The LADOT, like other City departments, has confronted budget woes, depleted staffing, and unfortunate controversies in recent months—all of which caused the mayor to appoint longtime Deputy Mayor of Transportation Jaime de la Vega as the new general manager of the LADOT. In the following MIR exclusive, de la Vega details the work needed to clean up the department and deliver significant policy initiatives for the city, namely, the completion of the traffic signal synchronization project and the implementation of the city’s bicycle plan.
"We do have less staff than before, but we're still fully committed to TOD and helping to transform the areas around rail stations and busway stations."
You were nominated in June by Mayor Villaraigosa to become the GM of LADOT and approved by the City Council in July. What was the charge given to you by the mayor?
The focus of my efforts are, one, turning around the parking enforcement operation, two, responding to the underlying issues in the controller’s three audits, and three, advancing the mayor and council’s policy priorities. Those priorities are completing signal synchronization, implementing the bicycle plan, and supporting the implementation and development of Measure R transit projects.
How successful is LADOT in synchronizing the city’s street lights?
As of today, we’re about 90 percent synchronized at over 4,000 intersections. In 2005, when the mayor took office, the last portion of the program, about 25 percent of the traffic signals, was unfunded. The mayor secured $150 million from Proposition 1B funds. I was part of that effort as well. The good news is that we are on track to finish synchronization before the end of the mayor’s term, and we have 100 percent funding to finish that program.
What are the actual public benefits of signal signalization?
It means less traffic congestion and lower emissions from cars stuck in traffic. The other advantages of the program include the transit priority system. That’s something that DOT has been working on with Metro since about 2000. The signal synchronization system gives priority to transit buses. That’s already in place with the rapid bus program. It’s being used on the Orange Line in the Valley. It’s going to be used on the Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit project. The other advantage of the synchronization system is that it allows the traffic engineers to remotely change the traffic control system in case of an emergency, a special event or an accident. They can change timing in real time, observe traffic conditions by remote video camera, and do things that before were impossible or had to be done manually in the field.
What is the synchronization technology employed? Sensors?
The key piece is software, which was programmed in-house by a senior DOT engineer. But the basic technology involves loop detectors embedded in the roadway at intersections that detect traffic speeds and volumes. There is the back-end computer system that I talked about. Either the engineers can program the timing or, in the newer portions of the system, we have what’s called adaptive traffic control. This means that the computer senses traffic volumes in all directions and sets the timing to minimize the delay for all motorists.
Do the embedded sensors also sense bicycles?
Those do not, but we’ve actually begun installing (on a pilot basis) bicycle loop detectors. We just did an installation on 4th St. Those are specifically designed to detect bicycles and cyclists. That is something that we will be doing more of in the future.
This is perfect segue to inquire about the city’s new bicycle policy. What is the vision for the Bicycle Plan?
Generally speaking, the plan adopted by the council and mayor will make Los Angeles more bicycle friendly. The plan will construct and install a number of different bicycle facilities. That includes dedicated bike paths along the Orange Line and the Exposition Line. It includes bike lanes. It includes a new program called sharrows, were we have shared pavement markings to improve motorist awareness of bicycles. There is a whole technical appendix that describes bike-friendly infrastructure treatments to calm traffic and make the street more conducive to cycling.
What are the five-year goals of the city’s bicycle policies?
In five years, we should have at least 200 miles of new bike facilities installed. The council and the mayor also committed a minimum of 5 percent a year of the city’s Measure R local return money to fund bicycle improvement. That’s in addition to other formula funds that the city receives, as well as competitive grants from MTA.
Hopefully, each year we will be more and more bike friendly. Related to that, the mayor and Councilmember Huizar sit on the MTA Board of Directors. They are moving a policy I helped work on a few months ago to be install triple bike racks on all buses. They have a more bike friendly policy in terms of bringing bikes onto the light rail cars and the subway trains. I’m also on the Metrolink Board of Directors. The Metrolink Board and CEO have now created bicycle trains on Metrolink. We are really improving the ability of cyclists to navigate our city and our region.
Prior to accepting the GM position with DOT, you were one of the mayor’s active lieutenants in pushing Measure R and America Fast Forward. Could you bring our readers up to date on both?
Measure R was an interesting sales tax initiative. It was the third one approved by local voters here in Los Angeles County. It passed in 2008 with a 2/3 vote. It really was a transit initiative. When you look at the source of the funds there, the majority of the funds went for transit construction, for rail and busway projects, rail and bus operations, Metrolink service expansion, etc.
America Fast Forward is a national concept that Mayor Villaraigosa has proposed to the federal government to finance major transportation infrastructure projects, not only in Los Angeles, but also across the nation. The idea is to help the federal government leverage their dollars further to create jobs and put in place needed transportation infrastructure. We’ve proposed legislation in Washington, and we are still optimistic that something could happen as part of the Surface Transportation reauthorization bill. Ultimately, the fate of that specific legislation will be tied up in the debate over national politics, the debt ceiling, and, quite frankly, partisan politics.
There is a sense that the mayor’s proposal is stalling in Congress. What is your read on the political viability of 30/10?
I’m more optimistic than that. Senator Barbara Boxer named the title of the innovative financing portion of her reauthorization bill America Fast Forward. We’ve had strong bipartisan support from the transportation leaders in Washington. That includes, as I mentioned, Senator Boxer and Senator James Inhofe. On the Republican side, Congressman John Mica has been very supportive. U.S. DOT and the Obama administration have been supportive. The support is there.
We’ve also sparked an interest in the reorientation or expansion of federal funding policy. Historically, the feds ask to match 20 percent of project costs. They provide up to 80 percent in grants. We’re saying that the feds should reward jurisdictions where voters have put their own money up first. That’s the case here in Los Angeles, first in 1980 with Proposition A, then again in 1990 with Proposition C, and finally in 2008 with Measure R. The amount of money that L.A. County is generating on an annual basis right now is approximately $2 billion. That level of investment in transportation exceeds the entire budget of some of the smaller states in the U.S. and definitely exceeds the sales tax revenue in some of the small to mid-size states. The voters of Los Angeles and the policy leaders here have done a remarkable job investing in transportation, and now we’re asking the federal government to help us accelerate those projects.
As GM, you are charged with managing the LADOT at a time when the council and the mayor have been forced to cut back on department staff and budget. Does the City and the LADOT have sufficient resources to execute the big picture agendas you have highlighted?
Let me start with two of the key functions here at DOT. The first is parking enforcement. About a third of LADOT’s operation is traffic officers. They are engaged in both law enforcement on parking regulations as well as public safety. They staff special events. When Metrolink crashed, they were on site controlling traffic. Any time that police or fire calls on them, they are available. They play a crucial role, not only for transportation but also for public safety.
The second major function here at the department is basic field operations. We have crews that work virtually 24 hours a day repairing broken traffic signals, whether it’s a malfunction or an auto accident knocks down a pole. We also do the striping and re-striping of city streets. Any time Public Works resurfaces a street, we make sure that the traffic lane markings are back in place so that the traffic can move safely and efficiently. They also hang and place the permanent signs as well as the temporary signs used in construction projects and for filming, which is such an important industry here in Los Angeles.
As far as the big picture goes, as I mentioned, we are wrapping up synchronization of the traffic signals. We are going to be implementing the Bicycle Plan. The final thing that I touched on earlier is support of the Measure R transit projects that the MTA is developing. In the next couple of years, there are going to be many projects within the city limits that DOT is going to participate in. We’re wrapping up the Orange Line Canoga extension and Exposition phase one. Expo phase two will break ground shortly. Crenshaw will break ground. We’ve also got the Van Nuys busway, which is being studied right now, the Regional Connector connecting four light rail lines Downtown, and the Westside subway.
DOT’s role is a couple of things. First, we approve all of the temporary construction traffic plans to make sure that traffic moves as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. We also deploy engineers and traffic officers as necessary. For a lot of these busway and light rail projects, our engineers are signing off on the plans for these complex intersections where you have a new interface of light rail and mixed flow traffic, cyclists, and pedestrians.
When the mayor began his first term more than five years ago, there was great expectation that DOT and city planning would work together to bring land use and transportation and transit-oriented development into sync. With significant cutbacks in your staff and the loss of veteran staff, has DOT backed away from prioritizing coordinating transportation and planning?
It’s true that our planning staff has been reduced by budget cuts. But let me talk about TOD for a bit. My work with Mayor Villaraigosa at MTA had a lot to do with creating anchor developments at rail and busway stations. Sort of like you have anchor tenants at a mall, which are necessary to sustain the mall so you can attract other stores, TOD functions in the same way. We worked on a number of joint developments on the Metro side. Right before I left, I also helped get grant TOD planning funding through the MTA’s current budget. That money is going to be allocated to different planning departments throughout the county to do different TOD plans.
We’re still a partner with Michael LoGrande at the Planning Department on the development of their station plans as well as their community plans. We do have less staff than before, but we’re still fully committed to TOD and helping to transform the areas around rail stations and busway stations.
Recent TPR interviews with Metro staff noted the Metro’s willingness to put resources into city planning departments to help facilitate TOD developments. Do those resources also go to LADOT?
The direct funding will probably go to the Planning Department, but whether or not we get funding, we’re going to be supportive of those efforts at both a policy management and a technical level.
Address regional efforts, over the last few years, to test congestion pricing and consider introducing congestion mitigation fees—the initiatives that have been put forward by the county and by the feds to find new sources of revenue to fund additional transportation infrastructure.
The federal programs you referenced include two main components. One is high-occupancy toll lanes on the 10 Freeway east of Downtown and the 110 Freeway between the port and Downtown. The second piece, which I’ll detail in a second, is Express Park, which is a parking management system that LADOT is the lead on. Talking about the HOT lanes first, people call it congestion pricing but it’s a different than traditional congestion pricing. We’re optimizing the use of our existing carpool lanes. We’re saying that when traffic is flowing in the carpool lanes, drivers that voluntarily pay a toll can take advantage of that excess capacity and drive faster. Those in the mixed slow lanes who choose not to pay to toll also benefit in two ways. One, you have fewer cars in those lanes because people are moving into the carpool lanes. And two, as part of that program, we are actually expanding transit service so people have more options. DOT is doing a lot with signal and traffic interface on and off the two aforementioned freeways.
On Express Park, we are looking at dynamic pricing based on demand. We will have advanced parking meters and sensors, information systems, both back-end for our engineers and as an interface for the public, hopefully on iPhone, Android, and other mobile phones. The idea is that if you are driving into Downtown, you will know in real time where parking is available block-by-block. I have been delegated authority by the council and the mayor to change parking rates higher or lower.
The idea really goes back to concepts that Dr. Don Shoup at UCLA, who advocated that we should price parking at a level to make curb parking readily available so that we don’t spend a lot of time circling the block looking for parking. That’s one of the big initiatives that we are working on, and that is funded by U.S. DOT.
Let’s return to the city’s parking enforcement program, which you rightly note is a significant priority of L.A. DOT. In June, Mayor Villaraigosa temporarily appointed Police Department Commander Mike Williams to oversee reform of the Department’s Parking Enforcement Division. Talk about that decision and the significance for how you go forward here.
We had a crisis of leadership here at LADOT. The commander was brought in as a partner for me. He is the acting parking chief right now. The reforms are important because we have hundreds of very loyal, hardworking employees in that bureau and we had a couple of highly publicized incidents that reflected very poorly not only on parking enforcement but on the entire department and the city as a whole. We’re professionalizing the way that group is managed and restoring confidence and credibility in that group. That group has a huge role in issuing parking citations and contributing general fund revenue to the city’s budget, which is sorely needed during this budget crisis. Parking is definitely a huge issue for the city, and the parking enforcement function is critical.
If we again speak in a year’s time, how will your agenda have changed and what will you advance as your accomplishments?
I hope in a year that the issue of parking enforcement will become more of a routine, day-to-day operation and less of a reform issue. We’ve already put a number of reforms in place. We’ve increased supervisory ratios. We’ve put supervisors off of desk jobs and into the field. We’ve sent our supervisors to training and management school at the L.A.P.D. Academy. Hopefully that effort will be complete and we will be focusing on the bread and butter of the department: finishing signal synchronization, implementing more and more bike facilities, and supporting the Measure R projects.