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LA subway project heads for the buffers

Federal government balks at providing matching funds amid charges of corruption at municipal level
How did Los Angeles, the city which enshrines the convertible, where no one ever walks, come to believe it needed an underground?

It is a question being much asked this year, as the city ponders the unthinkable: calling it quits on a vast municipal undertaking that has already swallowed several billion dollars in public money. Yes, Los Angeles already has a subway. Spanking new, it runs from Union Station, hardly a hive of activity, 5.3 miles west with eight stops along Wilshire Boulevard, to a place best described in LA terms as nowhere in particular.

The cost, so far: about half a billion dollars a mile, for a system that services a meagre 35,000 riders a day. On any city map, it is a small slug in the centre of a vast urban sprawl. Seventeen years ago, in a municipal ballot with a tiny turnout, Los Angeles County voters approved a special tax increase to pay for an ambitious commuter rail network with the subway at its heart, urged on by a coalition of businesses, unions, and civic boosters of all types.

But several years into construction, the project seems in danger of becoming a sick joke. Tunneling into LA's unstable soil has opened sink-holes under Hollywood Boulevard and drained canyon streams in the Hollywood Hills. The federal government is balking at providing matching funds, amid charges that a vast and corrupt municipal pork-barrel is at work.

Two construction workers died this year, as work continues on the next stage, tunneling north to Hollywood and Universal Studios. In a telling metaphor, the city's Mass Transit Authority is now taking delivery of 74 pricey Italian-made subway cars, most of which will sit idle until more new stations are completed early next century. The MTA was without a chief executive for six months this year after its former boss resigned under fire.

"In the real world, a red light would go on somewhere, but this is not the real world, this is politics," said Peter Gordon, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California. "It has to stop somewhere. It has to crash under its own weight."

Los Angeles was once famously described as 100 suburbs in search of a city. The subway is read as yet another attempt to give Los Angeles a beating heart, to satisfy Tinsel town's cosmopolitan cravings to be a real city with an underground like London or New York.

The political tide, however, is running in a devolutionary direction. There are rumblings of revolt from the San Fernando Valley, LA's north- western suburb, which would like to secede, and demands for the break- up of the vast bureaucracy of the LA schools system. Few public officials are openly calling for the subway to be abandoned, but its most ardent supporters have been licking their wounds of late.

Local commentators have aired the idea of simply finishing up existing construction, and then taking stock. Mayor Richard Riordan, for one, now puts his faith in buses. They are "the backbone of the transportation system, and they're going to be for many decades to come," he said recently.

A major complaint against the subway is that it has swallowed available funds for LA's under-serviced bus system. When the freeways cracked in the 1994 earthquake, it was blandly predicted that commuting Angelenos would finally see the virtue of commuter rail. On the contrary, the roads were repaired with astonishing speed, and life rapidly returned to normal.

To the south in San Diego, researchers are testing how to automate freeways with remote- controlled cars, rather than replace them.

To descend into the subway on a 90-degree September afternoon, from a city that has not seen rain in 200 days, is to enter another world.

At Union Station, there are polished granite benches, and pastel floor tiles. A scattering of passengers seem to move without any particular hurry.

At Pershing Square, there are six sets of grand grey double staircases, virtually untrodden. There are airy vaulted ceilings, with new-age neon lights, and strangest of all, not a poster in sight, in the trains or the stations. Cool and dark and quiet, it is far removed from Los Angeles. For one thing, cell phones don't work. The journey takes about 15 minutes. Now, if you could get your car on one of these things ...