L.A.'s Light-Rail Fiasco | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

L.A.'s Light-Rail Fiasco 

How rail service to the Westside jumped the track

Thursday, Dec 2 2010

Over the last year, a series of train bridges has risen at La Brea Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard and the corner of Venice and Robertson boulevards. They're all part of the Expo Line, the first train to the traffic-choked Westside since the days of the Pacific Electric.

They're also a symbol of everything that can go wrong on a massive public works project. The Expo Line is a staggering $260 million over budget — 40 percent above the initial price — and it may open as much as two years behind schedule.

The reasons behind the fiasco are as numerous as they are complex. But at its core, it's a simple story: Somebody had a clever new idea, and it backfired.

click to flip through (6) PHOTO BY TIMOTHY NORRIS - Expo Line construction faces delays and cost overruns.

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In this case, that somebody is Rick Thorpe, CEO of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority and one of the leading lights in light rail. He sold elected officials on a new type of contract, which he said would bring the project in cheaper and faster than it could be done by traditional means.

Colleagues from other transit agencies warned that the idea might not work. In the name of holding down costs, it could inadvertently create incentives that would drive costs up. But Thorpe pressed ahead anyway, and the elected officials charged with overseeing the line put their faith in his expertise.

Now, four years into the project, the results are plain.

"It just doesn't work," says Dan Peterson, an arbitrator with 50 years of experience in public works projects. "They're trying to save 20 cents and it's costing them $20 million."

The project is limping to the finish line at an especially inopportune moment. Just as L.A. transit planners are lobbying Washington for money to build a dozen projects over the next decade, the Expo Line has become an embarrassing public failure.

Rick Thorpe has ruddy cheeks and white hair. He is smart, with a disarming manner that can leave you convinced that he knows exactly what he is talking about, and that you would, too, if you could keep up.

According to his detractors, his intelligence can verge on hubris. "It's a terrible burden to be the smartest guy in the room," jokes one contractor, who asked not to be identified in order to avoid jeopardizing job opportunities for his firm.

As CEO of the Expo Authority, Thorpe oversees a staff of 15 and earns a salary of $334,000. He makes more than the CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who is responsible for 8,000 employees.

Such are the prerogatives of a star.

Thorpe was there at the beginning of the rail-line boom. In the late 1970s, when most cities were still thinking in terms of freeways and subways, Thorpe helped build the San Diego Trolley — the first latter-day light-rail line in the country.

The best thing about it was the price. It was so cheap that other cities started to see light rail as the perfect answer for tightening budgets.

From there, Thorpe went to Salt Lake City, where he built the TRAX system in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

When he came to Los Angeles, he had been building such projects longer than anybody — always on time and on budget — and he brought a reputation as the best light-rail builder in the country.

It was a dark hour for public transit in L.A. In the face of spiraling costs and crushing debt, the MTA had halted construction on two subways and a light-rail line to Pasadena. The voters made it official in 1998, passing a measure that put an end to subway construction, seemingly forever.

But over the next decade, Thorpe helped L.A. believe in rail again. As CEO of a small agency tasked with building the Gold Line to Pasadena, Thorpe succeeded where the MTA had failed, completing it on time and on budget in 2003.

Hired away by the MTA, he completed two more projects under budget: the Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley and the Gold Line extension to the Eastside.

"He's done three projects for the MTA, which have been nothing short of outstanding," says Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who authored the 1998 anti-subway measure. "I remember the '90s when we had construction managers that couldn't find a pot to piss in. ... [They] weren't up to his class."

In 2008, voters demonstrated their restored confidence in the MTA by passing Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that will fund a dozen projects, including the Wilshire subway.

When the Legislature set up a special agency to build the Expo Line to Culver City, Thorpe was recruited to be its CEO. He kept his MTA job, splitting his time between the MTA and Expo. He also splits time between L.A. and Park City, Utah, where his family lives and where he returns every weekend. According to his calendars, he tends not to have meetings on Monday mornings — apparently due to the commute.

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