June 24, 2017 - From the June, 2017 issue

Metro's Phil Washington: Update on LA's 21st Century Transportation Build-Out

Measure M's passage last November assured up to $120 billion in funding for Los Angeles County transportation upgrades and new projects in coming years. But local investment in transportation infrastructure necessarily relies on federal support, and President Trump’s most recent transportation budget is projected to cut transportation spending by 13 percent. Many regional public transit projects already promised federal funding are at risk now of being unfunded. To assess the state of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's system transformation, TPR spoke with CEO Phil Washington, who addressed Metro’s 2017-18 budget priorities, the significance of the Metro Board’s formally killing the 710 freeway tunnel project, and innovations that reimagine the current transportation system to mitigate the uncertainty of continued federal support.


Phillip Washington

"The Trump administration’s recent budget proposal was totally incongruent with its pledge to commit $1 trillion to infrastructure. We hope that Congress will do the right thing and disagree with the budget that has been put forward." - Phil Washington, CEO, LA Metro

The Metro Board recently passed a $6.1 billion budget. Assuming the public transit agency’s budget is meant to be reflection of its vision, what is Metro’s vision for 2017-2018? 

Phil Washington: First of all, for the next 18 months, we are in full implementation mode on the Measure R and Measure M projects that are in the queue. We are also determining how we can accelerate projects that are a little bit further out.

Another priority for us over the next 18 months is state of good repair (SGR) management. We are moving from what I call an age-based asset management system to a condition-based asset management system. In other words, we are going to put boots on the ground to assess the condition of our assets, rather than just looking at where they are in their useful life. That will be in full swing over the next 18 months.

Safety is closely tied to a state of good repair. Our system is already safe, but we want to make sure that customers feel even safer riding our system. We’re also working on security.  We have quite a bit happening over the next 18 months, and we’re going about the business of getting it done. 

The Metro Board has also made a number of other significant decisions this last month, including about reliance on renewable fuels, formally rejecting a 710 tunnel, and moving toward a universal TAP card. Speak to the significance of these policy decisions.

Metro has an objective of having an all-electric fleet by 2030. Even before this motion, we had already begun the process of moving toward renewable fuels and electric buses; in fact, we are having a briefing on the plan this month. It’s very important for Metro, Southern California, and California to lead on lessening our carbon footprint.

Last month, the Board of Directors formally killed, if you will, the 710 tunnel. Chairman John Fasana led the charge on that action. What it did was free up about $700 million from Measure R. Now, we can begin to look at how we could use that money for additional projects with the goal of significantly alleviating traffic on that corridor and improving the commute in those cities where the 710 ends. We will partner with the cities to determine exactly what those new projects will be. There are many alternatives, and the cities are going to help us figure them out.

In terms of the TAP card: Our overarching objective is to find a way to enhance the customer experience through fare media improvements. The idea of a universal fare media has been very important to me since even before I arrived in L.A. In my mind, there should be no distinction in the fare media on Metrolink, Metro, or the municipal buses. We should have a universal card that can be used on every mode of transportation in this county—just like you can go into any Starbucks and buy a drink on your Starbucks card. We are moving in that direction: for example, you can now use a TAP card to rent bikes through the Metro Bike Share program.

We’re looking at all kinds of ways to enhance the TAP system. Recently, we took a motion to our board to allow us to innovate more within fare media technology. We are even looking at a technology that could collect fare from a wristband that riders wear.

What role is your Office of Extraordinary Innovation playing in carrying out Metro’s vision? 

That office has been very active; in fact, they’ve been involved in just about everything we’ve been doing lately, because we’re trying to think outside the box.

We have an unsolicited proposal policy through which the private sector can bring us their own innovative ideas that we might not otherwise be thinking about. We’ve received almost 100 unsolicited proposals, 12 of which have to do with megaprojects like the Sepulveda Pass, the West Santa Ana Branch, or early conversion of the Orange Line to rail.

Metro is also going to introduce an Uber-like service—a curb-to-curb, first/last-mile service that will be run by our bus operators, but with smaller vehicles. The Office of Extraordinary Innovation is at the forefront of that project, and will be putting out a request for proposals in the next 90 days.

Speak to the much-reported drop in bus ridership on the Metro system, and what leadership is proposing to insure Metro is an indispensable part of LA County’s transportation service system.

Bus ridership is declining nationally, and all kinds of theories and reasons have been thrown about as to why. For us, it boils down to a couple of things, which we are addressing right now.

First, we found that some of our riders left because of a perception of lack of security or safety on the system. We are addressing this issue with the creation of a new, three-agency law enforcement arrangement.

We’ve had the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on our system for a number of years. The new three-agency model includes the LAPD and Long Beach PD, as well as the sheriffs. Those forces will actually be a felt presence on our buses and our trains—not just responding after the fact. We’ve already started that security surge on our system, and we’re already seeing positive results.

Another big piece of the plan, which we just announced, is a complete review of our entire bus system. This has not been done in the last 25 years. We are creating a regional task force to do it now, and we’ll bring on a consultant to help with it by the end of this year.

This is an incredibly big and complex task. Los Angeles is the largest and most populous county in America, and Metro has bus lines all over this county—plus we will be looking at the muni operators, like Foothill Transit and the Big Blue Bus. We are going to look at all the lines on the streets right now, their destinations, and their start points, to determine if our service is going where people need it. We will do an analysis of whether our routes are going to our employment centers, and whether those centers have changed.

Another area I would point to is technology. People want to be able to get on the subway and do their work on their laptops—they want to have connectivity. We are almost done getting cellular service from providers in place in all our subway tunnels.

All of these things will contribute to the reversal of the ridership decline. Once we get these things done, I think we’ll see ridership begin to increase across the system.

Give us a construction update on Metro’s rail lines, and what it will mean to the system to have the regional interconnect and planned extensions completed. 

The Regional Connector is going to be a big game changer for our system. We’re talking 170,000 boardings every weekday on the three light rail lines it will connect, and a one-seat ride all the way from Azusa to Long Beach and from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica. That will be a huge benefit to the region. It’s about 30 percent complete, and we’re looking to accelerate that as well.

On June 3, we began a five-month full closure of 6th Street between Flower and Hope Streets in Downtown LA to perform all the roadway removal, utility relocation, and beam installation work required for the Regional Connector. That closure will remain in effect until November. Nobody likes closures, but we have to do it; you’ve got to break some eggs.

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The Crenshaw Line is almost 70 percent complete. We’re done with our mining excavation, and have retired the tunnel boring machine, “Harriet.” The six bridges out there are structurally done. Rail track is still in the early stages, heading south toward the Aviation/Century station. We are rocking and rolling on that project and looking to accelerate it as best we can. As of now, it will be ready for service in fall 2019.

The Purple Line extension is being built in three phases. Phase One—the first four miles to Wilshire/La Cienega —is under construction right now, and is at 20 percent completion. We’ve given notice to another contractor to start construction on Phase Two to Century City, the next two and a half miles, and that work is getting underway. We are looking to accelerate Phase Three, starting with putting out a solicitation for the tunneling, which is the biggest part of the job. That phase is the last two and a half miles out to Westwood, UCLA, and the VA Medical Center. Overall, we are looking to accelerate the opening of the whole Purple Line—about nine miles—by 11 years.

Those three major projects that are underway, as well as several others in the works, are the results of voters passing Measure R in 2008 and Measure M in 2016. In October, we’ll break ground on utilities relocation for the Gold Line extension out to Claremont. We are also working very closely with Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) to advance the airport station, and we are looking to push forward the West Santa Ana Branch and the Sepulveda Pass projects. 

Even with sales tax Measure M, Metro has always had a financially dependent relationship with the federal government. However, President Trump’s current budget proposal is projected to cut transportation funding by 13 percent. More than 50 public transit projects just short of final approval now fear they are at risk of being denied funding despite having moved through the pipeline. What would be the impact if the federal government failed to fund Metro’s plans?

We are watching this closely, because there would be a huge impact if our federal partners did not live up to their commitments.

I have been very vocal about the role of the federal government in building this infrastructure. We have assumptions of federal funding in our plans, including in our Measure M plans. We think that the federal government should remain committed to those.

I was very surprised to see three cities in particular—Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle—called out in President Trump’s budget as not meriting federal funding because they had already raised local money. That was a complete shock to me. The idea that regions that have gone out and raised money on their own—like we did with Measure R and Measure M—should be penalized by losing federal funds is disastrous. We responded very aggressively to that, saying that regions that invest in themselves should be rewarded.

The administration’s recent budget proposal was totally incongruent with its pledge to commit $1 trillion to infrastructure. We hope that Congress will do the right thing and disagree with the budget that has been put forward.

TPR recently carried an interview with Oregon Congressmember Earl Blumenauer, who is fighting to safeguard existing funding for TIGER grants, the New Starts and Small Starts programs. What, Metro’s opinion, is the significance of those programs?

They should absolutely be safeguarded.

The TIGER program must continue. It does not just benefit large urban areas; many of those grants benefit rural areas. TIGER funding jumpstarts many projects around the country. I’m glad that Congress is weighing in on that. Our delegation here in California has also weighed in heavily, so I hope Congress will see fit to continue the TIGER program.

The capital infrastructure grant programs most definitely have to continue as well. Many of those projects—including Phase Three of the Purple Line—are already in the pipeline. What the administration is suggesting in their proposed budget is that they will ignore and refuse to honor commitments to projects that are already in the pipeline. That is simply a betrayal.

Some in the administration have said that no federal money should go to local projects like those in LA County because they supposedly don’t benefit the federal government. Well, I think that’s crazy.

Forty percent of the nation’s goods come into the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Trucks drive along the 710 Freeway to pick up those goods and deliver them around the country. When those trucks tear up the roads, how can anybody say our region isn’t bearing the brunt of the entire country? How can you say the rest of the nation doesn’t benefit from our roads? That argument is ludicrous. I reject it completely.

Los Angeles is the most populous county in the country, and probably has the largest federal tax base. We’re paying a lot of federal taxes. We absolutely deserve and should have a stake in the federal funding kitty—especially since we’re not coming totally empty-handed. We passed Measure R and Measure M, so we aren’t asking for 100 percent federal funding for our projects—just a portion. I think that is extremely appropriate. 

The International Olympics Committee will soon make its decision about its award of the 2024 Games, and perhaps the 2028, as well. What could IOC’s decision mean for Metro’s plans to contribute mobility to Los Angeles’s plans to host the Olympics? 

We already have the transportation infrastructure needed to accommodate the Olympics. We have it right now.

But if we get the Olympics in 2024, we’re talking about adding onto that. For example, in LA’s bid, the Olympic athletes would be housed at UCLA. Building Phase Three of the Purple Line would then become very important—so obviously we would want that federal funding commitment.

If LA is selected for 2024, we will be ready. And we’ll definitely be ready for 2028. We stand ready for either eventuality.

Lastly, State Senator Mendoza’s controversial SB 268 has passed the state Senate. The bill would dramatically shake up the Metro Board of Directors and shift power to outer areas of the region. As Metro’s CEO, what effect would such a change have on your work?

Let me say this: Our Board of Directors has formally opposed this bill. And when Los Angeles voters approved Measure M by 71 percent—an overwhelming majority—that happened because Metro engaged all our stakeholders, not just a few.

Having said that, this bill would not change my program. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. That means being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. It means implementing both Measure R and Measure M. It means running this organization—the third largest transportation agency in the country—in a responsible way. And it means keeping my Board informed, even if it gets larger.

I’m just going to be keep being the aggressive person that I am until the day my Board tells me to stop.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.