May 5, 2004 - From the May, 2003 issue

An MIR Exit Interview: Los Angeles City Engineer Vitaly Troyan Retiring

Mayor Hahn recently convened the city's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Infrastructure, using as one of its primary guides the Infrastructure Report Card prepared by the City Engineer's Office. While the City Engineer's Office may serve as a hub from which to evaluate L.A.'s infrastructure, a new personality ultimately will lead the charge to act on the recommendations of the Infrastructure Report Card. MIR is pleased to present this exit interview with Vitaly Troyan as he steps down as City Engineer for the city of Los Angeles.


Vitaly Troyan

Vitaly, you have announced your retirement as L.A. City Engineer. What prompted your resignation?

There's a series of items. I've approached that age at which a family becomes increasingly important and I still have elderly parents that I would like to spend time with. I think I've accomplished a lot of what I came here to accomplish and it's time to move on.

Why don't you articulate what those accomplishments are?

In our last interview, one of the questions you asked me was, "if we interviewed you a year from now, what would be the benchmark our readers use to asses your accomplishments?" And, my response was that if you came back a year from now, we would have presented to the City Council the status of all the key elements of infrastructure in the city-what each system consists of, what its condition is, what we're spending on it-and how much money we need to keep it running.

I'm sitting here looking at something entitled "The 2003 Infrastructure Report Card for the City of Los Angeles," which evaluated 11 different elements of infrastructure, such as bridges, stormwater systems, streets and highways, wastewater, water, etc. And it is a report card on the condition of the infrastructure, giving the city a C+, probably a gentleman's C+, for the condition of its infrastructure. This report has been provided to the mayor's office, to the Council, to various general managers and to the public.

Unless you are in the development community, many people haven't noticed the improvements we've made to the permitting processes. Four years ago, you had to come to the counter and stand in line to get a permit. Today, two-thirds of our permits are issued over the internet. So not only do you not have to stand in line, you don't even have to come in to the office. Our best time for permit issuance over the internet has been 4 minutes. And, at last count, at our one-stop center, we're waiting on 80% of our customers within 10 minutes, with a median wait time of 6 minutes. We're quicker, better, and faster than we were before. And, in the last two budgets, we have reduced staffing in both of those programs by five people each year and while improving the level of service we provide. Automation is wonderful.

As we're carrying on this conversation Vitaly, the Council is deliberating on how to deal with necessary budget cuts and the uncertainty of what it will receive or have taken by the state. Is this then a bad time for infrastructure for the city?

Anytime is a bad time for infrastructure in the city. I mentioned previously that there was no such entity as "Friends of the Sewers." As a result, infrastructure once again is being deferred. Granted, the Mayor's Office has funded streets and other infrastructure, and the current budget includes fee increases, which will provide more money for maintenance of infrastructure. The part I'm most gratified about is that there was actually a citizen testifying today who stood up and said, "you've got to invest more money in infrastructure" during public comment. So, the effect I had hoped would be created by neighborhood councils and their drive for paving streets, trimming trees, and lighting lights, is beginning to take hold. Perhaps we're developing a new bunch of "Friends of the Streets."

What are the infrastructure projects that are on the block for potential cuts in this budget? What are some of the priorities that are at risk as all the government entities in California go through constriction?

There is a proposal to reduce or at least defer a significant amount of street paving and sidewalk repair until the condition of the state's budget is better known. So, the decision on whether or not to spend this extra money on streets and sidewalks would be deferred until October.

Part of the politics of political budget-making is that the City Council is likely to put forward a motion that would support police and fire being funded out of the general fund, leaving naked such appropriations as street paving and capital investment. What are the politics of this happening?

Public safety is always priority number one in any major city. The street system can't compete with police and fire for scarce resources. The only way to make this happen is to increase the size of the pie, and this means fee increases for the sewer service charge, which are in the current budget, and this also means bond issues to be placed on future ballots.

Comment on the city's stormwater system. How necessary is it to reinvest in this essential city infrastructure?

What's under discussion right now is a proposal to put a bond issue on the ballot possibly in 2004, which would provide a heck of a lot of money to start fixing up the infrastructure of the stormwater system. These bond funds would address both flood control and replacement of deteriorated pipes and the new stormwater permit requirements being imposed by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

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If the bond measure should fail, then we go and look for another alternative method of funding. Also on the state ballot in March is going to be constitutional amendment 11 (ACA 11) which for the first time would dedicate a fixed portion of the state's budget to infrastructure. That holds out a lot of hope for me, despite the state's budget problems.

Vitaly, the Bureau of Engineering has continued in your tenure to take on greater responsibilities for managing the capital planning and build out of city police stations, fire stations and even parks and libraries. Could you address why, how you've handled these missions, and what the advantages and disadvantages of going through he Bureau of Engineering are for these public capital investments?

I think we're having a lot of fun now. We've changed our method of project delivery to something called "strong project management". It's a very basic concept in which one person is responsible for every project and we reward those people who deliver projects and remove those people who do not deliver projects. We started working on the 32-library program, which is about $190 million. After four years, we have completed construction of 17 of the 32 libraries and have the other 15 under construction. The money we've saved from delivering the program quickly-it's 6-to-12 months ahead of schedule for the whole program-the money we've saved for it is being used to pay for a 33rd library, which was not in the original bond issue. The same concept has been applied to zoo projects, for Fire Department projects, and we've now applied it to Proposition K, which is all of the LA For Kids park-type projects-and it's working.

But some criticize this approach-despite the cost savings and speed-asserting that engineering is operating in a silo, without coordination with the other city agencies, departments and neighborhoods. They are concerned that merely cost engineering buildings to keep the rain out is wasteful in a dense metropolis like Los Angeles; that we must build our public facilities as well-planned, mixed-use, joint-use investments that lift an entire neighborhood. Your thoughts?

There are two answers to that question. In terms of coordination, the coordination is taking place. In terms of the particular siting, the sites for each particular library and each particular fire station are specified in the bond issue. Voters are told where the facility is going to be before they vote on constructing the facility. In terms of addressing this for future needs, the mayor's office has put together a group that I am part of which now looks at just what you mention-can we build a school and a library and a park all in the same vicinity? And, in doing so, would we have a major economic impact on a lower income or underdeveloped part of the city?

Vitaly, a memorandum of understanding was recently signed by the mayor and CRA and school district, patterned after New Schools-Better Neighborhoods model master planning work in Westlake/Pico Union. It directs all three jurisdiction to collaboratively plan new schools. Who ought to manage that collaborative effort to maximize neighborhood benefit?

The Mayor's Office of Economic Development manages the coordination. In fact Deputy Mayor Jonathan Kevles already has convened a core group of half a dozen general mangers in the city who manage many of the resources you were talking about.

If you were writing a note to your successor and putting it in the drawer of your desk, what would be in that note? What obstacles will she/he face?

He's inheriting an engineering organization of a thousand people that I would put on a par with any private or public organization in the United States. We have an organization capable of delivering projects. What's necessary now is the advocacy role. We fixed or are fixing the visible infrastructure, the buildings, the schools, the fire stations the police stations, even city buildings. What we haven't been paying enough attention to is the substructure, the sewers that go underneath the city, the stormwater that goes underneath the city, increasing the traffic capacity of city streets and improving the condition of city streets. This city is going to pick up another million people in the next 20 years and they are coming regardless of what we do. If we're having trouble getting around this city now, we need to start planning for how we'll get around the city when there's another million people here.

What is the role of the city architect in the world that governs the engineering department?

Hiring Deborah Weintraub was one of the best decisions we ever made. She comes into the world of engineers, as she has to me, and says, "you're building a wall on Santa Monica Boulevard that's 1,500-feet long and 30-feet high and you're going to make it gray concrete-what are you guys thinking?." She was right and she fixed it. She is a strong enough personality that she does not hesitate to point out to us when we're acting like engineers and not paying attention to the aesthetics of and human interaction with the works we build.

Vitaly, what's next for you?

I'm retiring and moving to Northern California. However, I look forward to receiving Metro Investment Report every month to stay apprised on what's happening around Los Angeles and the region.

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