The Subway Congressman

L.A. Weekly has a well-deserved reputation for superior journalism, so it’s in that spirit that I am responding to “The Subway Mayor: How a bus-only politician – and a car-obsessed city – are learning to love the underground” [August 19-25]. Since questions about motives were raised, I want to make sure that the historical facts on this matter are as clear and accurate as possible.

Prior to 1985, I was a strong supporter of the Metro Rail system. I consistently supported congressional funding and never raised questions about the subway’s route or expressed any opposition to the Wilshire segment. To the contrary, I supported the stops on Wilshire and was never part of any effort to keep the subway out of my district.

The first time I got involved with routing decisions followed the methane-gas explosion on March 24, 1985, at the Ross Dress-for-Less store. The explosion and subsequent fires raised serious safety questions that I believed we had a responsibility to examine. A City Task Force assigned to study this issue didn’t just designate parts of Wilshire Avenue as a “methane zone,” as your article suggests. The report it released on June 12, 1985, actually designated a significant area as a “potential-risk zone” and a smaller area, which the subway was scheduled to run directly through, as a “high-potential-risk zone.”

After I asked Metro officials questions about the safety of tunneling through a high-potential-risk zone, I became concerned that their reassurances were reflexive and not the product of careful study. On June 14, 1985, as chair of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, I convened a hearing in Los Angeles to investigate safety issues. The subcommittee heard testimony from respected experts and, after careful evaluation, I concluded that safeguards weren’t in place to ensure that tunneling or the operation of the subway system in a high-potential-risk zone would be safe.

The article confuses the facts on what happened next in the House of Representatives, but this is a matter of public record, not subjective interpretation, so there ought to be no confusion.

When legislation authorizing funding for the Metro Rail project was considered in the House of Representatives on September 11, 1985, I had intended to offer an amendment that would have withheld all funding for the project. After further consideration and discussions with Representative Julian Dixon, I agreed to a compromise that would allow the project to go forward but prohibit tunneling in the methane-gas risk zones, require the city to appoint a panel of independent experts to review the safety of building the subway’s first 4.4-mile segment, and require a study of the entire subway system. That compromise was enacted into law.

On January 3, 1986, the safety panel established by the legislation released a report identifying 13 major safety issues Metro Rail authorities had failed to consider. On August 7, 1986, I offered an amendment that would have stopped construction and required the city to take a new look at the entire project. Representative Bobbi Fiedler was a co-sponsor of the amendment, and I was grateful for her invaluable leadership in getting 120 Republicans to support the amendment, which was critical for its passage in a bipartisan 210-201 vote. As soon as we won, ? the bill was pulled from the floor and a re-vote was scheduled a week later. The Waxman-Fiedler amendment was defeated in the re-vote by 231-153. If Rep. Fiedler was betrayed by anyone, it was by many of her Republican colleagues who changed their votes from yes to no.

In 1993, I was asked if I would reconsider my position on this matter. I told Metro officials I was willing to do so if new information existed that indicated tunneling and subway operations would be safe. After initial staff discussions about a new study, the MTA wrote and informed me it did not want to pursue the review.

Earlier this year, I was approached again on this issue and reiterated that I would reconsider my position if new information existed. Since then, Metro officials and I have been working constructively together to initiate a new safety analysis. A panel of experts is expected to be named shortly and to begin its review next month.

It’s fair for your writer to reach a different judgment than I did regarding the safety issues. It’s not fair, however, to attribute motives I never had and use them to caricature decisions I made. Until 1985, I had joined with my Los Angeles colleagues to make Metro Rail a federal priority and to obtain as much funding for the project as possible. My position changed after the methane-gas explosion. My change in position was based on safety concerns. It’s all a matter of record.

Henry Waxman
30th District Congressman
Los Angeles

Wake of the Flood

What happened in the Gulf Coast is reminiscent of another tragedy almost 100 years ago, when a famous ship hit an iceberg. The ship went down with the first-class passengers pretty much guaranteed a safe way out in their life rafts, while the poor and displaced were left to fend for themselves and drown in steerage. The only difference? This time the ship is called “America.”

Ariel Penn

Regarding M. Guanipa’s letter this week [Letters, September 9-15], let me only say to him, and to kindred souls, that environmentalists don’t have to “contrive links” between global warming and Hurricane Katrina’s severity, at least. Such links exist quite independently of any environmentalist’s desires, or whatever, and if the case is slippery to make, it is mainly because certain people simply do not want to hear it. Over the years now as an essentially compassionate person I have developed a policy I apply to the voluntarily ignorant: If there is something I am morally bound to tell such a person, I tell them once. If they want to hear it, they will hear it; if they want to know more, they will ask me. And if they don’t want to hear it, then la dee dah. Maybe the next poor schmuck who encounters them will have better luck than I did.

Charles R. Hockett
Los Angeles

I have been reading L.A. Weekly for almost 20 years and the Katrina-coverage issue was the finest ever. Every piece on the topic was excellent, particularly the articles by John Powers and Lou Dubose. I feel a bit awkward heaping praise in the midst of such a tragedy, but you provided much-needed perspectives and insights not found in a week’s worth of TV news coverage.

Patrick Schaefer
Los Angeles

I was surprised to read about the possibilities of catastrophic tsunamis [“The Big Difference,” September 9-15] while no mention was made of Los Angeles’ long history of serious floods. Throughout its history, every 10-20 years, Los Angeles has suffered from serious flooding. Devastating floods in 1934 and 1938 broke through levees, killed more than a hundred people, and caused millions of dollars in damage. It was this flooding that led to the concreting of our local rivers. As we’ve seen in New Orleans, and throughout the world, damming and armoring our rivers gets mixed results. In the short run, it saves lives and prevents property damage. This false sense of security fosters inappropriate development in historically flood-prone areas. The development contributes to the likelihood of floods by removing natural permeable areas and replacing them with impermeable surfaces, including roads and parking lots. It’s a vicious cycle that, in the long run, leads to large storms overcoming the levee defenses and causing catastrophic damage. Though it’s too late to steer a lot of inappropriate development out of our most flood-prone areas, the good news is that there are innovative “watershed management” solutions. These new holistic techniques offer multiple benefits: flood protection, and also restoration of natural processes, recreation, enhanced water supply and quality, and much more. Given the lay of the land in Los Angeles, it’s unlikely that we would see floods on quite the scale and duration that have devastated New Orleans. Unfortunately, it can happen here, especially in the light of global climate change and our local history of flooding.

Joe Linton

Joe Linton is the author of
Down By the Los Angeles River:
Friends of the Los Angeles River’s Official Guide
(due out October 2005, Wilderness Press)

Watching the Watcher

Glenn Spencer says he is not a racist [“Border Patroller,” September 16-22]; it makes me laugh and vomit at the same time because it’s clear that his campaign is really directed toward Mexican people only. Illegal immigration is not just people coming across the border; nearly half of those who are here illegally are people who have overstayed their visas. And 43 percent of the illegal immigrants who are in our country are not from Mexico. What is mind-boggling is that some of these people like Glenn Spencer will then turn around and tell you with a straight face that they’re not prejudiced and then go even further and insist there’s not a trace of prejudice or other forms of bigotry in the anti-illegal-immigration movement.

Sergio Lara
Los Angeles

Congratulations for putting together the best collection of hurricane-related stories. Some of these, like Marc Cooper’s, offer unique perspectives; but others, such as Tim Wise’s, are nothing but the worst kind of white guilt trip. Mr. Wise ought to see a psychologist. It’s obvious that his self-loathing (as in hating his own white race) is pathological. He seems very comfortable painting people, such as whites and Christians, with a broad stroke: racists, smug, etc. And yet, he doesn’t extend the same “courtesy” to so-called minorities — blacks in this case. White liberals of Mr. Wise’s ilk are blacks’ worst enemies. Why? They patronize them. And when you do so, you are saying, “I’m above you. You need me. Without my help, you won’t get ahead.” Well, as any psychologist would tell you, too much help can be as detrimental as too little help. These black people had been living at government expense for generations. Instead of using government-issued crutches to raise themselves up, they became invalids. And this pattern will only continue thanks to a misguided government that’s going to give them up to $26,500 cash per family! Mr. Wise says that had these been white people, federal assistance would have been quick. Not true! Look at the images from the damage around Biloxi: Most of the people affected were white, and they have raised the same complaints against FEMA, etc., that the blacks in New Orleans did.

Vincent Hamon


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