May 7, 2004 - From the June, 2002 issue

LACMTA Faces Competitive Environment For ISTEA Re-authorization, Ground Transportation Funds

As the MTA approaches another cycle of ISTEA re-authorization, competition for funding will be fierce. The nation appears to be focusing on security enhancements to the aviation industry, creating a great challenge to regional ground transportation authorities scrambling for funds. In the meantime, the MTA is under new leadership and its recent re-organization into transit "sectors" is the latest attempt to improve the agency's service delivery. MIR is pleased to present this candid interview with Arthur Sohikian, former MTA federal lobbyist and now Senior Vice-President of The MWW Group.

Arthur, the MTA recently reorganized its bus operations favoring a more decentralized system. What is your assess of the impact of MTA's reorganization on future service delivery?

The MTA is putting together the final plan as we speak to unveil to the public on July 1. The new management team at MTA of Roger Snoble and John Catoe have the right idea of creating smaller operating divisions, or "sectors," to provide better service. The question really is what authority are they going to give these sectors to make real changes. Will there be planning changes in existing routes or will bus line 201 still be bus line 201? The draft plan calls for decision-making authority to go to the sectors. How much authority will the final plan "give" to the sectors? Budget decisions at the sector level or MTA Board level?

Was there the potential for a more dramatic reorganization? What is MTA missing by not devolving more authority?

All current budget, planning and programming authority right now remains with the MTA Board of Directors. At the end of the day, they have the ultimate authority over the budget and how transportation money gets allocated to the buses and different transportation programs.

If you create these sectors, what you've done is taken a bus system that's about 2500 buses, and you separated them into operating units of 600 buses, you've made 4 units from where you had one.

How will the new sectors be governed? By what community input? Will the new sectors have an advisory board including community members?

The MTA management team faces the challenge of showing the MTA Board and public how they will improve service with the sector plan-improve service while cutting costs are not words that usually go together at the MTA.

Wasn't the purpose of bringing over someone from Santa Monica Blue Bus systemto oversee MTA's management of a user-friendly responsive bus system to make a dramatic statement about MTA's new attitude towards its riders? Is MTA getting closer to its customers?

Yes, it is. [Roger] Snoble and [John] Catoe have the right idea. Get closer to your customer. It really depends on how they are able to change the traditional way this money has flowed and the traditional way that the MTA has done business.

What obstacles stand in the way of such change at MTA? Who must management contend with to be sucessful?

The unions at some level are going to have to play some ball, but I don't know to what extent. When you're talking about your operating budget, that primarily is all on personnel, and your union contract, the unions have to be a partner in any cost saving or any efficiency effort at MTA.

What benchmarks should the public and the customer watch to evaluate whether management is being sucessful?

The biggest thing you ought to look for is improving the quality of service. Did the product get better? Did the bus show up on time? That's what Snoble and Catoe seem to be looking for-can we improve the quality of our service?

While no longer an employee of MTA, you, nevertheless, are able to assess the job that Snoble is doing? How is he doing?

Right now, the Board is giving him a honeymoon period. They're giving him authority. I'm seeing large contracts go out on a consent calendar. They're giving him the ability to go do what he wants to do. In a year or two years from now, he's going to have to be held accountable to what he did. That's his yardstick. Did he improve service and transportation in L.A. County?

The other major issue on Roger's plate is the upcoming federal reauthorization. What is the region going to do in the face of all the pressure from the East Coast for transportation dollars post- 9/11. Federally, the MTA has slipped over the last couple of years. So the MTA is going to have to be a major player in Washington, and that's no easy task with the representation we have, especially losing Congressman Julian Dixon.

The other major goal I see for Mr. Snoble, has to do with retaining the MTA's role as transportation programmer in what's called the "Call for Projects." The MTA is more than just the bus company. They also program transportation money to all the cities in the county for highway, transit, shuttles, bikeway and pedestrian projects. That's roughly $700-900 million every two years. Making sure that the MTA continues to be that regional programmer of the funds, and not just becoming the bus company, will be a major challenge.

Lastly, the planning of the rail and bus ways that is currently ongoing in East Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and the EXPO line. All three of those major projects will be a challenge for Mr. Snoble.

I would be remiss in leaving out the union contracts that he will have to negotiate under his watch. Currently the mechanics are in negotiations. As you know, the bus drivers took a strike in 2000 and they are in the middle of their three-year contract.

It was reported that the MTA lost $150 million of its congessionally committed funds for the extension of the mid-city subway line. What was the significance of that loss? Can it be recouped?

When ISTEA was reauthorized in 1997, the mid-city subway spur received a federal funding commitment. As you know, under Julian Burke, the MTA restructured and cancelled on the subway and went into another planning mode to see how they could reutilize that money.

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What wound up happening was a combination of several factors. The MTA is a little weak in Washington right now, primarily because of the way our delegation is set up. What people are realizing is that the role Julian Dixon played in Washington was big and it's difficult to replicate. Our senior leaders like Mr. Berman and Mr. Waxman were inclined to work very closely with Mr. Dixon, but never were out front on transportation.

Why is the Texas delegation more effective in lobbying Congress than California?

Right now in California, we have a Democratic Governor, who some folks in Washington feel has national aspirations for the Senate or White House. You have two Democratic Senators from the state. And, the senior members from Southern California on the House side just are not focused on transportation.

So it will be tough convincing Congress that Los Angeles and California need these transportation dollars at a time when the East Coast will have so much momentum post-9/11, based on the terrorist attacks, what happened there, and the rebuilding that needs to occur in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area. They are going to lobby very hard for transportation funds.

We're talking about the transit reauthorization. What is at stake here, for this metropolis, over the next decade, as a result of the decisions that will be made over the next 12-18 months?

To give you an example of magnitude and scope, what the MTA got in the 1991 reauthorization was roughly $1.3 billion for the subway system. Whether you agreed with that system or not, those were tax dollars coming back into the region from Washington. That discretionary money is where the big battle is.

California is what they call a "donor" state. For every dollar we send to Washington for transportation, we only get roughly 90 cents back. There are other states that get much more back. California, just from its size, has a big battle just to get taxpayer money back that we send. Under formula, when you only get 90 cents back, that's one thing. Now when you add the discretionary money like an MTA, you do get over that dollar. You get about $1.10-$1.15 back. That is important.

Alameda Corridor was a great example of how the region came together and asked for one project back in Washington. We were very successful in getting somewhere around $700 million, almost 40-50% of the budget, which came from Washington.

You look at the state having tough financial times, so you doubt that there will be another Governor's Transportation Relief Package. So Washington is going to be a key place to try to get these projects funded. Can the L.A. region get $500-750 million for transportation projects from D.C.?

Is the rhetorical battle of bus versus rail-the means by which we discuss transit in Los Angeles-still undermining our unity?

I continue to believe that having the bus versus rail debate hurts us badly in Washington and everywhere else. It's the wrong debate. You have to debate about how you use all these modes of transportation, from highways to taxis/shuttle to dial-a-rides to rail and bus. All of these transportation modes have to come together, especially in a region as large as Los Angeles. I'm not a planner, but you can't do one or the other. You have to do all of them.

Are our local civic and political leaders in the basin helping or distracting us from getting our message composed and communicated in both our federal & state capitols?

This is a tremendous opportunity for Mayor Hahn. He becomes the Chair of the MTA Board on July 1st and he must get the region to speak with one voice on our priorities back in Washington. That will be very important in trying to bring the various civic and community groups together with the political leadership to try to sell Los Angeles.

Let's not forget airports have become a major issue in Washington. How much money there will be for ground transportation truly is anybody's guess right now. The budget deliberations are still going on and the numbers I hear for what airports are looking for security and other things, I don't know how they'll fund anything else. The numbers are tremendous, in the billions, for our nation's airports. Will there be any money left over for ground transportation? It's going to be a tough battle in D.C. this year.

Given the Mayor's inattention over the last year, what are the prospects of the Hahn administration and others in the basin finally composing a winning message for congress?

It remains to be seen. The Mayor has a window of opportunity as he becomes [MTA] Chair. The Mayor has the bully pulpit and he has to use it for transportation.

State fiscal difficulties may make it impossible for the State to again fund in a significant way the transportation agenda of California and this region. In closing, comment, if you could, on what MTA might expectin $'s over the next two or three years, from the State and how this fits in with federal funding for the region's transportation needs.

Right now the question is up in the air. There were no new initiatives in the Governor's May revise. In fact, there seems to be some borrowing from the transportation account for future years, and some payback mechanisms. If you start to get into that, borrowing from the highway trust fund, you're going to get in trouble in the long run. Projects are going to be ready to go, and you're not going to have the money to build them.

That would be a real tragedy on these transportation projects. We hear so much about being ready to go, projects spent hundreds of millions of dollars on getting themselves ready to go, getting all the environmental work done, and they find out they're not funded in 2003, but in 2008. Those are realities. We're seeing that in many places right now, where the Governor, through the CTC, has not delayed projects, but hasn't pushed them forward like previously planned either.

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