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In background interviews, some FFP officials blame Thorpe's absence from the Expo Authority — for the first three years, he was still working half-time at the MTA — for some of the delays.
"Rick is a classic micromanager," says one FFP official. "Everybody there is scared to make decisions."
Thorpe rejects both criticisms, saying his subordinates were empowered to make decisions on their own.
In its statement, FFP also blames inadequate preliminary design — another point Portland engineer Don Irwin had raised back at the peer review meeting.
"There was also a lack of agreement between a number of third parties ... and the [Expo] Authority as to what the final product should be," FFP says in the statement. "Therefore, the design was constantly being revised due to the differing views of the authority and these third parties."
A major example of that arose from community opposition to running trains at-grade past two high schools, Dorsey and Foshay Learning Center. FFP received numerous notices to stop and start work on the crossing at Farmdale Avenue, adjacent to Dorsey High. In August 2007, the designers were told to plan for a sound wall along the Dorsey High baseball field. In November, Expo issued a stop-work order on the wall. In January, Expo told the designers to start work again. In March, the work was suspended again.
It went on like that for another two years, while a community group called Fix Expo protested Expo's plans before the California Public Utilities Commission. The CPUC, which has authority over street crossings, held off on approving the Farmdale crossing until June 2010. Expo's solution is a new station at Farmdale Avenue, along with other safety enhancements that will cost an extra $30 million.
FFP officials grumbled that Expo should have had the approvals in hand before construction started.
Another obstacle was the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Before the rail line could be built, power lines would have to be moved out of the way.
This is a basic requirement of any urban rail project, and an obvious source of potential delays because neither the Expo Authority nor FFP could control DWP's schedule.
Beginning in 2007, Expo held meetings every other week with DWP staff to coordinate the relocation of power lines. Throughout that year, as DWP showed no signs of progress, there were increasingly urgent messages pleading with the DWP to get to work. The utility coordinator began bringing brownies to the meetings in an effort to win over DWP staffers.
DWP's focus at the time was on opening downtown's L.A. Live entertainment complex. Thorpe ultimately persuaded Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office to intervene. When the DWP got around to burying its power lines at La Cienega Boulevard, it was a year behind schedule.
This issue, too, was exacerbated by the negotiated design-build contract. Though the DWP was the obvious culprit, the key question as far as the contract was concerned was who would end up bearing the cost of the delay, Expo or FFP.
Expo argued that the contractor had accepted the risk of delay when it negotiated the individual contract packages.
But FFP argued that because Expo had routinely rejected its requests for risk premiums, FFP had never accepted that risk.
The disagreement was astonishing. The fundamental purpose of Thorpe's innovative contract was to get the contractor to accept the risk without padding its bid. Now the contractor was arguing that it never accepted the risk.
If FFP's interpretation was correct, the Expo Authority really didn't have a design-build contract at all. Some officials said it functioned in reality like a "cost-plus" contract, a basic arrangement familiar to anyone who has had a car repaired. The owner reimburses the repair shop for its costs plus its profit, and the owner keeps all the risk. If you've ever gone in for an oil change and walked out with a $1,500 transmission bill, you know how that can go wrong.
Expo wanted "a cost-plus contract without it really being cost-plus," says Peterson, the public works arbitrator. "Now they're out in the middle of L.A. and they're at the mercy of the utilities. They got no push, no control."
Hughes was forced out in early 2008. The new project manager, Bob Schraeder, was more cooperative than Hughes, but problems lingered. In 2008, FFP adjusted its schedule to reflect the DWP delays. Expo officials felt blindsided. The project had appeared to be on time, and now all of a sudden it was nine months late.
The Expo Authority had already threatened to use its nuclear option under the contract: taking the construction work away from FFP and bidding it out to other firms. That was Expo's only leverage, but bringing in a new contractor would have put the project even further behind and led to even greater costs in the hand-off to a new contractor.
Under the contract, Expo couldn't use its leverage to keep costs down without driving costs up.
Ultimately, only a small portion of the project — the quarter-mile bridge at Venice and Robertson — was given to a different firm.
In early 2009, Schraeder became ill and was hospitalized. In the fall, a third project manager was appointed: William Jensen, a man with a reputation for closing out troubled projects. Contractors say it is depressing work that requires finishing the job as fast as possible while simultaneously documenting every disagreement in preparation for a claim against the owner.