April 19, 2006 - From the MIR, April, 2006 issue

MTA's Projects Transform Region, Future Plans Require More Funding

Over the past five years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has complied an enviable record of building major transit projects, increasing ridership, and improving its image. Compared to ten or 15 years ago, its transformation is nothing short of a miracle. Yet the mobility challenges of L.A. County far outstrip even the MTA's accomplishments, and a budget deficit and scarcity of state and federal funds has curtailed some of the MTA's dreams, including the subway to the sea. MIR was pleased to speak with CEO Roger Snoble about MTA's ability to continue to pursue new projects and maintain its new high standards.

Roger Snoble

A great part of last month's failed state infrastructure bond would have addressed the transportation needs of the state and especially metropolitan L.A. What does the MTA lose without additional funding and with no bond on the ballot?

The bond is very important for us, particularly because it comes from the state. The loss of Prop 42 funds has set us back over the last several years. We've had to backfill the money we would have received from Prop 42 with other funds, and that's a pretty big setback. The bond would make up for a lot of that setback and maybe even help us proceed with some new projects. The last version of the bill had a considerable amount of money for transit improvements, in addition to highways and rail, for which the state is responsible. Right now, the Exposition Line is the last project for which we have any funding.

That bond measure also would have affected the distribution of funds. Traditionally, Los Angeles County, which makes up about 28 percent of California's population, has not gotten a very good share of the transportation dollars. This bond does a much better job of distributing the money fairly. It still isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than it has been. The bond would provide a great deal of money to help goods movement, which is going to require a lot of money.

Overall the bond would have been very good for Los Angeles. But there's still an opportunity for them to put it on the November ballot, and we certainly hope that that would be the case.

One of the elements in the Perata bill would have protected Prop 42 transit funds. How big a priority is that for the MTA?

That's a huge, number-one priority. Without certainty on Prop 42, quality planning becomes very difficult. The bond also doesn't really work that well without sustainable revenue.

Why has it been so difficult for the state government to provide resources for congestion relief over the last decade or two? Why are the politics so constrained that even with public will, those resources don't flow?

That's a good question. A lot of resources do flow, particularly in self-help counties such as Los Angeles. Here the citizens voted twice for a half-cent increase in sales tax for transportation projects. And we get some money from the state and some from the federal government, but I think it's a double-edge sword. On the one hand, the Legislature says the gas tax generates money, and even though they haven't always been allowing that money to flow to transportation – which is a whole other issue –the Legislature can still think, "Gee, there's already a lot of money for transportation, and we don't have enough money for education and health care and all the other things we need to be taking care of." Sometimes transportation just gets forgotten. Everybody knows that the situation is worsening, but everybody also still arrives where they're going one way or another, and I think it ends up not being as big a priority as it should be at the state level.

CTC Commissioner Marian Bergeson's answer to that same question in this issue of MIR was that until there's a crisis – and some people in the metro areas of California do think there's a congestion crisis – nothing happens. Is that your take on politics at the state level?

I think that's true, and I think the trouble with this crisis is that it's been happening for the last 20 years. But we adjust, and we get used to having slower travel times. So I think it's really a hidden crisis, and people don't realize what it's costing them. For businesses to operate here takes a lot more time because of the congestion, and then there are the hidden health care costs, from increased incidences of cancers and asthma. So the crisis has been happening, but it's not the same as a crisis caused by a natural disaster or something like that.

L.A. is a self-help county when it comes to transportation, and L.A. can celebrate some notable accomplishments, including the Orange Line and the beginning of the Expo Line. Can you elaborate on the projects that are underway or have opened and how they're performing?

We have plenty of accomplishments – I think that's a really important point that sometimes gets lost, by the media particularly, in all of the other stuff that happens. We have by far the largest rapid bus system in the country and it is attracting new riders to the system.

The Orange Line is a great example of an innovative technique that is less expensive but still moves people quickly, and we've gotten very good responses from it. We're up to about 18,000 riders per day; we think that we'll be close to 20,000 by the end of the year. We're working on the Eastside extension of the Gold Line, which, I think, will be a very productive line. Expo is starting construction, and that benefit the people on the Westside and the people on the Eastside who want to go to the Westside to work, because there are a lot of jobs over there. And we continue to do the highway projects, which take a lot of money and time.

From a national perspective, we're in a very enviable position. The Texas Transportation Institute said we're one of the two urban areas in which traffic is actually getting better and not worse. And that's a tribute to all the things we're doing and attacking the mobility issue on all fronts. We have a lot of accomplishments, but the problem is that we need to have a lot more. The region continues to grow, the number of cars grows faster than the population, so there's more pressure all the time for us to add, and add, and add, and there just isn't the money.

Many of the other accomplishments involve development. A whole different development pattern is emerging, and much of it is being spurred by transit-oriented development. It's really starting to take off, particularly in the Downtown area. Those different kinds of developments are going up that reduce the need for automobiles in the region. All of that is good news, and it gives us confidence to know that if we had additional resources, we could really put them to work.

With media reports of $3-plus gas becoming more common and a looming energy crisis, many observers note that reliance on and use of public transit may rise as well. What does that mean for the MTA's agenda?

The rising cost of transportation on an individual basis is going to make people re-examine their personal finances and decide whether they need to do things differently. That really aids us. One of our biggest efforts is our Metro Connections, which is a complete re-working of the bus system to try to make it more relevant to today's travel patterns and make it available to a lot more people.

The system has lots of capacity. Despite our financial constraints, I don't want to have to reduce the amount of transit, but I think we can do some things better and put it in different places where it can generate a lot more ridership. That's our biggest strategy for getting out of our structural operating deficit. Gas prices affect that, and also as interest rates go up, driving cars will become more expensive as well. Overall, if we have a good product to offer as an alternative to the automobile, we'll get a bigger share of the mobility market. It doesn't have to mean giving up the automobile altogether, but it could mean two or three trips a week on the transit system.

With the infrastructure bond failing to make the ballot and the federal government giving this region less than what it hoped for, there is discussion on the agenda of the MTA about a rate increase for transit riders. What is the board considering?


For fiscal year 2007 we're proposing a balanced budget without a fare change. But the trouble with that is that we have to use $112 million of reserves to plug the gap between the amount of money we get for operations and the costs of operating the system. We need to plug that structural deficit so that all the money that comes into the region doesn't go just to operations. We need some money to improve the transportation system and accommodate all the new growth that's going to happen. Efforts to look at that structural deficit are underway.

Our first priority is to revamp the service and make it more attractive to more people, fill some of those empty seats, and generate more revenue. It's made a big difference this year – we've picked up another $14 to $20 million in additional passenger revenue because of increased ridership. We're also looking at restructuring the service to come up with more efficient scheduling.

In the longer run, it's unreasonable and irresponsible not to look at what the user pays and make sure that that money contributes a decent percentage. Currently, passenger fares cover only about 25 percent of our cost, while many other California cities are up between 40 and 60 percent.

In the longer term, fare increases are inevitable. No service or business can survive without increasing prices. Our fuel prices have increased tremendously, and we've had to pay for it out of our operating budget. Our actual operating cost per hour over the last three years has increased only 1.5 percent; inflation over that period has been over 10 percent. So we've already overcome a lot of our structural deficit through efficiencies. We also need to solve it so that when the bond money comes through we can put it towards new services.

MTA should be commended for managing those costs, but you also have labor negotiations coming up in the next year. What do you anticipate for those negotiations?

There's always pressure to increase labor costs, so we are in negotiations right now. But we're approaching labor negotiations differently than we did in the past. We're not going in with hard proposals; we're going in with the best interests of the organization and the unions. We're hoping to identify ground on which we agree and then to figure out how to work out those issues on which we disagree.

It is a tough situation because we have an excellent workforce, and they need to be able to live a decent life. We certainly are sympathetic, and we want to provide as much as we can. But if we don't have the money, the jobs won't be there at all. Our pay scale is very much in the same ballpark as other operators. So we're not looking to make wholesale cutbacks; we're trying to manage our costs.

Much of the news from the MTA lately has focused on the dream of your board chair, Mayor Villaraigosa, of extending the Red Line to the sea, at an estimated cost of $4 billion. What is the promise of that agenda?

Right now, our staff is not doing any work on an extension of the subway. We may bring a work program to the board and tell them what kind of resources it will require, and the board will decide whether they want to look into it this year. But it is not part of our current plan, and no money is set aside for it. But obviously a lot of people would like to see the subway extended, and maybe an opportunity will arise. There's no question that it would be a tremendous asset for the region, but right now anything that would come about would be small steps, and we'd look down the road at a much longer horizon, certainly after the Expo Line is operating.

Can you elaborate on the progress of the Expo Line?

They just signed the design-build contract to start work on the line from Downtown to Culver City. We have the funds; the MTA is responsible for $640 million. The construction authority is going to be responsible for building it, and they'll start mobilizing and doing the design work right away. Construction will start in nine or 12 months.

Mayor Villaraigosa has appointed a new planning director, Gail Goldberg, a new transportation director, Gloria Jeff, and a new CRA head, Cecilia Estolano. What's the nature of the relationship between the MTA on transit-oriented development with the planning and transportation departments?

It's really exciting right now, because we are all working together on development. Our people meet with the mayor's office on a regular basis and with the CRA and deputy mayors Bud Ovrom and Jaime de la Vega, and they are in total lockstep with how we are moving forward. It's exciting to work with that kind of team. There's a lot more discussion and good ideas coming forward.

I continue to say that changes in land use are going to be much more significant to our future than any kind of highway or transit improvement. The opportunity to look at development patterns, create elegant density, and develop in ways that don't make us more auto-dependent can make a big difference. And that's the kind of energy that's driving that whole team right now.

You have led the MTA for about five years. How should the public assess you record over the past five years, and what should they expect in the next five years?

We continue to work on getting information out and working with our customers through the media and our own efforts. Our customer satisfaction rate is extremely high – around 85 percent. That's incredible in public transit, especially when you consider that just ten years ago it was terrible. We're proud of it, and we keep making sure that people know about our successes.

But we're still fighting so many ghosts from the past, from ten or 15 years ago. And it's hard sometimes to overcome those things, but we keep plugging away and make our accomplishments known. A lot of the press we get is a lot more positive than it's been in the past, so hopefully that will make it easier to move forward and complete our projects. But this is a tough environment to work in.


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