demand for radical reform. In the meantime, Martin Hernandez, like the hero of the old Kingston Trio song, is prepared to "ride forever" on the streets of L.A., organizing riders on the #204 Vermont bus.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (London: Routledge, Chapman & Hill, 1990).

Reproduced from The Nation, v261, n8 (Sept 18, 1995):270 (5 pages).

Copyright © The Nation Company Inc. 1995


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