May 4, 2004 - From the August, 2003 issue

MTA's New Chair, Yaroslavsky, Assesses State Budget's Impacts On Regional Mobility

With the state budget a seemingly unreliable source of funding, local transit authorities are looking to the federal government and searching for creative funding solutions to finance their projects. One such proposal is Senator Kevin Murray's (D-Los Angeles) SB 314, which aims to provide the Los Angeles area with sales tax revenue for infrastructure projects. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with new Chairman of the MTA Board of Directors Zev Yarolslavsky, in which he discusses the MTA's current and future projects, the promise of SB 314, the potential for the region to make an impression on Washington, and the state budget's impact on regional transportation going forward.


Zev Yaroslavsky

The state budget recently passed and was signed by the governor. It relies heavily on $10.7 billion of debt financing to balance. Could you critique the budget and assess its impact on our region's infrastructure, particularly with respect to the agenda of the MTA, which you now chair?

The budget the state has adopted is unrealistic. It defers real solutions to the core problem-the structural imbalance of the state's revenues and expenditures. Instead, the budget borrows a huge amount of money to finance last year's spending, and rolls over $8 billion of the deficit into the following year. So, some $18-20 billion in this so-called "budget," is either being financed or not being dealt with at all. The implications for local government are numerous. Any discretionary funds that might have been available in the state budget for transit purposes or for local government have been eliminated. Anything that appeared to be optional, anything that could have been delayed or deferred, has been deferred. In the case of the MTA, we knew that was coming earlier in the year when the governor's transportation plan from three or four years ago was put on hold. Projects that we were anticipating getting funded have simply been put in a deep freeze.

What this budget has done is ensure that next year we're going to be faced with precisely the same kind of problem. And, next year is an election year, making it even less palatable to raise revenues for any purpose whatsoever. The consequences to local government, including the MTA, are deeply negative. History has proven that when the state of California gets into a budget crunch, they take it out on local government and what they view as discretionary projects, such as transportation.

Turn your attention to Congress' current deliberations over re-authorization of transit funding. What are this region's priorities and MTA's wish list for dollars?

The completion of the Gold Line extension to the Eastside, as well as the construction and completion of the San Fernando Valley Bus Rapidway are the top priorities for the MTA. Thanks to a complex financial arrangement between the California Transportation Commission and the MTA, the funding for the Rapidway is now secure and the project is expected to be completed by August 2005. The Eastside Gold Line extension still requires a full funding agreement. Roger Snoble was in Washington last week and met with Secretary Mineta, among others, to try and nail that down. We hope to be under construction next year and have the project completed before the end of the decade.

The next priority will be the Exposition Boulevard light rail line, which would ultimately connect the central city with the city of Santa Monica, serving Culver City, Palms and West LA. We expect that to be a federally funded project.

As for other mass-transit projects, creating a connector between the Pasadena Gold Line, the East LA Gold Line and the Blue Line would be a substantial improvement in the functionality and integration of the system. We're also looking at a North-South busway in the San Fernando Valley. Several years ago, the state approved funding for both the East-West line and the North-South line, but the latter line was taken away because of a state budget shortfall. We're trying to revive the North-South line. It would be very functional, connecting Sherman Oaks to Sylmar, intersecting the East-West line and ending up at the Metrolink station.

In addition to that, the MTA is under court order to modernize bus fleets and to use all clean-air vehicles. The more funding we can get for that, the quicker we can accomplish those objectives. There's an expansion of the Metro Rapid, which has been a great success, on Ventura and Wilshire Boulevards and now on Vermont Avenue. A Crenshaw Boulevard exclusive busway will also be on that priority list that the MTA is bringing to

the board at the end of this month.

With the opening of the Gold Line in July, and the existing operation of the Green Line, Red Line, Blue Line, and the construction of the San Fernando Valley Rapidway, you're beginning to see the evolution of an integrated system.

Regarding state funding of transportation, State Senator Kevin Murray is authoring a measure that would permit the county to more easily fund transportation projects in Los Angeles. Could you brief our readers on the substance of his Bill, SB 314, and assess its significance?

The Murray bill, SB 314, offers us the opportunity to fund many of the projects I was just talking about in our lifetime-to accelerate these projects and actually breathe life into them. If this bill goes through, it will allow the MTA to place on the county-wide ballot a half-cent sales tax for a limited amount of time-somewhere between five and seven years-for specific transportation projects. With the bill, we could get all of these projects done in about a decade without borrowing, which would be revolutionary. The Murray bill is the single most important opportunity we may have to accelerate a number of public transportation projects and see them built in our lifetime. It would be a dramatic development in dealing with the mobility crisis in the region.

Our problem is that a measure on the ballot proposing to raise the sales tax in the county requires two-thirds of the vote, and that's a steep mountain to climb. There are some constitutional amendments being kicked around in Sacramento that would lower the threshold for transit projects from two-thirds to 55-percent, which would substantially improve our chances of passage.

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Mobility 21 is an MTA/Chamber of Commerce effort to encourage the region to speak with one voice about transportation priorities in Sacramento and Washington. With a region of this size and this scale, how difficult is it to speak with one voice on transit projects that are both expensive and require unified political support at the local level for success?

I'm hoping that it's not as difficult as it was at one time. This is a big county, and the MTA is represented by electeds from throughout the county who all feel that their regions have vexing, compelling problems that deserve attention-and they're all right. Our challenge as the MTA Board is to try to synthesize all of these aspirations into a list of priorities and do everything we can to get them built.

But, we can't make the mistakes we did in the past where we committed to more than we could finance. One of the reasons I've fought hard for the busway in the Valley is that it's relatively inexpensive, I think it will be a smashing success and it could become the prototype for serving every part of the region in the years ahead. Once we come to terms on a set of priorities, the business community and the political leadership can speak with one voice. We're not going to get things done overnight, but if we keep changing our minds and undermining each other we won't get things done in our lifetime either.

The MTA is engaged in some projects which will take, at best, years to realize-the North-South high-speed rail line, the East-West maglev line and the transit interface with LAX's plans. Address the issues that arise when considering such projects and how they fit into the board agenda of a one-term MTA board chairman.

I'm not a maglev aficionado. I actually went on a trip to Japan a few years ago and looked at a maglev test-site in Nagoya-I was not impressed with it. There must be a reason why maglev has not become the technology of choice anywhere in the world, and I'm definitely wary of making Los Angeles the guinea pig for a speculative technology.

High-speed rail between here and Northern California is a wonderful idea, but it's also a very expensive idea. Where the funds for such a project will come from when we don't have the money to buy clean fuel burning buses to replace our aging fleet is another question. It will take the kind of economic prosperity and political leadership at the state level that is not in evidence right now. On paper, it's a great thing.

As for the airport, I don't know what the city is waiting for. The city has proposed a $9-billion makeover of LAX. They feel they have the money to do that, yet they would not take but a fraction of that to extend the Green Line into the airport. I've spoken to the mayor about this and the feeling on their part is that they want mass-transit to serve the airport at its new location at Manchester Square.

In the meantime, the Green Line-which I call the Moses line because you can see the Promised Land from the line, but you can't get there-is an embarrassment. We should have built it to the airport in the first place. The airport has the money to extend it and it should be done. The Crenshaw Line Jim Hahn and others are pushing also has the potential of serving the airport at the Manchester Square site. But, again, if the airport is not built at Manchester Square for whatever reason, we still will be without a connection to the airport. So, the most important thing the city of Los Angeles could do is to invest in an extension of the Green Line into LAX. It could even be done in a way that could serve the existing airport, and perhaps have a possibility to serve the new location if it ever gets built. But, we're talking about a long time before any relocation of the airport is built, and we can do a lot to help the airport now if we just extend the Green Line.

You assumed the MTA chairmanship this summer. How, in closing, do you want your tenure as chairman to be judged at the conclusion of your term?

I want to get projects done. This has nothing to do with my chairmanship as much as it has to do with my tenure on the board. We're on a roll right now. Roughly every two years, we're cutting the ribbon on a new project. This year it was the Gold Line. A couple of years ago, it was the extension of the subway into the San Fernando Valley. Two years from now, it's going to be the opening of the San Fernando Valley Rapidway. And, by 2007 or 2008, we could cut the ribbon on the Eastside extension of the Gold Line.

I'd like to see a project in the pipeline and a project opening every two or three years. If people feel like the MTA is producing and helping mobility in the region, and if they see that its corrupt, inefficient days are over, you can go to the people and ask them for the kind of support that we're going to need in order to accelerate these projects.

And never forget that our job is not to serve contractors, it's to serve people-to create lines that serve large numbers of people and to give the communities and the transit-dependent an alternative to what they're suffering through now. Commuters are suffering through hours and hours a week on freeways. We should give people an alternative. Angelenos are not masochists. They are willing to get out of their cars and use public transportation, as we have seen the on the Blue Line, the Green Line, the Metro Rapid bus, and as we will see on the Gold Line and the Rapidway. Our job is to give people an alternative, and to give the transit-dependent a better mousetrap. The days when they had to rely on old polluting buses that were substantially overcrowded ought to be over.

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