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Los Angeles Subway System Mired in a Tunnel of Trouble

A CHERRY picker hovers just below the intricately painted ceilings of the renovated Union Station here. From it, a city employee replaces lamps in a brass wagon-wheel chandelier.

The act is a sign - along with the immaculate marble floors and manicured courtyards - of the care and money being spent on making the highly controversial Los Angeles transit system a success.

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But the polished Spanish tiles belie the troubles dogging the country's largest public works project - and perhaps the last major underground subway system to be built in America.

In just the past two months:

*A water main broke in late June as construction workers hollowed out a tunnel underneath Hollywood Boulevard. The street caved in, leaving a gaping hole. After that, reports surfaced that some tunnel walls had been constructed with less concrete than was promised.

*Last month, a longtime critic of the subway and ranking member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) board fired off letters to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other key members of Congress, urging them to "pull the plug" on federal funding. Though the House voted to allocate the requested $125 million, a Senate subcommittee recently recommended giving only $45 million to the subway.

*Last week, a former top MTA administrator pleaded guilty to kickbacks and tax evasion in connection with the subway project and named another alleged participant in the corruption.

*Now, state funds for the subway are entangled in an effort by lawmakers in Sacramento to shift tax money raised for the MTA to ailing Los Angeles and Orange counties as part of a bailout plan.

How much the MTA will lose won't be settled until lawmakers return later this month. Raiding $145 million a year for the next five years from the transit agency was one proposal. Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has suggested giving $50 million of MTA money to Los Angeles County for one year and more than $1 billion to Orange County over the next 15 years.

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Any loss of funds would be a setback for the project that has struggled to maintain support since its beginnings in the 1980s.

There have been other problems as well. Two years after the grand opening of the Red Line, the underground portion of the massive regional rail system, the 4.4 mile stretch carries a meager 37,000 people a day. At midday, the cavernous stations host a mere trickle of businesspeople and sightseers.

"There's always been a profound ambivalence about the project," says Kevin Starr, state librarian and Southern California historian. "If Los Angeles had put a subway in earlier, maybe it would be a more dense city, but trying go back and rectify that in the mid 1990s?. The fact that there's a conflict is not surprising."

Los Angeles voters did back the building of underground transit in 1980, when they voted for a half cent hike in the sales tax for the project. They again gave a nod of approval in 1990, when they passed another half cent sales tax increase to pay the subway's bills.

But when the economy turned sour, subway support dropped off. The region was beset by earthquakes, fires, and mud slides. A year and a half ago, city officials scaled back a comprehensive, 30-year public transportation plan that was expected to cover some 250 miles and cost $183 billion. Today's blueprint looks only 20 years into the future and is expected to cost one third as much.

"The whole idea of spending billions and billions of dollars really hit home with a lot of people," says Andrea Greene, MTA spokeswoman. "And there's always been a car-culture mentality here anyway," she concedes.

That love of the open road led to the construction of an unprecedented network of freeways. And as long as gas is cheap and parking easy to find, why would anyone want to take the subway?

Some subway supporters cite smog-reduction as a reason for riding. Others point out that even with exit ramp upon exit ramp, gridlock brings the freeways to a halt twice a day already.

And that's only expected to worsen. Traffic statewide inched up 2 percent higher in 1994, new statistics show. And city planners foresee some 800,000 people joining Los Angeles's population of 3.5 million by the year 2010.

Many looked to the 1993 earthquake in Los Angeles to shake up old motor mentalities. But post-quake surveys show that 30 percent of Angelenos simply changed their commuting route and only 2 percent turned to the bus, commuter trains, or subways to get around.

"Los Angeles is very distinct in its embracing of the suburban model," Mr. Starr says.

This model has been exported eastward to cities such as Las Vegas, Houston, and Atlanta, making what flies or doesn't in Los Angeles, a harbinger for cities across the nation.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles transit authorities hope to bury some of the bad news with the Aug. 12 opening of a more universally embraced program - an above ground rail line connecting the airport with the surrounding suburbs .The Green Line will run down the center of an existing highway, and uses a so-called light rail technology that transportation consultant Kenneth Orski cites as the wave of the future in most cities.

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