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Metro officials get a tongue-lashing for $132M rail connector project overrun

A map shows the course of the Regional Connector light rail, slated to open in 2020.
A Metro map shows the course of the Regional Connector light rail project, scheduled to open in 2020.

A committee of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted reluctantly Thursday to increase the budget for a downtown project connecting several rail lines by about $132 million, a move that will take away from yet unspecified future projects.

The additional funding, which is subject to the full Metro board's approval next month, would bring the total cost of the rail connector project to more than $1.5 billion.

"This is nuts, this is out of control," exclaimed Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who chairs the committee. "It puts us in a very bad situation."

The Regional Connector project is seen by Metro as an important component in connecting transit lines for the region. The Blue, Gold and Expo light rail lines will be linked via a 1.9 mile tunnel through downtown Los Angeles. Metro anticipates trains will carry about 90,000 riders a day through the corridor.

Last week, an internal Metro report surfaced revealing the project had already eaten through about half of a $93 million reserve fund. The report cited unforeseen delays in relocating aging underground utility lines where the tunnel will run.

Due to the age and density of the downtown neighborhood, many utilities are uncharted and crumbling, necessitating more exploration and repair than construction projects located elsewhere.

To get back on schedule for a 2021 opening, a timetable required to receive federal funds for the construction, Metro's staff recommended infusing the extra $132 million into the project by moving dollars from among different funding sources.

Metro CEO Phil Washington assured the committee the agency had learned valuable lessons from the budget overrun. He said the agency has already begun applying the lessons to construction on the Purple Line subway extension that will run under Wilshire Boulevard to Westwood.

"It's definitely no fun for us to bring this forward," Washington said. "But we also know we have to push forward with this project as well."

About half the budget for the Regional Connector is made up of federal grants and loans that were promised on the condition the line be operating by May 2021. Due to the construction problems, Metro's staff said the project needs the additional millions to meet the deadline.

Supervisor Knabe said he would hold his nose and vote “yes,” and the rest of the committee followed suit.

The full Metro board is expected to take a final vote on the extra funding when it meets next month.

If approved, the funds will be shuffled between projects and ultimately borrowed from future sales tax revenues that would have been earmarked for other transit or freeway projects.