December 14, 2005 - From the December, 2005 issue

Greuel Assumes Chair of L.A. City's Transportation Committee; Her Goal: Finding Solutions to Gridlock

Councilmember Wendy Greuel represents Council District 2, stretching from Sunland-Tujunga, through the heart of the Valley, to the 101/405 interchange. As the custodian of such a vast swath of L.A. real estate, she knows firsthand the challenges facing the city's commuting public, and as chair of the City Council's Transportation Committee, Councilmember Greuel is helping to lead the city's efforts to combat traffic and increase mobility. Solutions to L.A.'s traffic problems are not limited to grand subway plans, freeway expansion, or even the highly successful Orange Line busway. They also depend on small short-term fixes such as synchronizing traffic lights and limiting construction crews' work hours. MIR is pleased to present the following exclusive interview with Councilwoman Greuel in which she explains her and the city's long- and short-term strategies for improving mobility.

Wendy Greuel

As the chair of L.A. City Council's transportation committee, you are the point person on what many consider to be the city and the region's number-one challenge. What must be done now, and what's the role of the city, to help to increase mobility in Los Angeles and the region?

Few issues impact the quality of life more than traffic in the Los Angeles region. I'll always remember the mailer that Robert Hertzberg sent out during the mayor's race, which was that picture of a little girl in a ballerina outfit stamping her foot and looking frustrated. Then you opened it up and you saw a mother caught in traffic and not able to get to her child. That scene is played out every single day – mothers and fathers not getting home to their families or having trouble just getting to their jobs. You can also look at our transportation challenges from a business perspective, which is the fact that businesses, in order to be successful in Los Angeles, need to move their goods and services. If we cannot tackle this huge issue, we're going to be at a standstill both literally and figuratively.

The last chair of the Council's Transportation Committee is now the mayor of L.A., as well as the chair of the MTA. How are/will you cooperate and collaborate with Mayor Villaraigosa? Elaborate on what opportunities the city and the MTA might have to meet your articulated mobility goals.

A short-term project that we've started is banning road construction during rush hour. It's a simple and easy solution, but one that takes enforcement, not only for city crews but also for contractors that work in the city. The second, which does cost some money but is a priority, is synchronizing all of our lights in every major thoroughfare in Los Angeles. Another short-term project is looking at our left-hand turn signals and looking at intersections throughout the city where they will help us get traffic moving.

We're also looking at developing a communications plan for the Department of Transportation. Right now, the Department of Transportation does not have a public information officer, so information that we may need to communicate to the public about traffic accidents, road closures, etc. is not getting to commuters in time to allow them to plan alternate routes. In the same vein we don't have a system whereby a commuter can call in and know that the information that their providing will go to the right person to disseminate that information to the public so people can choose alternatives as they're commuting.

Another issue we're looking at is employer incentives for employees who take mass transit. We have the fabulous new Orange Line, which connects to our Red Line. But what are we doing to get those employers to provide incentives for people to take that kind of public transportation? In fact, we often have disincentives.

Look at Paramount Pictures as a positive example. Paramount identified about 500 people that could potentially take the Orange Line. The problem was that employees would take the Orange Line, get to the Red Line and get into the Hollywood station, come up from the subway and have to take two or three busses just to get to Paramount Pictures. Paramount has invested in the community and their employees by funding a Dash bus that provides their employees with a way to get from the subway station. We need to have a seamless system so someone can walk out their door and get to their business and not take two to three hours to get there.

In the long-term we need to follow the mayor's lead by looking at funding at a variety of levels for additional light rail and additional subways. People say to me, "Won't that happen 15 or 20 years from now?" You know what? If Tom Bradley had said – "It's never going to happen while I'm in office, so I'm not going to pay attention to it" – we would not have the subway system, albeit not a complete system, that exists today.

Tto give coherence to these ideas and to implement your short and mid-term goals, the city will surely need a hands-on transportation general manager. Presently, Frankie Banerjee is merely the acting general manager. What is the process for picking a permanent general manager, and what input does the council have?

The personnel department has been leading the effort to identify some of the finalists for the position of general manager of transportation. The mayor and I have had several conversations about what I'd like to see as some of the skills that that individual comes into the city with. He has indicated to me that I will serve with him in reviewing those final candidates and make a decision.

One of the things that's so critically important is that planning and transportation be much more in synch. As a council member, there is no hotter topic these days than development. Nine times out of ten people oppose any development based on the traffic it would create. We need to be able to say that development is going in the right places in those transportation corridors. Secondly, we have to update the way in which we determine how many trips are for each location and how we can mitigate some of the traffic problems that can be created with development.

Mayor Villaraigosa said in a recent speech that taking on some of these short-term solutions wouldn't really have a significant impact on mobility in the region. He had advocated them when he was chair of the city transportation committee but he now realizes that a regional solution is essential and that we need the capital from the federal, state and local levels to implement such solutions. Your reactions to both his perspective and on how to secure the funds to implement and finance any and all of these solutions towards mobility would be helpful.

Well, you definitely have to do both – you have to address tomorrow's problems and today's problems. That being said, it does take capital investment. The mayor and I have been advocating for the 405 carpool lane dollars from the state and to be able to get that project moving. Congressman Berman secured $130 million from the Federal Government for this project, with the caveat that construction must begin by 2009. That's putting our feet to the fire and we said to the state government, "Give us the tools to make that happen."

Although it did not go through at the end of the session, we have every indication that in January on the first day of the session, we will win approval so that we can get that 405 carpool lane moving. We also are going to introduce a motion on Prop 42 asking for the money that the citizens of California voted to go for transportation projects in our region and not for balancing the budget. The mayor and I have also talked about traveling to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento on a regular basis to make our case about the true investment that needs to occur from Washington. We give more to the federal government than they ever give back to us. The time has come to demand our fair share.

Changing focus, two new members have joined you on the L.A. City Council. What's the culture of this new council, and what difference will these two new members have on some of the more contentious issues that challenge the city?

I think both of the individuals, Jose Huizar and Herb Wesson, come to the table with expertise whether it be from the school board or as a Speaker of the Assembly. There is a sense of excitement and opportunity for us to work together to make some of these changes. Neither of them are shrinking violets. They both are going to be real advocates and I think that is going to continue to help us change the way we do business here in City Hall.


Los Angeles has two mature policy wonks on the leadership of the council. What are we going to see in the way of change?

Overall, it's a good time on the council. I think you're going to see some changes with Eric Garcetti and myself being the new leadership on the council, and it's going to be a time that we'll remember as innovative, inclusive and thought-provoking at the same time. I want to compliment Alex Padilla, who, for the last four years, has really led the council through difficult times and difficult issues whether it be 9/11 or charter reform implementation or the secession movement.

I think what Eric (Garcetti) and I have talked about is how to ensure that the public knows that the council is working together with an agenda, that they can judge us on our accomplishments and if we are effectively running the City of Los Angeles in conjunction with our Council colleagues and the mayor.

And how should your leadership be evaluated?

We are going to develop an agenda with our colleagues that we can look at the end of the year and say, "This is what we accomplished." This is how we're going to have better interaction with the public so they can know that their council members are working for them.

The LA Times, which is the paper of record for the region, is cutting back its staff and has for years not been very locally or regionally oriented. How much of a problem is that for the policy agenda that you just articulated?

It's critically important. Since I began chairing the transportation committee in August, they have spent the time and energy to focus on it because it is the number one issue here in the city of Los Angeles. We continue to advocate to ensure that their editorial pages reflect what's happening here in Los Angeles, and I think you're going to find that those of us in elected office are going to hold The Times accountable to cover the things that matter to those communities. But, I've been pleasantly surprised on the issue of transportation – they've had a great focus on issues that I've been dealing with.

On votes like inclusionary zoning, will they tip the scales one way or the other?

I don't think so. Although, I do think that they have experience and they want to roll up their sleeves and have a discussion about what's going to be best for the city and take part in that dialogue.

You have very active neighborhood councils in your district. As city charter reform comes up by law for review in 2006, what are your thoughts on neighborhood councils? What needs to be done to improve representative government in L.A. to make it more responsive to the many publics who depend on local government?

I think we need to provide our neighborhood councils with greater tools to allow them to reach their full potential. The neighborhood councils, depending on the community, have had different forms of success. I feel that any participation in the democratic process makes it a success, but some have been better able to make their voices heard in a productive way. I think that neighborhood councils are here to stay and that we should embrace them, support them, make sure that they have training and information that is crucial for them to make decisions and make recommendations to the City Council. I think they've been a tremendous success.

You make the point that planning and transportation are linked. LA is about to pick a planning director and a new director for its redevelopment agency. What's at stake; and, what candidate profile would get your support?

I've been really pleased with our interim planning director, Mark Winogrond. He's been leading the effort to select his replacement, which gives me great comfort because he's had the kind of experience that I think we're looking for in someone in the planning department. We need someone who understands not only the visions but also the operations to make sure that we're moving projects through and that the public is participating.

We hear consistently the comments that going through the City of Los Angeles' process to get a building permit whether you're a homeowner or a developer is extremely cumbersome and is a disincentive for investing in our communities. Mark Winogrand has already started to move forward by hiring additional people, and I hope that the new general manager in will do some reorganization. I think that is going to give a lift to the Planning Department.


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