April 25, 2001 - From the April, 2001 issue

Whither Transit in Los Angeles? Supervisor Yaroslavsky Plots a Course

Will the MTA Board wait for the new Mayor of L.A. to select its next CEO? In the following interview, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says, "No." MIR was pleased to get the longtime MTA Board member's thoughts on the escalating challenge to replace CEO Julian Burke, as well as various other issues affecting transportation and governance in the region. One, the MTA's newly released Draft Long Range Transportation Plan. Zev explains why the 25-year is inappropriate, likening it to the Soviet Union's 5-year plans, and calls instead for increased attention to what the MTA is doing now, specifically with plans for more high-speed bus routes and lanes. He also gives an update on the efforts to form a San Fernando Valley Transit Zone, and reiterates why it's so important to the Valley-and the region's-transportation future.


Zev Yaroslavsky

MTA's current CEO Julian Burke recently announced his retirement, months before the election of Los Angeles' new Mayor. Given that the Mayor of L.A. has four votes on the MTA Board, elaborate on the timing of MTA's CEO selection process?

We currently have several excellent candidates with a variety of experiences from around the country. In order to prevent this selection from being a mayoral issue in the primary, we announced that we would not select a new CEO until after the April 10th election, and we'd consult with the finalists for Mayor before making a selection for the new CEO. To wait until the new Mayor's term begins in July would probably mean waiting until November or December, as the new Mayor will have a lot of issues to address and this is not necessarily number-one. We can't wait that long; Julian Burke wants to retire, and we've made a commitment to facilitate that as soon as possible.

This is not going to be a political appointment, and I'm confident that whoever the MTA Board selects will be acceptable to both mayoral candidates. We're looking for the best person for the job. We want to continue the momentum set forth by Mr. Burke: making merit-based, financially sound decisions to put the agency on a stable course for improving transportation in the region.

In your last interview with Metro Investment Report in May 2000, you said, "The MTA's bureaucracy is slow and unresponsive, and its performance is uneven. Those who believe otherwise are oblivious." Should our readers assume by your comments that performance has improved? And, could you give our readers an indication of who you believe the next Board Chair will be?

First of all, I stand by my statement of last year, and I don't think anyone on the MTA Board-or even Mr. Burke-would argue with that assessment. One of the biggest challenges the new CEO will face is to expand the team of competent transportation professionals within the Agency. Part of that will involve filling vacant positions, and part of it will be cleaning house. (Julian has done some of that, but he hasn't been able to do it all.)

Second, who will the next Chair be? Current Chair Yvonne Burke's term is up on June 30. Jim Cragin was next in line, but because of his recently failed bid for Mayor of Gardena and subsequent departure from the City Council, the new Chair will now be either Frank Roberts or John Fasana. In either case, I'm hoping that we have some discussion about returning to the old system of a one-year term for Chair. Some of us on the Board think that two years is too long and doesn't allow for a sufficient rotation in leadership.

The MTA has just released its draft 2001 Long-Range Transportation Plan, which the Metro Investment Report reviewed last month in an interview with Martha Welborne. She began by saying, "The thrust of the MTA plan—which I find fascinating—is: There is no way to build our way out of the transportation problem." Zev, is that your sense of the report as well? If not, what is your reaction?

I was not thrilled with the "25-year plan" because I don't think you can plan for what's going to happen 25 years from now.

The draft contained a potpourri of ideas, but it lacked prioritization. In fact, it almost smacked of the way the MTA and the L.A. CTC did business in the old days—which was to put an idea in the long-range plan and then worry about funding it later. What ends up happening is that precious moneys get spent on planning and studying something that may not be built for 25 to 30 years, if at all. It also gives certain constituencies a false sense of promise about pet projects.

For example, this 25-year plan includes additional subway lines, when it's pretty clear that no subway of any consequence is going to be built in this City beyond what we have. To spend time, money and energy on an option that is unrealistic—when we could be spending those resources on projects that could be completed in our lifetimes—is a colossal waste. I never liked the Soviet Union's five-year plans, and I don't like the MTA's 25-year plans. It's much ado about very little.

The future of the MTA is what we're doing now. It's about the east-west Valley line, the north-south Valley line; it's about the Exposition right-of-way and Wilshire Boulevard. It's about moving towards a less expensive, more flexible, and more functional transportation system that serves Los Angeles' needs. The former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, Jaime Lerner, said it best: "Have the courage to try simple, common sense solutions." And in Los Angeles, the common sense solution is to be above the ground-with either light rail or high-speed bus-trains with infrequent stops.

The Metro Rapid lines have surprised everybody—including me—by being a smashing success, and I'm very excited about the new east-west Valley line. (The draft EIR is about to be released.) You'll be able to get from Woodland Hills to the subway station at Lankenshire and Chandler in 30 minutes, regardless of the final route, and from Warner Center to Downtown in less than an hour. It's going to be a marvelous amenity that we can replicate all over L.A. where we own rights-of-way or have potential street capacity to designate Curitiba-style high-speed bus lanes. And I'm convinced that once we demonstrate that it can work in Los Angeles, everyone will be clambering for it.

Let's continue with this subject . Clearly, with your urging—along with Speaker Hertzberg's leadership and the Governor's signature—a sizeable amount of transportation moneys from last year's budget surplus have come into L.A. County. How have those resources been deployed? Are your priorities being addressed? And what are your hopes for the coming year re: the State's transportation budget?

Speaker Hertzberg and the Governor have both been extremely helpful in providing infrastructure capital dollars for the Curitiba model that we're implementing in the Valley and elsewhere. The idea for those lines was that the State would put in some funds, which MTA would then match. Will it be enough? Well, it's certainly more than we could have expected a year and a half ago.

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This year will be a little different. The energy crisis has caused the Legislature and the Governor to spend down the State surplus, and how much will be left is anybody's guess. But if there is a surplus left, I expect to see some of those dollars either to supplement these projects or to create seed money for new projects in other parts of the region.

Zev, MIR recently interviewed Bob Wolf, who just retired from the California Transportation Commission. He said, "The L.A. MTA has an innate challenge in that it's comprised of elected officials, each of whom has a constituency demanding attention irrespective of the overarching needs of the region. There's constant competition for projects and/or dollars that is not always based on the most appropriate approach for the entire L.A. area, and this leads to rather disjointed planning." Is there a Board constituency for a multi-modal regional transportation solution based on usage?

With all due respect to Mr. Wolf, the same could be said about the California Transportation Commission in past years. We do live in a democracy, and as someone once said, democracy is a bitch. People have a right to fight for their piece of the pie.

Mr. Wolf's criticism is unfair, at least in the last couple of years. Financial realities and the raw experience of the last 10 years at the MTA have galvanized the Board into taking a more regional approach. There is always, however, the danger and temptation to return to old, bad habits. Vigilance, vision and leadership are the antidotes to this danger. There's no question that each member has his or her own interests, but it has become less parochial. You saw it during the MTA bus strike-all 13 members of the Board took a lot of heat to do what they felt was right. Politically, we all look better if we do the right thing for the public, and that view has really settled in.

When we interviewed you last year for MIR, you had just become Chair of the interim governing authority for the Valley Transit Zone, a collaborative effort between the County and various Valley cities. Please give our readers an update on this effort and what you see as the promise of this new Transit Zone.

It's been a very eventful year. The Governor signed legislation that would require the Valley Transit Zone, if created, to honor MTA union contracts. While a lot of people-including myself-felt that this was the State injecting itself into a local issue, we believe that developing a transit zone for the San Fernando Valley will still be financially viable.

During the last three months, our consultant has been developing a negotiating framework to transfer all of the local bus lines in the San Fernando Valley from the MTA to the Zone. We'd honor the contracts of the bus drivers, the mechanics, and others so that no one would lose his or her job or compensation package. In addition, regional transportation decisions—the subway, the high-speed east-west line, etc.—would remain with the MTA.

But in terms of providing local transit, the Zone will offer a more Valley-centric view rather than one driven by Downtown bureaucrats, for whom the Valley is just one of a multitude of regions. Currently, the San Fernando Valley makes up less than 20% of the MTA's service area; as a result, it does not receive the kind of focus and attention from MTA planners and transit professionals that it deserves.

If the Valley Transit Zone were in effect, not only could we better integrate the system into the regional grid, but we could finally get lines running where the people are and discontinue lines where there are no riders. We could also implement more vans and surgically attack problems that are either seasonal or differ from time of day.

It's not unlike all of the other Valley debates, except this one can be done painlessly. The Valley is a rapidly changing place as demonstrated by the recent Census. Demographic changes have made it more transit dependent than it was 10 years ago and far more transit dependent than 20 years ago. Downtown continues to behave as though it is the suburban upper-middle-class bedroom community that it was in the 1960s and 70s when in reality it's more like a central city in terms of transportation needs.

Let's again turn to the Mayoral election in L.A. What, from your position as a County Supervisor, is at stake in this election regarding transportation planning and other infrastructure and regional priorities?

When it comes to transportation planning, the Mayor of Los Angeles is probably the most important elected individual because he or she controls four seats on the 13-member MTA Board. The new Mayor must recognize this as one of the most important responsibilities and learn from the mistakes of past Mayors, Supervisors, Council members, and MTA Board members while building on past successes.

Importantly, the Mayor must be willing to buck pressure from those with interests in big, expensive construction projects and remember that the real obligation is to 1) the people that already depend on public transit, and 2) the people who would ride transit if given a better alternative than their automobile. Local buses, high-speed express buses and light-rail all have to be part of our long-range transportation plan. Because the commute in this town is typically a long one, whatever moves people long distances faster and more comfortably than their cars is where the new Mayor should focus.

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