SUBWAY'S FOES SAY LA BUILDING A BOONDOGGLE

SUBWAY'S FOES SAY LA BUILDING A BOONDOGGLE

The sole remnant of this city's first subway experiment is an abandoned tunnel, its entryway taken over by psychedelic graffiti and a man named Roy who has made a home amid the trash and abandoned furniture.

Stalactites and stalagmites are said to grow deep inside, and the forgotten tunnel ends unceremoniously at the foundation of the sleek Westin Bonaventure Hotel.Now in the midst of building its next subway, this sprawling metropolis that so desperately needs relief from its choked freeways finds itself facing a troubling question: Is Los Angeles building yet another mass-transit project that is destined to fail?

"This is building for a lost cause," said Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Los Angeles.

Projected to cost $270 million for each of its 21.5 miles when it's finally finished at the end of the century, the Los Angeles subway ranks among the nation's most expensive public-works projects. Critics contend it's also the most embarrassing.

NINE YEARS AND 3.2 MILES

Already nine years into construction, with just a 3.2-mile stretch operating so far, the project seems to lurch from one calamity to the next, reviving old questions about the wisdom of choosing a subway over transit systems that would have been cheaper and faster to build.

Contractors are alleged to have cut corners, building walls that are too thin and using inferior support braces. Last year, tunneling caused part of legendary Hollywood Boulevard to sink 10 inches. And just last month, another sinkhole appeared - this one of Hollywood-style dimensions, 70 feet across and, as TV news announcers were fond of saying, big enough for a house.

The transit agency last week fired the company digging its subway tunnel, after authorities served builders with search warrants as part of a growing, but so far unspecified, federal criminal investigation. More than 500 property owners have joined a lawsuit alleging more than $1 billion in damages from the construction.

And another nationally watched lawsuit is pending, charging that the transit authority is discriminating against poor and minority bus riders, who are now paying higher fares, by diverting money to rail projects that will largely benefit fewer people - affluent, white commuters.

In a letter last month to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the outgoing head of the agency overseeing the subway project actually urged Congress to

cut off federal funding for it.

'TIME TO PULL THE PLUG'

"It is time for Congress to pull the plug on the Red Line subway construction in Los Angeles," wrote Michael Antonovich, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

When first conceived, the subway was meant to be the cornerstone of a huge plan to bring above- and below-ground rail transportation to Los Angeles County.

But this year, transit officials conceded their elaborate plans were unrealistic, especially in light of drastic cuts in federal support for urban transportation projects. The budget - and nearly 300 miles of proposed rail lines - were slashed by two-thirds, raising questions about whether such limited routes undermine the entire project.

"The simplest thing you can say about the system being built is that it is the most costly and irrational boondoggle in the history of American transportation," said Mike Davis, author of "City of Quartz," a critically acclaimed history of Los Angeles.

The enormous scope of the project guaranteed some problems. The quirks of Los Angeles geography made the project complex: Tunnel builders must contend with unstable soil, underground water sources, pockets of methane gas, and tar pits.

SINKHOLES AREN'T UNIQUE

Franklin White, the transit authority's chief executive officer, said dryly, ''It's nice to create the impression that Los Angeles has cornered the market on incompetent engineering."

Nevertheless, he said, sinkholes are a fact of life in the subway business. By way of proof, he recited a list of prominent holes that have hit subway projects in Baltimore, Boston, Washington, London, and Munich, Germany.

"Our subway survived the earthquake," he said. "What better sign that it had been well-constructed?"

Larry Zarian, the MTA's new chairman, belittled the notion that the project should be halted.

"What's the choice?" he asked. "You know what the alternative is? The alternative is gridlock. The alternative is dirty air." With the average speed on Los Angeles freeways during rush hour expected to fall below 10 mph by 2015, critics concede something must be done.