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L.A. SUBWAY FLOUNDERING AMID COST AND CALAMITIES

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The 5-year-old Los Angeles subway project is over budget, behind schedule and beset by calamities of practically every sort.

Fire, floods, a giant sinkhole that swallowed part of Hollywood's Walk of Fame and allegations of mismanagement and corruption are just some of the indignities visited upon the project.At $289 million per mile, freeway-frazzled L.A.'s attempt at subterranean transit is one of the world's most expensive. And, stuck at the modest length of six miles, the subway called the Red Line is nowhere near completion.

Even Vivien Bonzo, construction committee vice chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, doesn't know how many contractors are on the job or how far over budget the project is.

"Your guess is as good as mine," she said last week.

Red Line underground trains began moving three years ago, traversing a 3.2-mile strip from downtown's Union Station west to MacArthur Park, a relatively short jaunt in the city's sprawling landscape. Another extension to Western Avenue opened this summer.

So far, that's the entire working L.A. subway system.

Original cost estimate: $4 billion. Current cost estimate: $5.8 billion. Original completion date: 2000. Current estimated completion date: 2003.

People do ride the trains, though, taking about 33,000 trips a day, to be inexact. The figure could be higher. There are no turnstiles or ticket-takers. Fares are collected on the honor system. Police randomly check riders to see if they've purchased a $1.35 ticket. If not, it's a $250 fine.

The MTA says it's pleased with ridership numbers. It projected 40,000 daily boardings by July 1997. Less than two months after the Western Avenue stop opened, the agency is almost all the way there.

Nearly two decades of preparations went into the Red Line, the planned backbone of L.A.'s proposed 400-mile web of commuter trains and bus routes known collectively as the Metro System.

Designed to cut traffic and ease smog in a metropolis choked by both, the original 17.4-mile subway line was drawn to connect downtown to the east and west sides of the city, as well as the heavily populated bedroom communities in the San Fernando Valley to the northwest.

Angelenos were happy to help finance sorely needed mass transit and approved two ballot measures hiking local sales taxes. Congress put up 50 percent of the project's budget.

While major U.S. centers including New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Boston all had commuter trains, the nation's second-largest city, until the 1990s, had none. A previous rail network, the Pacific Electric, was gradually dismantled in the years following World War II.

Digging began. Trouble started.

The biggest disaster, publicity-wise, came in 1994 when a block-long section of Hollywood Boulevard asphalt buckled into a yawning hole, taking some sidewalk Hall of Fame stars with it.

Congress cut its funding until MTA officials promised to better monitor construction. The general contractor was fired.

Hollywood merchants had complained for months that they were sinking. No one, they said, paid any attention until the earth opened up in front of their stores.

Other embarrassments:

- At least six MTA employees and contractors have won whistle-blower lawsuits totaling $3.5 million in the past two years. Their allegations included overbilling and mismanagement.

- U.S. Sen. William Roth, R-Del., announced in June that a subcommittee will investigate "a series of abuses . . . that threatens the appropriate use of billions of taxpayer dollars" for the subway.

- A post-construction inspection of the original leg found that tunnel walls were thinner than required to meet earthquake safety specifications. The concrete cocoons had to be thickened.

Bonzo, who has served on the MTA for nearly two years, admits there are problems. But like many, she wants to see the project finished, and she believes it serves a real need.

"We are doing our level best to bring some control and some sanity to this operation," she said.

"Like any taxpayer, I wish there was a way we could build this with more certainty and less incidents," Bonzo said. "It's difficult for anybody at this point to feel any immediate gratification. It doesn't go very far and its gone way over budget."

California historian and author Kevin Starr says the era of big public works projects has passed.

"If you were planning the subway today, you wouldn't go ahead with it," Starr said. "The costs would frighten everybody off. You would consider other options, above-ground transit, monorails."