August 29, 2005 - From the August, 2005 issue

Exit Interview: L.A. MTA Chief Planner de la Loza Reflects on His 14-Year Tenure

James L. de la Loza has helped guide the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's planning for the past 14 years, and for the past six as the agency's chief planner. In that time he has been involved with nearly all the projects and initiatives designed to keep the L.A. region moving as its population continues to grow, including the Expo Line, Gold Line, and Rapid Bus program. De la Loza has also viewed transportation from a land-use perspective and has advocated development that takes advantage of the agency's growing network. MIR was pleased to speak with de la Loza as he bids farewell to Metro.

James L. de la Loza

Jim, you've served MTA for over 14 years and you've worked on a lot of projects and seen many built. What stands out for you? What accomplishments are you most proud to be associated with?

I think the expansion of the transit program both of Rapid Bus and the expansion of the rail program. If you look at what Metro has done, not only in terms of transportation but also in terms of land use, is right now we have anywhere between $3 billion and $5 billion dollars worth of development that has been built or is being built around some of the rail stations, so it's had a significant impact The impact has gone beyond transportation and is impacting the whole urban form of our county.

Elaborate on the role of planning director within the agency. How broad is the scope of your work at Metro?

It's different than most planning organizations. Planning and programming is not only the planning of the highways, the bus transit, light rail, heavy rail, arterial streets, but it's also allocating the dollars for these improvements. So the beauty of this role here at Metro, and it's fairly unique, is that whenever we plan projects and put together an implementation plan, it's backed by dollars. We then partner with other public agencies, such as Caltrans, the County, the city of Los Angeles and other cities in the county to implement transportations program for the county.

Many public agencies charged with using capital dollars efficiently tend to operate exclusively within their own silo. How, then, does Metro incorporate things like joint use when it is building L.A.'s infrastructure and figuring out how to spend scarce funds?

Given the problems that we have in Los Angeles County with all the growth – we are now surpassing Honolulu as the most dense metropolitan area in the United States – we have to be a lot smarter in how we use the scarce resources we have. We need to partner with other public agencies as well as the business community. Sometimes investments in improving the speed of the arterial street on which a bus runs gives us better benefits than just putting more buses on that street. A bus that gets to the end of its run faster does more trips in a day; people get to their destination faster, and we get more commuters because the system is being efficient. So you have to be creative and you have to look at the county as a system and not as any individual mode. Ultimately, the measure you want to look at is, how fast and how many people you're moving in the county. We also need to coordinate with other agencies. At the Wilshire/Vemont Red Line station we coordinated with LAUSD and a private developer. So at the station site we will have a mixed-use development that will include housing, retail/commercial and a middle school. The location of the development at a metro rail station will help reduce congestion on the system by making it easy to take mass transit.

Address how hard it is to do joint development. With the pressure on Metro to increase ridership, to respond to growing frustration with congestion, are you able as an agency to really plan holistically for housing and retail; are you able to smartly develop around your stations, or are your dollars so scarce that it's really hard to plan anything but lines and routes?

I think that it's difficult, but it gets done. We are fortunate to have sitting on our board all the top echelon of political leaders in the county. We have the smaller cities represented, we have the City of Los Angeles, and, of course, the county supervisors. Things can be difficult, but I've found that when you demonstrate to them the benefits to the county, the board does the right thing. You do the analysis and demonstrate what the best solution is, and in some cases it may not be consistent with what we may think the best solution is. But it can be done, look at the number of projects that are under construction and have been built during the financial downturn and during a period of time when we lost $2 billion of state funding, we also had the constraints of the consent decree.

Talk a little bit about the need for patience and persistence. You began in 1991 with the RTD/LACTC working on a proposed light rail line on Exposition. Today, we're just seeing the beginning of the Expo Line take shape under Metro. What amount of patience and persistence does one need to work for Metro?

I think that's probably the key: you have to be patient, and you have to be persistent. You have to keep moving forward. There is a financial pendulum here that we see happen all the time with funding. Funding has a tendency to go away and then come back, and you have to be ready and move forward to implement projects. Six years ago we had no money for Eastside, San Fernando Valley, or the Expo project. Two of those are being built right now, and one of them will start construction within a year. If we had given up on those projects, they never would have been built. The issue is you have to keep moving forward, sometimes they're small steps, but what happens more often than not is funds have a tendency to come.

In an MIR exit interview with former MTA executive Sharon Landers, she asserted the agency needed to do several things: improve the operations side, open up lines of communication, and create a vision for transportation in L.A. County. Address her observations and what has transpired over the past six years at Metro and, as you leave, what the agenda of Metro should be in the years to come.


You've seen is some real progress on the bus side with the Rapid Bus program. We need to continue to improve transit and provide a better product for the public. I also think what we have to get away from is the debate about rail versus bus. It is a silly kind of debate. The issue really should be about corridors. How much capacity we need, and how to improve the efficiency of corridors. If you need the capacity of rail, do it with rail. But look at more cost-effective solutions first.

Respond to Sharon Landers's assertion that there needs to be a vision for transportation in L.A. County. Mayor Villaraigosa is articulating a vision for transit in L.A. that is quite expansive. Can the region realize this vision in light of the financial constraints?

I think that is our only avenue. I think the vision has to be of an expanded public transportation system. The story of L.A. isn't going to be much different from the story of any major city. When you reach certain levels of density, the only way to move people is to put more people in fewer vehicles, and that is public transportation. We need to put in place a system which will convince much larger percentages of us to leave our cars and take public transportation. Over the next 25 years we're expecting to grow by the equivalent of another city of L.A.. The majority of that growth will be due to births. So even if you stopped immigration, it's still going to grow, and that's a reality we're going to have to deal with. We need to also look at technology to help us improve the speed of our roads and highways. Technology, such as automation, will have a role in improving these corridors. And that has to be our vision. I agree with the mayor's vision that we have to work aggressively towards this expanded public transportation system.

Jim, give our readers some insight into how difficult it is at a planning level to deal with the politics that accompany mass transit. You're exiting Metro, speak freely, take a shot: How complex are the politics of transit?

I think that one of the biggest distractions has been the consent decree and the focus on number of buses. The first five years of the consent decree did help us improve our bus system. But over the last five years you see very little benefit provided to the public. You also will see hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been used to improve public transportation, rather than to chase an unattainable goal imposed by the consent decree.

I think there was a point where we reached the load goals, and they were legitimate goals, but that passed a few years ago, and now we're really chasing something that's taken hundreds of millions of dollars of resources and only making the streets more congested. On streets like Wilshire Boulevard, where we're at capacity with the number of buses we can put on it, we're going to have to realize that there should be a subway and work towards that. You have capacity on the bus lines that rival any light rail line in the country – about 60,000 or 70,000 people riding the buses on this corridor. And that's today. In 20 years that number is going to be much higher, and we're going to have to make decisions based on our need. So I would fault the consent decree for taking resources away from legitimate public transportation improvements. We are doing a disservice to the transit dependent. We need to focus on expanding the system.

In this issue of MIR board member David Fleming expresses optimism about Metro's new leadership and the Mayor's transit vision. Address the significance of the MTA's new chair and board composition.

I think they've been very good appointments. The level of the board has been elevated. I think it's a very good board, very smart with great experience, including on the state/political side, and that's important because that's where we get a lot of our money. And I think it's going to be a more aggressive board, and that's going to be a good thing. We need to push ourselves, because the problem is so large. This agency has a lot of money, it can do a lot of good, it has done a lot of good, but it's only as good as its leadership. I think we've seen an elevation of that leadership.

Share with us what you will be doing next as you exit L.A. Metro. You have announced that you will work for CDM, an engineering consulting firm. Elaborate on what attracted you to CDM, the challenges, and your responsibilities.

I think that I've been really fortunate at Metro to put together a very good team there, and when I was approached what attracted me to CDM is that my job will be to do the same thing but in the private sector. They want to expand and put together a high-level team to build a transportation practice in L.A. County. It was a very thoughtful group that I met with; I was very impressed. . The challenge of putting together a practice intrigued me the most and created a kind of challenge that would be enough to pull me away from this job, which I love. I think Metro is a great place to be. I've been the head of planning for 9 1/2 years, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. But I needed a new challenge, and this definitely creates it for me.


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