March 24, 2004 - From the February, 2004 issue

On Time & On Budget: MTA's Rick Thorpe Brings Discipline To Project Management

As the chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-to-Pasadena Metro Construction Authority, Rick Thorpe was able to accomplish an amazing feat in local transportation projects: completing the Gold Line on time and on budget. Now, as the LA MTA's Executive Officer for Project Managment, Thorpe is overseeing the construction of the Orange Line (aka the San Fernando Valley Rapidway) and the Eastside Light Rail Project. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with Rick Thorpe, in which he discusses the promise of the successful completion of the GOld Line, his new post at the MTA, and integrating transit into the fabric of communities.


Rick Thorpe

Rick, let's begin with your Gold Line experience. You led the construction Authority that built it, and you brought that project in on time and on budget-a remarkable feat. What were the circumstances, the factors that made that public feat possible? Was separating from the MTA essential?

The success of the Gold Line had a lot to do with how we put the whole thing together. The enabling legislation created a very small board, a five-member board, with one representative from each of the three cities through which the Gold Line operates, one member from the eventual operator (MTA), and then one member from the next phase of the project, which is the San Gabriel Valley. So, we had five board members and they had a single focus. They didn't have anything else to do but focus on completing the Gold Line Project. Everybody on that board wanted the project to be done and it worked out well.

Along the same lines, we also had a small staff, again with a single focus. We relied heavily on the consultant sector to provide additional staffing and their expertise also contributed to our ability to finish the project on time. Lastly, the fact that we used design-build for the project, which is a nontraditional method, also resulted in an accelerated schedule. Those three things really had a lot to do with the success of the project.

Rick, I'm sure the Gold Line has much to offer those now contemplating rail construction projects. What are the actual lessons that you culled from the Gold Line construction?

Everybody's looking at it as a unique delivery system. There are a lot of projects now using it. Design-build has been around for a long time, but it's usually been used in vertical construction, office buildings typically. The use of it in a linear corridor presents a lot of different challenges, primarily getting third parties to buy in to the concept and doing things differently. Under design-build, as a designer finishes portions of the design, the contractor starts building them immediately. Agencies are more used to seeing a completed design, reviewing and commenting on that design, and then issuing an RFP for construction once it's all put together in one big package. The new approach and structure of the project, design-build, is what people are taking away from the Gold Line's construction.

Given how transit organizations are organized and staffed, how replicable is the use of a design-build contract? More specifically, how replicable within the MTA is the Gold Line experience?

For the San Fernando Rapidway, now called the Orange Line, we're using design-build as the approach. It's going to take a while to get everybody trained in this unique delivery approach, but once that happens, in my opinion, it will be the preferred delivery approach for projects throughout the county. We intend to utilize design-build on the Eastside LRT project as well.

Elaborate more on integrating design-build into MTA's culture.

MTA started by taking a look at the Gold Line and the successes we had there, and then incorporating as much as they could within the MTA as a whole. By the time I got here, the decision to use design-build had already been made. The one thing I'm finding is that, very similar to outside agencies not understanding the design-build model, we need to do a lot of training within the organization. Right now, we have design-build consultants who are supporting us. It's a new way of doing business, and it will take a while to get everybody trained, but the more people who understand this process, the more efficient that process is going to be-and it just doesn't happen overnight. MTA on its own has come a long way, and hopefully with some of my experience with design-build, we can continue to refine the process and deliver future projects on time and within budget.

Rick, obviously you're a diplomat. What attracted you to leave the cozy confines of the small Gold Line Construction Authority to work for the rather large and challenging MTA?

Well, you hit it on the head-it's a challenge and I love challenges. I left Utah to take on this challenge called the Gold Line. It didn't have enough money, it needed to be done in a very short period of time, and the opportunity to do that and to see if we could pull it off was just too tempting. We were able to do that, so, the question was, what's the next challenge?

My relationship with Roger Snoble goes back many years. In fact, when he was being considered for CEO, I called him up and encouraged him to take the position. I'm sure I didn't have a whole lot to do with his decision, but when he came to my office as the Gold Line was winding down, he asked whether I'd be interested in coming over. Roger convinced me that this was the place. The MTA had a couple of very interesting projects coming up, and Roger had already decided to use the design-build approach. So, the challenge now is to try to do it in a large bureaucracy versus a very small, single-focused agency. The challenge is to see if we can pull it off here at MTA. And, I'm confident that we will be able to succeed.

What will be the impact on your agenda and on your projects of the state pulling funds out of the transportation budget to meet the state's budget deficit?

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The impact is going to be greater in the future. The Orange Line has already been funded. The funds for that project have already been set aside and we're well into construction. In fact, we're less than 18 months away from completing that project. So, from a financial standpoint, that project is set.

The Eastside light rail project is the next one coming up. And from a state perspective, that money has been committed. However, we still are working hard to finalize the last aspects necessary to get the federal funds together. If we get the federal funds, that project's pretty well set.

So, the impact of the budget shift is more on future projects, beyond the Eastside and the San Fernando Orange Line. Quite honestly, it's probably too early to tell what the total impact in the future is going to be based on what's happening right now.

You clearly found attractive the organizational structure for the Gold Line, and were rather productive in it. And, you commented about how challenging it is to change a culture in a large organization like the MTA. Speak to this issue of culture and organizational arrangements as it relates to the implementation and building of these projects.

Roger and I go back to the days when he was the general manager at San Diego Transit and I was head of design and construction for all of San Diego's rail and bus programs. I've built several bus maintenance facilities for Roger. We've always had the same philosophy and that is a focus on completing projects on time and within budget.

From an organizational standpoint, I prefer smaller organizations. I prefer that people have more on their plate than probably what they are capable of doing. But that tends to set priorities, and those things that are most important get done. Things that don't get done usually aren't, in my opinion, things that are absolute requirements for success of a project. So I look at a smaller organization as being more cost effective and more efficient, and better able to get people more focused on what it is that we're trying to do.

Here at the MTA, we're trying to deliver the San Fernando Rapidway/Orange Line and Eastside Line projects within the budget and on schedule. That's going to be my primary focus here. If we can achieve success, all of the contractors will want to come to work for us, and all the consultants too. The more competition we have for our contracts, the lower the price. I just want to make this the most efficient project delivery organization in Southern California.

Last question, Rick. Although you're in charge of building it and making it come in on time and on budget, the definition of a project is always the interesting additional challenge. You worked in San Diego where they integrated rail into the fabric of the community and the planning process. It seems to me that transportation is often isolated from the housing/land use nexus in order to be on time and on budget. Talk a little bit about the project definition, and how you integrate transportation into the fabric of the region that you're building out.

Well, a lot of things have changed over the last 30 years since I started my career. Going back to the 50s, when we were building the interstate freeway system, there wasn't a lot of attention paid to the integration into a community's existing network. Now, 30 years later, we devote a lot of time and attention to that. One prime example is the Gold Line. Although there were pockets of opposition to the Gold Line, we did an excellent job in working with the community and working with the local elected officials whose districts were impacted by the project to address their concerns. And, we made significant changes to the project. The Chinatown station is a primary example. The station plans were 100% different after our discussions with the community than they were going in. We worked with the community on every aspect of that station, including the planting materials that went into the plaza. At my last meeting I got a standing ovation as I walked out of the meeting. That, to me, was the ultimate compliment-that we have in fact worked with the community and that they take tremendous pride in that station.

The Marmian Way area is another example. Prior to the station's existence, people would throw their trash in the unimproved portion of railroad right of way-couches, abandoned cars, and other trash. The neighborhood itself saw a lot of trash in people's yards, including broken down cars. When we came through, we worked with the community and built a very, very nice facility. All of a sudden, when we were done with the station, people were replanting their yards, getting rid of all the broken down cars and unwanted furniture from their yards. Instead of the trash, they planted flowers and roses. That area now, compared to when we started, has 100% turned around.

We've come a long way, and we continue to do that. Now it's just part of an overall program. That is something at which we work hard– trying to make sure that the product we deliver fits well within the community. For the San Fernando Valley Busway, we are going to put in over one million plants in that 13-mile stretch to landscape that busway. We're putting rubberized asphalt on the surface to make the traffic quieter. Not everybody is going to be happy about us, but the bottom line is that when we complete the project, there will be an improvement to that entire community. We want our facilities to mark an improvement in the quality of life of everybody. That's what it's all about.

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