May 4, 2004 - From the November, 2003 issue

MTA's Snoble and LA Chamber's Hammer Elaborate on Importance of Mobility 21 Effort

Last year, the LACMTA the LA Area Chamber of Commerce jointly sponsored the inaugural Mobility 21 conference. The idea behind the effort was to better coordinate the numerous factions in the region with an interest in federal transportation funds. MIR is pleased to present this interview with MTA CEO Roger Snoble and LA Area Chamber President and CEO Rusty Hammer in which they define the impacts of the MTA labor strike and the importance of the Mobility 21 effort and its second conference being held this week.


Rusty Hammer

Roger, as we do this interview, striking mechanics are voting on the MTA's "last, best and final" contract offer. Address what's at stake in this labor dispute, not only for the specific contract, but also for MTA's agenda going forward.

Roger Snoble: This strike has been extremely difficult because it has disrupted so many peoples' lives. The strike is having a devastating impact on the region for transit riders, and even on the people who don't use the system who are caught in the extra traffic that it's generated.

We recognize that the health care issue is important to everybody and have tried to make major moves to ensure that there's plenty of money there for the mechanics. In this case, it's really complicated because the unions themselves actually buy the insurance and provide the insurance to the employees-we just contribute to a trust fund. That trust fund has been terribly mismanaged, and it's going to take a lot of money to get it back into shape. Yet we don't have responsibility for it.

Overall there's a heck of a lot of money on the table, and it's difficult for us to do that in these hard economic times when the state's taking so much money away from us. The quickest way for this to be resolved is for the mechanics to vote this contract in today [editor's note: the offer was rejected soundly by the union]. We'd be back to work on Sunday or Monday if that were to happen. If they vote it down, then basically we're going to have to wait until they decide to vote on it again before they come back.

Rusty, what's at stake here for the business community?

Rusty Hammer: Well, people can't get to work on time, customers can't get to people's businesses, and companies that heretofore have been subsidizing public transportation for their employees are now asking themselves, "if the MTA goes out on strike every two years, why should we continue to treat this as a reliable system?" We want to see the mechanics and the drivers get back to work immediately. The Chamber came out with a statement the other day urging that they return to work pending their continuing negotiations and, failing that, urging the MTA to go out to the private sector and try to find private transit companies that might have excess capacity that could temporarily step in and get some buses on the street. We're not saying to replace workers, but we'd like to see some mobility in the region restored.

The fact of the matter is that over one-half-million people use this system a day for over one million trips. There's no question that the streets of Los Angeles are becoming much more crowded because of this strike. If we're going to try to instill in people that the public transportation system is an important part of our future in Los Angeles, we need to have a system that is not shut down by a strike every two years.

Obviously as this vote is taking place, there's pressure to take the dispute to binding arbitration. Could you comment on the promise and peril of such an approach to ending the strike?

Roger Snoble: Having been through interest arbitration, I can tell you that, ultimately, it causes more problems than it solves. Certainly at this date, after a strike, it's difficult to have any kind of arbitration that makes sense. Sure, it would bring the workers back to work, but it would only create a continuation of all of the issues. Arbitration is a process that is costly and essentially takes the responsibility of the board away from its members. Because there's only so much money, the outcome could dictate future fare increases or reductions in service. Even though you always try to make a case for the arbitrator to look at the cost side, it's not the arbitrator's money. They figure that you've got all kinds of money and look to take care of these employees and retirees. Accepting the union's proposal for interest arbitration would be a total capitulation on our part. It would essentially give them everything they want before the arbitration even starts. At this stage in the dispute, that proposal is dead on arrival.

There are other dispute resolution techniques that could be mandated for public employees, which is certainly something to think about in the future. There is mediation, fact-finding, and different kinds of arbitrations that could be applied. But, to take the responsibility away from our board of directors is not good for the public or good for our customers. It's really a good ploy from the union. The union leadership got into this mess, and it gets them off the hook totally. They go to arbitration, people come back to work, and if they lose, they can tell their members "we did the best we could." But, if they win, then they're big heroes. It's risk free from the union standpoint, and a huge risk from the taxpayers standpoint.

Rusty Hammer: Binding arbitration is giving away to a third party the decision making over not only how this contract is going to be resolved, but also over MTA's budget for many years to come. We have an MTA board that is comprised of folks whose responsibility it is to make these decisions, and we ought not give that up at this point in time to an arbitrator with no interest whatsoever in the long-term outcome. An arbitrator could make a decision that could force us to delay maintenance or construction or other service improvements that are very critical to the future of transportation in LA County.

The conflict of interest rule in MTA's board policies states that if a board member takes a contribution from an entity that has an interest before the board, than that board member can't vote on that matter. That's a rather unique rule in Southern California. Comment on how material that rule is to this labor dispute.

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Roger Snoble: It has taken four members of our board out of the picture (Mayor Hahn, Councilmen Villaraigosa and Ludlow, and Supervisor Molina) and created a very awkward situation. But, the remaining nine members are very united in their position. Even if all four of the conflicted members had the same position, which I know they don't, it still wouldn't be enough to change the vote.

Rusty Hammer: I thought it was interesting that some individuals made very small contributions for the deliberate purpose of putting some of these individuals in conflict. My view is that once it has been disclosed that an individual has received a contribution, it becomes public knowledge, and we hold those individuals accountable for the actions that they take. I don't believe that receiving a contribution ought to disqualify a board member from acting on an issue that is so important to the future of the district. When you talk about something as broad and as critical as this, it's rather unique that something like that would apply.

Let's segue now to Mobility 21. Last year, the Chamber and the MTA organized the first Mobility 21 conference. Its purpose was to focus the energies of the leadership of this region on federal and state transportation policy and its nexus to land use. What does this year's Mobility 21 conference portend?

Roger Snoble: Mobility 21 is something that Rusty and I have worked very hard on, and from the very beginning felt was critical for the region to be much more successful in getting more state and federal money. From our initial view of it, it's grown to be a great forum for people to get together to start to take meaningful actions that would improve our overall transportation system. It's added a whole new dimension to the energy and the excitement focused around transportation issues. The conference brought people together, to find out that they do have common interest and they can help each other, and there's been a lot of camaraderie that's come out of it. It's created a greater focus on the issues, and certainly a desire by more people to craft a very clear transportation agenda to aid our elected officials in Sacramento and Washington in understanding what they need to do to bring money to the region.

Rusty Hammer: In talking with members of Congress, Lucille Roybal-Allard for example, she will tell you that she has never seen LA County as united and having a common voice on these issues as she has in the past year. I can think of two things that probably would not have happened were it not for the Mobility 21 summit last year. The first is Senator Murray's SB 314, legislation that will allow the MTA to conduct a sales tax increase election to fund additional transportation improvements. The only way that that came about was because, first of all, there was a lot of public support that was generated for it behind the Mobility 21 process. Second, there was a forum that was established that allowed Senator Murray to negotiate what was going to be in that final package with a lot of different organizations.

The second thing that we're all very excited about is the work that's being done on the Smart Growth Initiative. That has resulted in some studies on some very specific sites around transportation corridors to look at how we can spur transit-oriented development throughout the county.

This year we're tackling a number of other issues, among them specific project endorsements. But, we will also look at issues such as: how to cut red tape on projects; creative funding alternatives; and how to respect the needs of local neighborhood organizations. I think this will be another launching of very important initiatives, and it will be critical for LA County for years to come.

Anyone who is interested in helping us to be a part of a coordinated effort to lobby on behalf of LA County and has good ideas about how we can develop the county in a logical way that is going to help to move people and goods faster and more efficiently, should be sure to join us. Last year's conference had great attendance, and we may double the attendance this year. We're hoping people will come and help us out.

When this region speaks this year with one voice to Washington and Sacramento, what will be the message?

Roger Snoble: The real issue for the federal government is reauthorization of the transportation bill. The Congress has put that off for five months. Our real effort there is to make sure that our delegation has a list of transportation projects that are the real focus of the region, and that those projects are included in the authorization bill. We already have a pretty good list. We'll take a look at it again, maybe revise it somewhat, and then provide it to our representatives to be united in forwarding it through the process. We have 18 congresspersons just from Los Angeles County, and many more in the five counties that surround us in the SCAG area. If they can present a unified set of priority projects, that really gives us a lot of clout in Washington.

For more information about the Mobility 21 coalition , please visit the Mobility 21 website at www.mobility21coalition.com

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