June 24, 2004 - From the March, 2001 issue

MTA's Newest Long Range Transportation Plan: Martha Welborne Offers a Positive Critique

As Project Director of the Surface Transit Project, an effort focused on exploring affordable alternatives to serve the mass transit needs of Los Angeles residents, Martha Welborne is well-versed on the ins and outs of L.A.'s often convoluted transit system. Welborne was also responsible for introducing the Curitiba-style Rapid Bus routes a year ago-lines that so far have shown incredible success for the agency and its riders. So when the MTA released its draft Long Range Transportation Plan this month, MIR was more than pleased to get Martha's take.

Martha, the Los Angeles County MTA has just released its draft 2001 Long Range Transportation Plan. Please give us your sense of the plan's essential message.

The thrust of the MTA plan, which I find fascinating, is: There is no way to build our way out of the transportation problem. They recognize that even throwing infinite amounts of money at the issue won't solve our region's transportation woes.

A lot of the document carefully goes through the particular projects, stating that by 2025, we will have "x" amount of money, which we propose to spend on "x" projects in "x" ways. In the end, however, they say that even with all those improvements, in 25 years the morning peak-hour freeway speed will average 16.1 miles per hour. In 1998, that speed was about 31 miles per hour, and cutting it in half will clearly not be acceptable to residents of the County.

The document also points out that MTA's powers are limited. They recognize that without joining forces with municipalities, transportation agencies, business and civic leaders, forming a regional transportation plan that works will be impossible.

What alternative mobility model has MTA offered that demonstrates a more acceptable transportation scenario for the region than a future of gridlock?

They studied one called the "Smart Growth Alternative," which uses a reduced population figure and contains growth in existing urbanized areas rather than sprawling into undeveloped areas. It also considers a higher price for the automobile (whether through DMV fees or gas taxes they don't determine) as one of the factors affecting potential transit rider decision-making. Reducing transit fares and raising parking rates were also part of the scheme.

What MTA concluded is that the Smart Growth Alternative would enable us to climb from the 16.1 miles an hour back up to about 32 miles an hour for the morning peak-hour freeway speed, which is at least headed in the right direction.

Would it be correct to say that the MTA has limited ability to implement its transportation plans? To affect MTA transportation and mobility plans, the Agency has simply the carrot of federal and state funding, but no sticks to enforce them?

That's very true-MTA has the carrots; they don't have the sticks.

However, by identifying the need for a joint working group with municipalities and business leaders, the MTA is asking the entities that are able to enforce and do have the sticks to come to the table. It's not a new message, but it's remarkable coming out of the MTA. And I think it's terrific.

Direct, if you would, our readers to particular portions in the draft plan that should be the focus of our attention as a region.

For those interested in the specific elements being proposed, there's a section that describes the plan's individual components organized by mode of transportation.

Another important section is called "The Benefits." This chapter assesses how well these projects accomplish MTA's goals (outlined in the beginning in "The Challenge.") The benefits are clearly evaluated by air quality, mobility and access.


The chapter on MTA's transit-dependent-which directly addresses the Consent Decree and the improvements that have been made so far-is also a very welcome section.

But the most important section is the conclusion entitled, "The Remaining Challenge."

The MTA is about to consider a successor for its retiring CEO, Julian Burke. In light of this draft report, what questions should the MTA Board be asking candidates; what criteria should they be using in selecting a new CEO?

This report calls for a leader with a great deal of vision and creativity, someone who is willing and able to work with other agencies and who really understands the political process. For example, if a discussion goes forward about gas taxes, it promises to be a lengthy political debate that will not happen overnight. This leader needs to be able to show people that over time, further gas taxes can and should be implemented.

It's also important to remember that MTA is one of the most complex transportation agencies in the country because it controls everything-highways, rail, buses, planning, operations, as well as distributing money to other operators in the sub-regions. Leading such a complex agency requires an understanding of each mode of transportation and an ability to manage a large organization with a multitude of activities happening simultaneously. In short, it's a very big job.

Martha, when we last interviewed you for MIR, you were the point person for successfully introducing the Curitiba-like rapid bus systems into our main transportation corridors. How has that effort progressed, and is it a part of the MTA's draft plan for the next 25 years?

I've been absolutely delighted with the success of the first two demonstration lines. MTA is doing an excellent job of operating those lines, and over the next 25 years, they're calling for 22 more routes for rapid bus, which is great news. Some will be mixed in traffic-like the two demonstration routes-and others may eventually run in dedicated lanes, in either former rail rights-of-way or arterial streets.

I'm very pleased that the MTA recognizes the cost/benefit value of that form of transit; it's the whole reason I explored it in the first place. Yet they also recognize that some routes will need rail because the ridership there is significantly higher.

Let's conclude by turning back to the challenge of gridlock. The introduction to the draft plan states, "In a sense, this draft Transportation Plan is a wakeup call because converting the plan into reality will be a fruitless exercise unless MTA can first build a consensus among community leaders and elected officials. The ensemble must include, among others, Caltrans, SCAG, the 88 cities and the County, the private sector and other interest groups." You've been involved in transit planning in this Basin for some time. Is this challenge the right challenge, and will it be embraced?

It won't be easy, but it's absolutely imperative.

The MTA-as opposed to SCAG or the State-is the right group to take leadership in this first stage of long-range planning. Just starting with Los Angeles County will be challenge enough.


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