June 27, 2007 - From the June, 07 issue

Metro Board Member Yaroslavsky Proposes East-West Congestion Relief

Traffic remains a major challenge for Southern Californians, but the process of delivering solutions for the region's transit challenges has changed noticeably in recent months. From rising Metro fares, to state bond allotments, to proposals for one-way traffic on Pico and Olympic boulevards, the scale-and stakes-for transportation projects has never seemed so daunting. With a seat on the Metro Board, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is at the center of some of the county's most ambitious and controversial transportation projects. Amid all the political energy currently influencing the public debate about congestion, MIR was pleased to speak with Supervisor Yaroslavsky about the challenges of maintaining voter trust while delivering sustainable transit solutions for Los Angeles County.


Zev Yaroslavsky

One of your many responsibilities besides being supervisor is to serve on the Metro Board. What is on the table to relieve congestion in the county, especially in your district?

The most acute Westside traffic problems are between the 405 Freeway and the ocean. In looking at the long term, the extension of the subway offers the most promise. However, that is many years away from happening. In the intermediate term, we are looking at the Exposition Line from Downtown to Santa Monica, the first phase of which is under construction now. It should be completed in 2009. The second phase should be complete between 2013 and 2015. The short-term solutions for congestion require outside-the-box thinking. I have proposed a one-way traffic system on Olympic and Pico boulevards-turning Pico Boulevard into a mostly one-way street westbound and Olympic Boulevard into a mostly one-way street eastbound, with two contra-flow lanes on each of those boulevards for buses and van pools during peak hours and mixed traffic during non-peak hours.

I hired a consultant, Allyn D. Rifkin-who recently retired from the L.A. Department of Transportation-to conduct a preliminary study, and he found that if we implemented this plan, we could increase functional capacity of those two boulevards by as much 20.6 percent. We could have a tremendous positive impact on mobility in the east-west corridor of the western part of the Los Angeles basin.

Changing behaviors and patterns is not an easy thing. Which stakeholders implementing the short-term plan? What will the process for approval of the plan be like?

There are a lot of communities along these corridors, and people are afraid of change. We're reaching out to every community from Koreatown to Santa Monica. People do not want these streets to turn into freeways, and neither do I. I've also heard concerns from transit users-the people who go westbound on Pico by bus will have to go all the way to Olympic to catch a bus in the other direction. We solved that problem with the contra-flow lanes and by putting buses in both directions on both streets.

We heard concerns from people in the neighborhood who are afraid of cut-through traffic. Our response to that is that we can channel traffic to the major highways along the corridor. We already get a lot of cut-through traffic, because people who are stuck in gridlock get off the boulevards and cut through the neighborhoods looking for an alternative route. Understandably, neighborhoods then make partial cul-de-sacs of their streets and put speed bumps on their streets in order to discourage cut-through traffic, and that has exacerbated the problem. Merchants always have an initially adverse reaction to the idea of one-way streets. We've talked to merchant groups along the corridor to explain that this is not a conventional one-way street system. There will be access in both directions during the off-peak hours. Deliveries will be possible. Most businesses recognize that they are not being served by an average traffic speed of 3 mph across town-that's just killing local business right now. Some businesses are supporting our effort. The West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce has strongly endorsed it. Others have a wait-and-see attitude. Koreatown merchants have had an adverse reaction to it, but we are meeting with them and talking them through the project.

On the more positive side in terms of successes, the Orange Line, which was inspired by one of your trips to Brazil years ago, seems to be making significant progress in terms of ridership. What is the present situation with the Orange Line and its promise for the future?

The Orange Line has been one of the MTA's greatest successes in a long time. It is the most successful bus rapid transit project in the country. When it opened in November of 2005, MTA estimated the ridership would be between 5,000 and 7,000 people a day on weekdays. But it opened to an average of 16,000 riders-we were at 75 percent of capacity. A year later, we had passed 20,500. And this past April, we actually set the all-time record at 23,814 passengers per day, which compared with April of last year is an increase of close to 40 percent. About 18 percent of the people riding the Orange Line in its first year were people who had never ridden public transit in Los Angeles before. One out of five people got out of their cars to ride the line.

Few people supported the Orange Line when we first proposed it, but we dealt with every one of the concerns. It is the safest line in the MTA system. We spent $18 million of the $330 million spent on the project on landscaping. Regarding noise, we protected the neighborhoods with appropriate mitigation, including sound walls. People who use the Orange Line love it. It provides transportation at very low cost. People who live near the Orange Line love it because it is actually more beautiful than the abandoned railroad tracks that were there before. We are expanding the bus line to Chatsworth connecting the Chatsworth Metrolink Station with the Warner Center Orange Line Station, really integrating the Valley into a regional transportation system. This could be done in other parts of the county inexpensively and with relative ease.

Talk a little bit about the countywide priorities of the MTA-how are they being explored and what investment is taking place?

With the Eastside Light Rail Line now well under construction, the first priority is the Exposition Light Rail Line to Santa Monica. After that: a new Crenshaw Line, the extension of the Orange Line to Chatsworth, the Wilshire bus lane, which will be exclusively for buses from Downtown to the ocean, and the extension of the subway (which is likely to become part of the plan because of the passage of Proposition 1B last year). There is money for rail and mass transit in the bond for Southern California. There are a lot of opportunities. We've kept the pipeline moving for the last five or six years. We have to keep that momentum going. We have to be intelligent about the way we invest, but we need to get product out the door to the people who rely on our system in all four corners of our county.

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The voters of California approved bonds last November that will complement Metro's infrastructure investment. But the challenge to public transit has always been operational, and there is a shortfall causing Metro to implement a rate hike. How do operations challenge you as a Metro board member?

The MTA's costs of operation are high compared to other properties around the country, and our fares are very low compared to other properties around the country. Ironically, in L.A. County some public bus companies have very low fares, and those companies are subsidized by the MTA because of an obscure state law that gives them a piece of the MTA's fare, so while MTA charges a buck and a quarter-which is a lot less than the $2 per ride that New York charges-Long Beach charges 50 cents.

We had to raise revenue somehow, and we needed to do it in a way that didn't clobber our most economically vulnerable customers, such as seniors and students. The fare increase that the MTA board approved last month was fair and balanced. Increases were diminished for students and seniors (seniors will now be able to ride our system for a mere 25 cents during off-peak hours). The rest of ridership will experience a fare increase, but it is a manageable one. This was the major fare increase at the MTA in well over a decade.

How will L.A. County fare given the competition for the state bond money and money from the Governor's proposed budget, which moves transportation funds to other parts of the budget? In Congress, transportation used to be bipartisan, but in the last decade it's become anything but that for California. What's the promise of funding, if any, from the federal government?

There is going to competition for the bond money here in California. The California Transportation Commission only has one member from Los Angeles County even though the county has almost a third of the total population of the state and at least that much of the revenue that is going to pay for those bonds. I would hope that the California Transportation Commission, the Legislature, and the Governor will not neglect Los Angeles County. We cannot continue to be a donor county for revenues and then a loser county when it comes to getting funding to improve and expand our public transit system. If we continue to play that role, I think that you will find fewer and fewer voters supporting future bond initiatives of any kind.

The governor's proposal to take transportation money out of the bond for other purposes is a mistake, and I hope it doesn't survive the legislative process. This is the kind of thing that makes cynics out of the voting public. When you vote for a transportation bond and find out that the money you just approved is going for other purposes, you feel stabbed in the back. That's not politically healthy. The governor also has a proposal in his budget to accelerate the payment of prior bonds that were issued. I don't think it's necessary to accelerate payment of those bonds. We'll pay them off on the original terms and continue to work on projects that have a positive impact on transportation as well as the economics of the state of California.

As far as Washington is concerned, I hope that we are going to have better success in the years ahead than we have had for the past few years. We have people in strong positions of leadership, starting with the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and other members of congress from California who now sit in powerful legislative positions. I hope that we again become less of a donor state than we have been and build on some of the help that we got in the last go-around, which was better than it had been in prior years. Our national and state governments have to engage urban communities in the development of transportation infrastructure. This isn't just about steel and concrete; it's about improving the quality of life for the public. That's what is missing in the equation at the federal level-and to some extent at the state level as well.

Metro has been involved in investment studies for a congestion mitigation fee for new development in the county. Is that a viable alternative?

It's worth studying, but it's not the only thing worth studying. We have to look at all kinds of funding sources; the congestion mitigation fee is one of them. We need to cobble together a variety of funding sources that will help us match local funding to federal and state money for transportation improvements. We are at a point now in L.A. where everything ought to be on the table. We shouldn't run away at the first sign of controversy. When our children look back and ask, "What did you do when you had the opportunity to act?" I want to be able to tell them we did something that improved and expanded our public transit system.

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