May 5, 2004 - From the Dec., 2002/Jan., 2003 issue

Caltrans' Doug Failing On The Impact of State's Budget Crisis On Regional Transportation Projects

Recently, the California Transportation Commission announced the suspension of funding for many high-profile projects in Southern California and throughout the state. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with Doug Failing, District Director for Caltrans' District 7, in which he discusses Caltrans upcoming agenda in Southern California and the impact of the budget crisis on local transportation projects.

Doug, as we do this interview, the California Transportation Commission temporarily suspended approval of dozens of new spending requests including funds for several high profile projects in Los Angeles County. What is your reaction to the Transportation Commission's actions?

What the Transportation Commission is doing is responding to what the Governor has identified. What they're saying is that it will take us a couple of months to figure through all this. We know that we have issues in transportation spending. What we want to do is make sure we work through it together with the region. We're not just going to spend first-in, first-out. We're going to spend some time, make sure that we have the right priorities to figure out exactly how big the problem is that we're going to need to resolve in the near-term, then the mid-term and the long-term. We're going to gain time to get buy-in with the regions that we've got the right priorities to go forward with. That's a very appropriate and very

What's ahead for you in the region? What's on Caltrans' plate?

What we're doing, for the most part, is working to put in the right project at the right time. We're trying to go along with the concept of smart growth. We know we're not going to build our way out of congestion. What we have to do is look at spending our money in two different areas: the first area is recurrent congestion. That's where you get the same type of congestion at about the same time every day or every couple of days for the same reasons. Primarily you've got a capacity issue in a particular location, with too much demand and not enough capacity. We have to make sure we've looked to appropriately identify where those congestion spots are and then look at fixing just that spot.

Another area is non-recurrent congestion. This is the area where we can probably be the most efficient. Non-recurrent congestion happens because of a specific event. Somebody's car breaks down in a lane, or we had a traffic accident in a lane, or somebody cuts across three or four lanes and causes somebody else to slow down which creates a chain reaction of slowing down. That's actually about 50% of the congestion we have on our system on any particular day. Half the problem is non-recurrent. We have very different techniques that we need to bring into play for dealing with non-recurrent congestion. The first one is the event after it has happened. What can we do to clean the system up faster, to make it operate better, to take the car that stalled off the lane, to get the appropriate resources out there? If there's an accident, to get the accident cleared up and identified and out of traffic so that traffic can continue flowing again. How can we make that happen faster? For every minute that that non-recurrent event is causing congestion, there are four minutes of congestion that build up. So the faster you take it off the system, the faster the congestion clears up again.

In the old days, one would have taken an officer or a maintenance person out there. They'd go out and take a look at the situation and they'd call in for what they thought were the appropriate resources to clean it up. All that adds time in getting the right resources out there. Turning on the CCTV, we can take a look remotely and almost instantaneously-you don't have to spend the time sending someone out there. We're able to have a team of individuals that are well-trained to look at the situation remotely, assess it, and tell you you'll need a tow-truck of a certain size, you'll need a few tow-trucks, you're going to need an ambulance or you're going to need somebody with a gallon of gas to be able to get someone off the edge of the road and off the shoulder and out of traffic. You can make those assessments and you can get the right solution out there faster and clean up the problem on the system faster.

Doug, the story and the focus these days are on the budget crisis or the recurrent congestion locations like the 405/101 interchange. Speak to those issues if you could.

With respect to recurrent congestion, we've identified a number of sites already. We have a large number of projects that are already programmed and what we're going to have to do is sit down with the region, and it's going to be a partnership. I'm very pleased with the partners we have here in this region. Roger Snoble, over at MTA is an excellent CEO, who very much understands that we need to work together to resolve the problems of congestion here in this greater Los Angeles area. Yet, we have also engaged Metrolink, LADOT and the County, as well as other organizations that have portions of the arterial system and the state highway system, to understand that the solution to recurrent congestion is not just their mode, it's all of our modes working together and working together better. That's what the commission is doing in essence-putting a hold on things, not just first come first serve, but provide a chance for the regions to get together, look at what the true picture is and assess it.

Have the Governor's statements made this month impacted progress on the CalTrans 101/405 interchange project?

It has not impacted progress of any project at this point in time. There are two projects already under construction at the 101/405. There is another project coming up that is not due to for a vote for some time yet. That gives us a chance for the region to look at and prioritize and hopefully the region will say, "yes, these are the most important areas for us and that particular project that needs to go forward." That's why it's so important to take that breather now.

Commissioner Lawson is quoted in recent press accounts saying, "It looks like Caltrans and our staff will go into a mode of trying to keep up the roads we have now and not building any new roads." How should officials and transit adocates in this region interpret that comment?

I can't begin to speculate what an individual CTC commissioner had in mind in that point in time. I don't know what the context of the quote was or what the question was that was asked. We have an existing transportation system that the public has made a very major investment in. Sections of the state law indicate that once you own something, you maintain it first before you look at making improvements to it. That's probably some level of context in which the comment would have been made, in that you need to maintain your existing investments in good working order and then you go and make the improvements. I haven't seen funding numbers yet that tell me anything about how much it's going to be for maintaining this system and how much it's going to be for improving this system in the future. It's much too soon and I couldn't give a comment on that.

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We carried, in last month's Metro Investment Report, a long interview with Mr. Snoble about his assessment of the Mobility 21 Conference and MTA's attempt to get the region speak with one voice. Were you a participant and how simple or difficult is it for this region to speak with one voice in both the state and federal capitol on transportation funding?

I was a participant in the Mobility 21 Conference. In fact, I moderated the streets and highway panel. It is going to be difficult because one has to understand the diversity of Los Angeles. We're a very large people with lots of very different opinions and very different constituencies. We all have a tendency to look at our own narrow viewpoint on things. It will be difficult for us to come together with that single voice; that single message.

Why California, and in particular, Los Angeles loses out in the funding picture quite often is that we don't have that single voice. We're not unified. So if you're sitting in Congress back in Washington looking at all the hosts of funding proposals that are coming toward you, you've got an area out there that's together, "yes we have this one common message, this is where we want to go, this is what's important to us," and we have another area where bits and pieces are fighting for each other for different things, it's very easy to see where they're going to pay more attention to you. Because if they have a common vision, they have a common voice, and they have a common goal when they come to you, they can be a very powerful speech.

What we have here, particularly in the LA area, is a very large and diverse group of people and a very diverse group of interests. If that group comes together with a common message, with a common vision, with a common series of goals of what we're trying to achieve here, that's very powerful. It's almost unstoppable.

What's that single voice likely to articultate? Do you have a sense yet of the common ground; do you have a sense of what the region can agree upon re priorities?

I'm not ready for that yet. That first conference was a very good conference in starting the conversation, a list of ideas was put up on the table, there was a lot of discussion on that, and I think we'll find common messages in requesting that what comes to us be flexible so that we have the ability to make decisions on the right way to spend it to resolve the problems as we perceive them in our particular region. I suspect there will be common messages on fair share. When you look at the size of Los Angeles and what we contribute overall to the economy-we aren't getting a fair share back.

Doug, let's move on to a different topic. We've done now a number of stories, mostly with Aileen Adams in the capital, on your new Caltrans building in Los Angeles and its green mandate, it's environmentally smart building systems. Can you address both where you are wth that project, its design and notable features.

The construction is going quite well, the contractors are ahead of schedule and it's going to be a very nice accent here in the Los Angeles government center.

The architect on the project, Thom Mayne, is a world-class architect who has come up with a very, very innovative design that does bring a number of green elements into the building from the very start. He is typical in his use of what he calls the rim; its rim is an exterior skin outside of the skin of the building. It provides shade during the summertime that helps reduce the need to cool the building interior. It provides the right type of light coming in at the right areas so that it helps reduce the need for interior lighting as well.

They also have a central shaft open from the roof down to the bottom atrium through the central part of the building that helps bring light into the interior parts of the building, again reducing overall energy needs. Right now, they are either complete or nearly complete with agreements to put a vertical solar array on the south side of the building. It will be the largest vertical array certainly in California if not the United States. It's going to be just a wonderful asset to the Los Angeles area.

The architecture itself is stunning. It occupies a very important corner, between 1st and 2nd and between Main and Los Angeles Street. It's kind of the entrance into Little Tokyo. You're off on the edge with City Hall occupying one corner going up First Street; you've got the Music Center and the Disney Concert Hall being under construction. The City Councilperson for the area is Jan Perry, who has commented that the building has brought a lot of excitement into her district, and she's been approached by several developers looking at bringing in new housing type projects in the area. They're just excited about the concept of trying to help renovate this little portion of Downtown LA. It's very exciting to be a part of it.

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