July 12, 2004 - From the November, 2001 issue

MTA Board Chair Fasana Demystifies The Agency As A New CEO Comes On Board

While there are still a few problems at the MTA, the environment, climate and demeanor of L.A.'s largest transportation provider has evolved immensely in last half decade under the management and leadership of Julian Burke. But how does that agency now change gears, welcome a new CEO, get him up to speed and make a seamless transition-all while still moving forward. MIR was pleased to converse with John Fasana, Chair of the MTA Board, who talks about that transition, the current environment of the organization and what he believes the future holds for transit in the region.

John, you've recently been elected Chair of the MTA Board of Directors. Give us a short list of the priorities that are currently on your plate. What will be your main focus? And what do you hope to accomplish?

The MTA is at a tremendous transition point. And our most important priority right now is to make sure that we get our new management in place and be supportive of their efforts to improve the operation of the MTA. That's my main goal, to create an environment which will helps foster a smooth transition.

As you say, the MTA is at a transition point, but how is that transition different from the one which confronted Julian Burke when he came on 4 years ago? What's changed?

When Julian came aboard, the MTA was the agency that nobody wanted to work for. We were in turmoil both in terms of our budget and our management structures and the federal government had serious concerns about whether infighting on the Board was compounding a bad situation.

Today, those types of questions aren't being asked. The MTA financial situation has been stabilized. And we're not in the midst of any budgetary or outside management investigations or audits.

However, we continue to have a set of challenges related to providing better service. To overcome those challenges requires a leader with specific knowledge of transportation. And frankly this Board has not, in the past, been able to access that type of experience.

With this new level of transit experience in mind, what benchmarks have you given Mr. Snoble to help him meet your hopes and expectations for the MTA? What does he have to do?

Over the next year, we've identified a number of facets in the long-range transportation plan that need to be implemented. We're looking at beginning construction of the Metro East Project, the eastside extension, the East-West San Fernando Valley Project and a large scale expansion of the rapid bus system.

Aside from those tangible projects we're also looking at operating costs as an area we must focus on. In that vein, I've highlighted the spiraling worker's compensation costs as a priority. These costs are now identified at approximately $57 million per year, that's an increase of nearly 50-percent in the last year. They must be reduced. To compound that, our bus-operating costs are close to $100 per hour. The municipal operators-Montebello Transit, the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Foothill Transit, Long Beach Transit, etc.- operate at approximately $60 per hour. We must address these issues, expand our partnerships and begin to look towards the next TEA-21 authorization to effectively meet the needs of our constituency.

Separately these priorities are the keys to the long-term viability of the MTA as an organization. Together these threads really represent the crux of providing a regionally sustainable transportation system.

You mentioned the long range transportation plan. Our newsletters have carried interviews, which have both praised the report, stating that it finally begins to address MTA's transit deficiencies, and interviews which pan it, saying that the plan hearkens back to the dysfunctional MTA structure of old. What's your view of the plan and how is it going to be implemented in a multi-modal fashion in years to come?

There has been a lot of effort over the past several years to identify realistic and appropriate projections. This plan uses realistic projections of sales tax growth and takes a much more conservative approach to estimating our revenues.

These projections provide us the opportunity to realistically plan for getting the Pasadena Blue Line up and running, constructing the eastside extension and investigating how to add additional carpool and highway projects. All in all, this plan identifies new elements of a multi-modal program and continues innovative programs that were initiated over a decade ago. This plan has really offered us the ability to promote a range of available solutions.

The Valley Busway is part of that long-range plan. In an interview with our newsletter a couple of years ago, you questioned the benefits of busways as opposed to fixed-rail, stating, "The reality is that it's hard to make busways work, particularly because of the grade separation issues. And it's highly questionable whether you have significant cost-savings on busways." With the east-west and north-south busway projects on the drawing board now, are you now convinced that busways are more viable as a part of the MTA mix?

Obviously a rail option would have been appropriate. But given the history in San Fernando Valley and the fact that it has taken 20 years to get any level of service out there, the busway is an important first step. We're closer than we have been in over 2 decades to actually getting a tangible improvement in service out there. However, if we fall victim to our own success and see congestion on the busway or interference with cross-traffic at intersections, we can look to next steps, the most probable being the transformation of the busway into a fixed rail line.


You say it took 2 decades to make tangible transit improvements in the Valley. We carried an interview with Bob Wolf as he was leaving the Chairmanship of the California Transportation Commission in which he aired what seemed to be a common frustration with the MTA. He said, "The L.A. MTA has an innate challenge in that it is comprised of elected officials, each of whom has a constituency demanding attention, irrespective of the overarching needs of the region. There's constant competition for projects and our dollars. It's not always based on the most appropriate approach for the entire LA area. This leads to rather disjointed planning." As a longtime member for the MTA Board and as a City Councilmember from Duarte, what's your response to Mr. Wolf's comments?

Representative democracy by its nature is inefficient. Any representative body-whether you are the State Legislature, a City Council or the County Board of Supervisors-is going to have issues of that type. The process of balancing the overall regional interests with the specific interests of the individual districts is always delicate. And those issues are still prevalent in the MTA governance system.

However, as we begin to see better productivity in the system, it becomes much easier for all of us to think regionally. And with the Board's renewed focus in terms of operating efficiency and recognizing that we need to stretch our dollars further and provide increased levels of service throughout the county, it becomes clear that all MTA representatives must focus on a more global viewpoint.

In a Sept. interview with former-CEO Julian Burke, he defended rather eloquently MTA's decision to continue to challenge the interpretation of the Consent Decree. I'm wondering, as these adverse decisions continue to come down from the appellate court, what are your thoughts on the wisdom of that challenge? And what are the implications of not being able to overturn the Consent Decree's interpretation?

The Consent Decree as it has been interpreted makes it impossible for this agency to predictably represent its financial condition to key stakeholders. And it makes it impossible to effectively lobby our federal and state funding partners for federal and state resources to supplement Prop.'s A and C. There are simply too many vagaries associated with what compliance is. I think that the best solution at this point would be to renegotiate and amend the Decree so that there is a clear and finite indication of whether we are or are not in compliance.

The Board recognizes that service needs to be improved. But at the same time we also recognize that the bus component of our transit system is but one part of the overall system. And if we continue to be bound by the current interpretation, it will be impossible for MTA to continue its mandate of providing sustainable service. The inability to achieve consensus and predictability in the interpretation of the Consent Decree still looms as a storm cloud over this agency. Absent immediate progress in discussions with the Bus Riders Union, I would support an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Let me ask you this question. Why is it so difficult to get that point of view across effectively in the pubic arena? How is it that the Board voluntarily entered into the Consent Decree, given the ramifications that you just described?

I'm one of the few members still on the Board that voted for the Consent Decree. And when we voted for it the analysis we received from our attorneys indicated that we would have flexibility in how we met the Decree's requirements. We felt that we could take steps to improve service and quality, without eliminating the ability to fund other needs such as rail and highways. The way the interpretation has evolved through the courts has frankly not been what the Board expected.

John, let me close by saying that the Mayor of LA has three appointees to the MTA Board. Given your length of service on the Board, what impact is the new Mayor's team having on the focus, agenda and deliberations of that body?

The Mayor and his team are proving to be quick studies. Moreover, Hall Bernson provides an important link to prior Board deliberations and decisions through his continuing service on both the MTA and Metrolink boards. They're certainly engaged in transit issues-from reversible lanes to intersection improvements. And as the largest City in Southern California, their input will continue to play an important part in the future direction of the MTA.

A year from now, if we interview you again, what should we hold up as benchmarks to measure the success of your Board and the MTA?

All of us in public service face tremendous uncertainty now based on the incidents of Sept. 11. For example, how will our overall funding be affected? What will happen with sales tax? A question a year from now may focus on whether we are providing appropriate levels of security? Can we successfully negotiate contracts with our partners in organized labor?

Over the next year we must develop clear indicators that address when and where MTA should or should not be operating service. What measurable standards are available to indicate whether we have quality or lack quality in terms of the service that we provide?

Those areas need a lot of work. But they have become too specific to look at only through a financial lens, they must be looked at through the added perspective of both resource allocation and the provision of a sustainable transportation system. That's what we will be looking to gain from Mr. Snoble's transit expertise. And those items are what you should look to over the next year as to measuring success.


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