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Hurry Up and Wait for Massive Public Projects

LAX: Is There A Quicker Fix?

Hurry Up and Wait for Massive Public Projects


Staff Reporter

If recent history is any guide, massive public works projects on the order of the LAX overhaul face years or even decades of delays before they are completed if they get finished at all.

The L.A. subway, the Century Freeway, the Alameda Corridor, the Diamond Valley Lake reservoir, the Hyperion sewage treatment plant upgrade all these took more than a decade from conception to completion, with some in the works for up to 40 years.

Some projects, like the Long Beach (710) Freeway extension or the widening of the Santa Ana (5) Freeway through southeastern L.A. County, remain in limbo even after decades of planning.

Others, like the “Beverly Hills Freeway,” have disappeared altogether.

Even the Alameda Corridor, considered a model for how public works projects should proceed, took 17 years from its first appearance in a local planning document to the ribbon cutting this past April.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, these types of projects would speed through,” said Stephen Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who is writing a book on Southern California’s infrastructure. “What you’re finding now is a doubling or tripling of the time it takes to bring a large infrastructure project from beginning to end. By the time these projects come on line if they ever do everything has changed.”

Then there’s cost: with every year of delay, the tab runs ever higher. Projects that start out at $300 million soon swell to $1 billion or even $2 billion.

While each project faces delays for its own reasons, several broad themes have emerged over the last 30 years. First and foremost is a breakdown in the consensus for growth that held sway for much of the last century.

Through the 1960s, freeway and other major public works projects steamrolled over what little opposition arose. “That consensus for growth, it’s gone now,” Erie said.

The rise of the “Not In My Backyard” syndrome and a strengthening environmental movement gave opponents powerful new tools to slow down or even stop such projects.

Lack of funding thanks to tighter purse strings in Washington and the passage of Proposition 13 has been another reason for the delays. Multibillion-dollar budget deficits and the growing trend toward decentralizing government means less dollars flowing from Washington, long the principal source of massive infrastructure funding. State and local officials have tried to fill the gap with bond measures and sales tax hikes, but they have fallen far short.

Finally, the projects themselves have grown more complex as L.A. becomes so densely developed.

“It’s much, much harder to solve past planning mistakes,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. “We under-built our freeways and now have to go back in and widen them very expensive. We took down our rail system nearly 50 years ago; it’s taken billions of dollars just to get a little bit of it back.

“Or take LAX: the original land was acquired way back in 1925, but then development was allowed to encroach right to the borders,” Kyser said. “Now, when we so desperately need to expand the capacity of the airport, we can’t do it.”

Ironically, as the time frame for these projects gets ever longer, the construction phase has gotten shorter, thanks to the introduction of “design-build” techniques that combine the design and construction phases. Once a consensus is achieved, as with the Alameda Corridor, construction often wraps up ahead of schedule and under budget.

Here’s a look at some of the most-delayed and most expensive public works projects in recent years:

The Century Freeway

The granddaddy of all delayed projects that actually got finished. Planning for the freeway began in the mid-1950s, concurrent with the Eisenhower Administration’s rollout of the interstate highway program. It was originally supposed to stretch 51 miles from the ocean to the San Bernardino area.

The $2.2 billion freeway didn’t open until October 1993, nearly 40 years later. And, when it did, it was only 17 miles. Its $130 million-per-mile cost made it the most expensive highway ever built on a per-mile basis.

So what happened? Local residents revolted. By the time the freeway was ready to be built, in 1972, the local community, upset over the thousands of homes that were being condemned and torn down, filed suit. The community won an injunction that stopped the project cold for nine years until a new plan could be negotiated.

What emerged in 1981 was a compromise that would require the state and the federal governments to mitigate the effects of tearing up all those homes by building thousands of affordable housing units nearby. The freeway’s length was chopped from the initial 51 miles to the current 17 miles, but a light-rail line was added now the Green Line to run down the middle of the freeway.

The plan was so complicated including the biggest freeway interchanges in the world that it took another 12 years to build. But the problems didn’t stop with its opening; revelations surfaced later in the 1990s that the eastern part of the freeway would likely need to be revamped because it’s too close to the water table.

And the Green Line running down the middle of the freeway is still a rail line in search of logical destinations: on the west, it stops short of Los Angeles International Airport and fails to link up with a regional transportation center on the east.

The Red Line

The most infamous of L.A.’s public works projects began as a 1973 campaign promise by mayoral candidate Tom Bradley: a world-class rail system for an emerging world-class city. Back then, it was to be a line under Wilshire Boulevard, from downtown to the ocean and costing upwards of $1 billion.

The subway soon became embroiled in big-time politics, both in L.A. and Washington. In the 1970s, Bradley tussled with former County Supervisor Baxter Ward over the route alignment; then, when the Reagan Administration took office in 1981, it faced a series of threatened funding cuts. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that funding from Washington was secured. In the meantime, the project cost ballooned to $3.3 billion, then to $4.4 billion.

Even at that time, critics said the subway was more about egos trying to get money from Washington and less about fixing the region’s transportation woes.

But the subway’s troubles were just beginning. The construction process involved cost-overruns, allegations of overcharging and shoddy construction, and to top it all off the collapse of a part of Hollywood Boulevard that made Los Angeles the nation’s laughingstock.

When the 4-mile first leg of the subway finally opened in 1993, Angelenos were so soured by the experience that they passed a measure four years later banning local funding for any future subway project. Critics derided the subway as a boondoggle that no one would ride.

In recent years, as more legs of the 18-mile system have opened, ridership is faring better than many expected, though it still carries only a tiny fraction of the region’s commuters.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority successfully sued its main contractor, Tutor-Saliba Corp., to pay damages for many of the problems that arose during construction.

Alameda Corridor

When the 20-mile, $2.2 billion rail consolidation project opened this past April, it was hailed as an example of what infrastructure projects should be: constructed on time and within budget and serving as a vital link for the regional economy.

How soon people forget. The idea of a consolidated, grade-separated rail corridor first surfaced in a Southern California Association of Governments planning document in 1985. It took over 10 years to build consensus for the project and the settling of dozens of lawsuits before the first shovel-full of earth was turned back in 1997.

The problem was bringing all the cities along the route on board. Many opposed the project because they believed the construction process would irreparably harm their commercial and residential districts. Gradually, the cities began to settle with the joint-powers authority charged with building the project; some, like Vernon, held out until 1998.

Once consensus was achieved, work proceeded with surprising speed and the project came in on time and on budget. However, planners now concede that one of the original goals reduction of truck traffic on the over-used Long Beach (710) Freeway will not be met. And the grade-crossing congestion that the corridor was supposed to solve hasn’t disappeared. It’s simply moved east to the San Gabriel Valley.

710 Freeway Extension

The longest running project proposal in L.A. that has yet to break ground. The six-mile extension of the Long Beach (710) Freeway from Interstate 10 to the foothills above Pasadena first appeared on a map drawn up by the state Legislature in 1951. It was to be part of a freeway stretching all the way down to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The rest of the freeway was built in the early 1960s and officials had planned to keep right on going up to the Foothill (210) Freeway. But that would have split the tight-knit community of South Pasadena in two, taking away at least 1,500 homes, including dozens of homes since designated historic landmarks. In 1973, South Pasadena sued to block construction of the extension and won an injunction. Not a single bulldozer has moved since.

The freeway now ends in Alhambra, dumping northbound traffic onto narrow side streets in that city.

Over the last 30 years, several plans have been put forward to restart construction on the extension, each costing over $500 million. But South Pasadena has blocked each one.

Sparks flew over the stalled project three years ago as Alhambra, fed up with the freeway dumping traffic onto its streets, decided to reroute traffic onto streets in South Pasadena. After a tense standoff between the two cities that garnered nationwide attention, Alhambra grudgingly backed down.

Meanwhile, the legal battle drags on. This past March, a federal appeals court ruled that South Pasadena could not sue the state in federal court to stop the extension. South Pasadena has refiled its lawsuit in state court.

Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant

Shortly after the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, federal officials ordered the city of Los Angeles to clean up its Hyperion sewage treatment facility in El Segundo. But city officials resisted and tried to get a waiver exempting L.A. from the federal sewage treatment requirements on the grounds that it was unnecessary and too costly. At that time, the cost estimates ranged up to $300 million.

Then the federal government sued Los Angeles to force the cleanup. Finally, in December 1985, as pressure from the federal and state governments and environmentalists heated up, the city stopped resisting the cleanup orders and went ahead with a $528 million overhaul of the Hyperion facility. The city signed a consent decree with the federal government in 1987 that required it to meet federal clean water standards by the end of 1998.

But it still took a couple of years for voters to approve the necessary bond financing. With financing in hand, the Hyperion plant overhaul began in 1990, but it still had to be rushed to meet the 1998 deadline. By then, the cost had soared to $1.6 billion.

And the construction process had its share of problems. Contractors filed more than $100 million in claims after the project was completed. Most of the claims centered on costs for which the contractors said they were never reimbursed.

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