The $1.3 billion extension of the Red Line subway into the San Fernando Valley has been in construction for several years and on the drawing board for more than a decade before that. So how could the new Universal City station be left with less than half of the 450 parking spaces when it opens for business this summer and most of those at a park-and-ride lot a third of a mile away?
MTA officials blame the parking shortage on several snafus in the bidding process that resulted in a delay of several months in approving a $28 million contract to build the parking spaces and a new overpass over the Hollywood (101) Freeway.
"Every time (the project was put out to bid), complications arose," said MTA spokesman Gary Wosk. "It was a very unusual circumstance."
Wosk said agency officials would have alerted residents sooner, but the full extent of the delay didn't become apparent until recently. However, the MTA's own chronology of events shows that the agency knew about the problem for months.
The first round of bids for the parking and overpass project was rejected on June 9, 1999, after it was learned that the lowest bidder didn't meet state and federal requirements for minority and women-owned subcontractors, MTA records show.
The contract was put out for bid again on June 21, with the bids from competing contractors due Aug. 5. On Oct. 18, the MTA recommended selection of Brutoco Engineering and Construction Inc., after evaluating the bids. But a few days later, one of the losing bidders filed a formal protest, causing another delay in awarding the contract.
As a result, Brutoco didn't get the go-ahead to begin work until Dec. 23, records show.
Area residents wonder why the MTA didn't tell them earlier that parking would be delayed, especially because it was clear in June that the bidding schedule would have to be pushed back.
"It's just such an obvious thing when you open a new subway, you provide parking. They've poured so much money into this," said Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Association, which is one of the neighborhood groups that has been meeting with MTA officials. "I specifically raised this issue at two public meetings, and there was never a mention of (the parking problem). The MTA's credibility has never been that high, but this reinforces our skepticism."
Added Connie Elliott, a Universal City resident who lives a few blocks from the subway site, "I just assumed because of the early discussions on the plans that the parking was going to be completed at the time the station opened. This has been in the planning since the early '80s, and all of a sudden we learn about this?"
Responding to residents' outrage, L.A. City Councilman Hal Bernson introduced a motion to withhold transit funding unless the MTA provides at least 250 parking spots on the subway's opening day.
The motion, approved Feb. 16, also directs the Department of Transportation to report back to the council within 30 days on how the construction of signal and street improvements can be timed to accommodate commuters wishing to park in the new lot.
Bernson argued that the lack of parking would discourage the use of the Red Line and undermine the project.
The MTA has been testing the rail cars in preparation for a summer opening of the subway extension, which will connect Universal City and North Hollywood to Union Station in downtown L.A., 17.4 miles away.
Wosk said the MTA will work to meet the council's demand in time for the opening, which has tentatively been set for some time in early June. "We're confident we can have the parking in place," he said.
But now residents are calling on the MTA to delay the grand opening, saying that even 250 spaces adjacent to the subway won't be enough parking to accommodate commuters. "The lack of parking will have serious traffic repercussions and contribute to uncontrollable traffic congestion," said Lucente.
Dennis Mori, the MTA's project manager for the North Hollywood Red Line extension, said he was hoping to use the parking lot site as a staging area for construction of a new overpass over the Hollywood Freeway, linking Lankershim and Ventura boulevards and providing another exit out of Universal City.
Mori wants to get by with only about 100 spaces at the station, planning to provide an additional 125 spaces at a park-and-ride facility operated by L.A. County on the south side of the Hollywood (101) Freeway, about a third of a mile from the station entrance.
When the system is up and running, MTA officials project that 15,000 riders a day will take the subway through the Cahuenga Pass into Hollywood. But critics question whether the projections will hold true, especially if commuters have trouble finding parking at the Universal City station.
Brian Taylor, associate director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, said the walk to the station could act as a deterrent to commuters looking to take the subway into Hollywood or downtown. In deciding whether to use mass transit, commuters typically take into account the total travel time, and the added walk could make the subway unattractive.
"A third of a mile is a schlep, especially when it's hot out," he said.
Residents and some merchants fear the parking problems are just a taste of things to come, as the MTA spends an additional year or more finishing the overpass and parking lot.
"My concern is, you're going to be adding to the traffic with no advantage to businesses," said Steve Hemmert, owner of Sonoma Blue Coffee House and Caf & #233;, which sits across the street from the overpass project. Hemmert said he would welcome more customers but fears traffic congestion could scare them off.
MTA officials concede that Universal City will be ground zero for construction as the overpass project proceeds until spring 2001, but they argue that's just one downside of an important project.
The six-lane overpass will begin at Lankershim Boulevard, traverse the Hollywood Freeway and connect to Ventura Boulevard. MTA officials say the new overpass will provide an additional outlet for Universal City, taking the strain off of gridlocked Lankershim Boulevard as it passes beneath the freeway.
"The six-lane road will speed traffic into and through the station area," said Sowell. "It will make a tremendous improvement in the bottleneck at the freeway."
Lucente isn't so sure. "They're creating a de facto transportation hub here, in the confluence of several freeways in an already congested corridor," he said. "It would seem that traffic is going to get worse, not better."
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