November 27, 2006 - From the November, 2006 issue

Metro Plans L.A. Transit Future Aided By Bonds, Unhindered by Consent Decree

The past few weeks have been big ones for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. First, on October 26, Judge Terry Hatter allowed the agency's ten-year-old federal consent decree to expire, thus freeing Metro to chart a course uninhibited by mandated ridership standards imposed by the Bus Riders Union. Two weeks later, Californians voted for the largest transportation bond in state history, and Metro may have the chance to invest billions of those dollars in transit and in environmental cleanup. These two developments may enable Metro to chart a true long-range course while it also addresses immediate issues such as its structureal deficit. In anticipation of an influx of bond money and the chance to revamp its operations, MIR was pleased to speak with Metro CEO Roger Snoble.

Roger Snoble

This interview takes place the day after the November elections. What is your take on the passage of the state infrastructure bond? What does it mean for Metro?

I'm having a hard time talking because it's hard to talk when I'm smiling. I'm very pleased with the results. I want to thank the leadership of the state-the governor, the speaker, the senator pro tem, and Mayor Villaraigosa. They all did a huge job in putting together the package and showing that we can work together for the good of the state. This money will make a big, big difference in mobility for our region, and for the whole state, for a long time to come.

Commentators, even in promoting the bonds, noted that they are just a down payment on congestion relief. What Metro projects are feasible now, and how will that money be invested to make the most of this voter-approved down payment?

That is a good question. Passage certainly improves Metro's capacity to improve mobility. But even with the bonds, we have a big gap.

The bonds come in a lot of different categories that help us. 1A is not a bond issue, but preserving Prop 42 funds helps us better plan for capital projects and gives us flexibility on the operating side; so that's a big piece of it.

When we get into the 1B bonds, we're looking at $4.5 billion to $5 billion for the Los Angeles area. Some of that comes in on a formula basis, and some of it comes in by competition. We think that we can be very competitive. When we used to go to the CTC we were known as the 800-pound gorilla; I think now we are going to be the 1,000-pound gorilla, and we will really compete for those funds. And that covers highway projects. It covers transit projects; transit wasn't even in the bond until the mayor got involved. Also there is goods movement money in there, which is critical for the Los Angeles region.

I would also underscore 1C, because that housing bond provides money for transit-oriented development, which, of course, is important to us. We can accelerate some projects that were going to take a lot longer to get done. We can leverage more federal money. So, I think we can make this amount of money grow.

We'll be able to get some projects done like the I-5 from I-605 to the county line and the I-405 carpool lane. These projects are going to our board in early December for approval. We've compiled a list working with Caltrans to submit to the CTC, because we have to do this very early in the process. We have collaborated-you get more points if you collaborate and submit a concise list that you have both agreed to. Hopefully our board will approve that, and then we'll be in a good position with the CTC to get more on the highway projects.

It will make a huge difference in people's lives five, ten years down the road. But I don't think anybody should be thinking that all of our problems are solved; there is still a lot of work to do and still a lot of un-funded projects out there that are good quality projects that need to be looked at and completed.

Moving from the state bonds to the new Congress, new committee chairs will take over in both the House and Senate; for instance, James Oberstar (Minn.) will chair the House Transportation Committee. How might the changes in leadership benefit Metro and Southern California?

I think it makes a difference, although when you are dealing with the federal government the swings from party to party aren't as major as you'd like because the government is very big and very slow. You still have to jump through a lot of hoops no matter who is in charge. But I will say that James Oberstar has been a big champion for Metro and the Los Angeles area. He was instrumental in helping to get the federal money for the 405 and for goods movement. He will be a very good friend. He works closely with the Republican chair of the committee, and the two of them worked in a bipartisan manner. So, the position of chair will flip, but I think we'll still have strong support coming out of the next transportation bill.

Overall, I think we'll be in a position to get more out of the feds than we have been able to get in the past. I'm not looking at it as a huge windfall-there's just not that much money there at the moment-I think it will take several years, like at the next transportation bill, for us to get more serious from a standpoint of funding. That's where it is going to pay off. The next transportation bill may be much more robust than the last one.

How might the results of this election affect that next federal transportation bill?

Some of our people are in pretty good positions. We've always considered Congressman Blumenauer of Oregon as one of our delegation anyhow. He's made that statement many times, and we look to him for support. He is extremely good on transit-oriented development and transportation development in general and always very supportive. And Lucile Roybal-Allard and Juanita Miller-MacDonald will also be in stronger positions. I think we'll we have a bigger voice in at least getting a bigger piece of the pie and also maybe getting a bigger pie.

Let's return to more local concerns. How will the recent expiration of the Bus Riders Union's consent decree impact Metro's agenda?

The consent decree is ten years old. It was an agreement between the Bus Riders Union (BRU) and Metro on how we could improve service, particularly bus service. It has been kind of a rough situation because of a lot of misunderstandings that have occurred over those ten years. At the end of the day, the service is greatly improved. We have different kinds of service now, like the Rapid Bus, for example.

The ending of the consent decree simply means that we no longer need to go to a special master or a judge for the disagreements that come up between the Bus Riders Union and us. We no longer have court scrutiny, although the judge has reserved the right to oversee our service plan, which was our plan to begin with and one that we have every intention of not only implementing but probably enhancing.

I don't think that our customers will see a difference from the standpoint of service as a result of the consent decree ending. It does give us the ability to work on our system to make it more relevant to current travel patterns to realign some services. Frankly, we operate some services that just aren't very productive. If we could put those services where they would be more productive we would get a lot more out of it. We will have more flexibility.


Metro has pledged to continue to honor some aspects of the consent decree. But clearly Metro relishes being relieved of court intervention and oversight. Could you elaborate on what will change?

The board is very much committed to what we agreed to in the consent decree as far as standards and that sort of thing. The difficulties between the BRU and us are the interpretation and application of those standards. We will certainly stand by the commitment to maintain a 1.2 load factor, which means that we won't have lines that operate in a general condition where more than 20 percent of the customers are standing for long periods of time.

We'll certainly stay committed to those kinds of things and to the new service plan-serving jobs, hospitals, and schools. We just won't argue about it or have the intervention of the judge. One big advantage is that we won't have to pay all of these attorney and court fees that we have had over the years, which have taken a lot of money away from transportation.

When we spoke six months ago, you said that Metro faced a significant budget deficit with no easy answers. Has the expiration of the consent decree, the results of the November state election, and the passage of the bonds changed Metro's priorities?

Yes. Over the last six months, some changes have really eased the situation. The governor and the Legislature enacted Prop 42 funds this year, so that helped. They also allowed the spillover money from the gas tax to come into the STA program that provides us with additional operating funds. We've had big increases in passenger revenue and ridership. A lot of that is caused by the high gas prices, but of course we had good service and so we've been able to maintain that. And fuel costs have gone down, and that's helped us.

All that together has reduced the structural deficit, so we're working with a smaller number. We still have the structural deficit, and we're still going to have to face it. The board has set for me the goal of eliminating the structural deficit in three years. We are optimistic that we'll be able to do that.

What is the status of Metro's labor contracts, some of which have came up for renegotiation recently?

The two big ones, the bus operators and the bus and rail mechanics have both settled. As of July 1 we have three additional years. They were settled without a work stoppage, which was pretty incredible by itself. We're settling with the Teamsters now. They have agreed on a contract; we just need the board approval. Our supervisors have a long-term contract, which doesn't expire for several more years. And TCU was settled and has three years to go. So, for the foreseeable future we're in good shape from the standpoint of knowing where our labor costs and conditions are going to be. The situation is, I would say, vastly improved from several years ago.

Last month MIR carried an interview with Metrolink CEO David Solow. Could you comment on Metrolink, its successes, and its financial challenges in relationship to Metro's agenda and budget?

We look at Metrolink as a very strong partner. We fund the majority of Metrolink-it's something like 55 percent or 60 percent. Metrolink has a much higher farebox recovery rate than we operate at. Metro customers cover about 24 percent of our cost. I think Metrolink operates at about 40–45 percent. From a financial standpoint, they really do well. But it is always a challenge because they need additional capacity on their system. Their trains are getting very crowded, and we need to find ways to add capacity.

The other challenge there, besides money, is coexisting with the freight railroads, because goods movement is a big issue and the railroads are taking a lot of the capacity. That makes it more difficult to provide passenger service on those same tracks. That is a continuing challenge, and we need to deal with the issue of goods movement on the rail lines so that we can help preserve some capacity for the passenger rail. But, overall I think Metrolink is just an outstanding example of what commuter rail can be. We're very proud of the work that they have done, and we look forward to continuing a strong partnership and to improving service.

Some months ago the Metro board approved the establishment of a policy advisory committee to assist Metro in the development of recommendations regarding the countywide congestion mitigation program of the kind that had been established in other counties in California. Can you talk about that idea and the process behind it?

I'm not sure that all of the process is established yet; we're still working at it. The idea is to get strong collaboration to make sure that people have the input into the process, and some of that is happening. Of course, Mobility 21 is growing a stronger voice and pushing that voice outwards to the state and the feds. This is an effort to make sure that we have the kind of information that we need internally and to focus more inwardly to be able to provide the kinds of improvements that are really going to be important to the communities themselves and to the region as a whole.

For decades it was difficult focus public will and attention, not to mention gubernatorial and legislative leadership, on infrastructure. With the passage of the infrastructure bonds, is infrastructure back in vogue?

I think there is a much stronger recognition of what infrastructure is, what infrastructure improvements do, and why they are necessary. Unfortunately, you almost have to get into a crisis situation to make people realize that it is important. We have been in a crisis situation for quite a long time. In many respects we're just trying to dig ourselves out of constant problems. We have a lot of bridges that still need maintenance and seismic work and a lot of roadways that CalTrans is challenged with to bring them up to standard-and a lot of arterial streets as well.

On the rail lines there is always a need to keep up the infrastructure there-the track beds, the electrical system, the cars, and those kinds of things. We've done a good job of bringing the issue forward. And, again, Mobility 21 has played a major role. And I think that our elected officials have realized that this is a really important issue too, and they've done a lot more to encourage people to think about infrastructure as really important to quality of life and that we need to work hard to preserve and possibly expand it.



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