August 29, 2005 - From the August, 2005 issue

New MTA Board Member Fleming Willing to Take on Region's Gridlock

Few issues get more attention in the Los Angeles region than traffic mobility, and few people understand the challenges and potential solutions better than David Fleming. A former vice-chair of the California Transportation Commission and chair of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, Fleming also led the L.A. charter reform movement and has served on numerous committees and community groups. Most recently, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed David to the board of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Working with the MTA to get L.A. moving may pose one of Mr. Fleming's greatest challenges, and the Metro Investment Report was pleased to have an opportunity to discuss with him his strategies for increasing both mobility and economic growth in the region.

David Fleming

David, Mayor Villaraigosa, who now chairs the MTA Board, said that he is excited to promote "an ambitious transportation agenda that includes a first-class bus system, an expanded rail system, and less congested roadways to be implemented over the next decade and a half." How will he go about advancing this ambitious agenda?

Well, number one, the problem was not created overnight, and it is not going to be solved overnight. It requires long-term solutions because it is a long-term evolving problem. One of the major things that we have to start looking at is goods movement. We have a port that is now the third-busiest in the world. Over 40 percent of all of the goods that come into the United States by water come through the Port of Los Angeles. How do these goods get out of the Port of Los Angeles? Today, it is basically by trucks. Trucks have become a huge congestion and pollution problem on freeways today. Witness the 710. So goods movement has got to be part of the overall solution for reducing congestion and pollution and getting better mobility for everyone in Los Angeles.

Local CalTrans director Doug Failing has said that southern California traffic is never going to get better; at best it is going to remain constant. What can the MTA do to make sure that a more optimistic scenario prevails, and what can the MTA do to promote better goods movement in the region?

Of course, the 405 wouldn't be so crowded if people would just use the Reseda Freeway. Oh, that's right we didn't build the Reseda Freeway. We didn't build the Whitnall Freeway either or several other freeways that were on the drawing boards back in the '50s. The problem is that only about 65 percent of the entire freeway system was ever completed. We waited too long to finish the job. In the meantime, development had mushroomed and land prices went out of sight. So, today, it is impossible either economically or politically to build additional freeways, at least in Los Angeles County.

Doug Failing is right in the sense that the need for mobility keeps increasing with our population. So what must we do? We have to get smarter about how we use our existing infrastructure – the one already in place. We have got to use it more efficiently and more effectively. How, what do I mean by that? We have major arterial streets in this city that are still operating as though they were Main Street, Small Town, USA. We have to turn those arterial streets into mini freeways, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours. In the Valley area, I am talking about Victory Boulevard, Reseda Boulevard, Sepulveda, Devonshire, Sherman Way. There are a lot of them. We could, through real synchronization of traffic lights, which has been promised for years but has never yet really been fully delivered, move more traffic east and west and north and south at average speeds of 35 mph on those streets and take some of the load off of the 101, the 405 and other freeways. We have to prohibit parking on those streets during peak traffic hours – in both directions. We may even have to designate some as one-way streets part of the time. We have to look at all the ways we can make them mini-freeways. And we have to encourage motorists to get off freeways and use them only when they are driving five or ten miles from point to point.

Everybody was amazed in 1984 during the Summer Olympics because we expected to have awful gridlock, but we didn't. As a matter of fact, we had just the opposite. Traffic could move at 60 to 65 mph at peak traffic times during the morning and afternoon. Yet we only had a five percent drop in the number of vehicles on our freeways.

We looked at a study when I was on the California Transportation Commission. This study replicated others that had been done elsewhere. The findings have clearly been proven to be accurate. If you put a hundred cars on a given length of freeway, those cars can move at 65 mph. If you increase that to 110 cars, the average speed drops to 30 mph. Put 115 cars there and the speed drops to 20 mph. The point is we don't have to take large numbers of vehicles off the freeways in order to increase freeway speed. It's amazing, but it's true. If we just take off trucks, and we reduce the number of cars by even 10 or 15 percent, we are going to have freeways that move at close to maximum speed during morning and evening rush hours.

David, let's turn to the federal transportation bill, the $286 billion just approved. It allocated, we are told, $4.5 billion for highway and transit projects in the region and $833 million is dedicated to MTA-related projects. Do the dollars allocated provide for MTA's needs and agenda; what more needs to be received from the Feds to realize MTA's priority project plans?

It is going to be tough. There is no question about it. Right now, the MTA is looking at close to a $300 million deficit basically caused by the consent decree that was entered into with the Bus Riders Union some years ago. So, we are not in a position where we can come up with the money even with Prop A and C funds to do what we want to do at the MTA. These are problems that we are going to have to deal with. We wish we could have gotten more money from the Feds. We need more money. We are going to need more money from the State of California. No doubt about it, it will be tough sledding for the next few months. But, this mayor, I know, is dedicated to going out and shaking the trees to get more money and doing things that will increase traffic flow.

Since you are familiar with both transportation issues and economic development in the region, how do the two combine to effect the region's economy. What is the relationship between transportation and economic development, and would greater local investment in transportation potentially pay for itself in economic productivity?


Well, they are opposite sides of the same coin. If you don't have a good transportation system, you are not going to have economic development. One feeds the other. There is no question, and we need economic development to generate the kind of tax revenue that we need to better our transportation system. So the two are joined at the hip.

Let's move to LAEDC's plan for a new economic development policy center. Since you serve on the LAEDC board and now the MTA, what can the two do together to advance policies that result in critically needed infrastructure investment in the region?

The first item on the agenda for the Center and for the Leadership Council in Southern California is goods movement. We are working at both the federal and state levels for the next several months, and maybe several years, in order to try and get goods through Los Angeles County and out to the rest of America, particularly through the Inland Empire. Let me explain some of the things that we are starting to do. First, it is a question of money. We think that it is probably going to run between $10 and $11 billion to get the goods out of L.A./Long Beach and to the rest of the country out of California. But that was only the first leg of a 100-plus mile rail corridor. We now have to build the rest of the rail system.

So now we are faced with how to get the billions of dollars to do this. Some of the money is going to come from grants, but it is probably only going to be a small portion. Your former question about the amount of money that MTA is getting from the federal government is a good indication of the grant problem. It seems to me that what we have to do is create a whole new structure of private financing along with government funding to raise money in the bond market. That will require some changes in the Federal tax code to stimulate private investment in this project. It is going to basically be a rail project with more tracks, overpasses and underpasses, spur lines, and repackaging facilities required, along with other things too. We must find ways to reduce truck traffic and get these goods through and out of L.A., the Inland Empire, and the State of California.

We are also working with the states of New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, and Washington together with the mayors of Chicago, New York, and Houston, because all of these areas have major ports that bring in goods throughout the United States. What we plan to do is to form a national political coalition to solicit Congress to appropriate money and enact the necessary changes in the tax code so that we can begin to solve this problem, because this problem is becoming more acute every day. We will also be asking Sacramento for monetary, legislative, and regulatory assistance in achieving our goal of efficient goods movement throughout the State. That, then, is the first order of business of the new group that we are forming.

With our population growth over the coming decades, and until we begin to solve our transportation problems, the economic and environmental future of California is in peril. I know the Governor is aware of this. It's time everyone becomes aware of it.

David, let's close with a question about Mayor Villaraigosa and his three new appointees to the MTA Board: Councilmember Parks, Richard Katz, yourself, and the Mayor. What difference can four new members make on the MTA Board, and what can our readers expect will be the city's top priorities for the MTA?

Well, in Antonio's case, it is a difference of leadership. This guy is a doer. He doesn't run away from a problem. He doesn't duck a problem, or wish it away. This is man who tackles problems, and that is why I am so excited to be working with the Mayor and with Richard Katz, a transportation guru. You know, it was Richard who authored the legislation that created MTA in the first place. And Bernard Parks is a great addition to the MTA Board because of the Expo Line being in his district. So, I think it is a great team. I am really excited about the possibilities of working with Antonio and working together with the five County Supervisors and the four other members representing the county's smaller cities. I think we will all help to make a difference in mobility.

I remember when I sat on the California Transportation Commission. Representatives of the MTA would come before us in Sacramento with a litany of rosy predications about how little projects would cost and how soon they would be completed. Everyone in the room knew these estimates were pure fiction. The money they were wasting on "pie in the sky" projects was appalling. But now things at MTA have turned around. I think that under Dick Riordan's leadership and now under Antonio's leadership, I think that the MTA is a much stronger, more disciplined organization. It has its feet on the ground and it knows where it is going. I think we will begin to address and solve problems that have needed solutions for a long time.


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