July 2, 2013 - From the July, 2013 issue

Zev Yaroslavsky Lauds Outoing Mayor Villaraigosa’s Transportation Legacy

TPR conversed this month with Metro board member and LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky about the board’s June 27 meeting where Metro took decisive votes to accelerate Measure R projects. Reflecting on the Metro's accomplishments, Zev praised Mayor Villaraigosa's LA County transit infrastructure legacy and offered how new Mayor Eric Garcetti could leverage his four votes on the board to achieve his top priority: job-creation. Yaroslavsky also illuminates, in the following, the critical role of elected leaders in actually implementing complex transit projects, and he chronicles the board’s specific plans to keep pace with public demand by fast tracking second and third-decade transit improvement projects.

Zev Yaroslavsky

“The transportation legacy Mayor Villaraigosa has left (in this county) is second only to Tom Bradley’s. Measure R was a team effort, but Antonio was the first among equals on that team.” -Zev Yaroslavsky

MoveLA said it best—you’ve been an exceedingly successful regional advocate for transit and a principal force behind Measure R. With such credentials, share your assessment of Metro’s June 27 board meeting in terms of its impact on LA County transportation infrastructure investment going forward.

The June 27 Metro meeting was a very productive day’s work.

We took care of a lot of business: plugging the cost overruns on several projects around the county; teeing up the agency going forward for the acceleration of the Measure R program; positioning ourselves to take advantage of America Fast Forward; and taking the Measure R projects that are currently scheduled for the 2020s and 30s and move them up into the 2015 to 2024 range.

The Metro board acted responsibly and in the interest of the region as a whole. The board’s regional approach prevailed on June 27. In all, it was a good day.

Zev, you are well positioned, as a coequal, to comment on Mayor Villaraigosa’s transportation legacy, especially in regards to county infrastructure investments in Transportation. Please do.

There is no doubt that Mayor Villaraigosa’s prime legacy as mayor of Los Angeles will be in the field of transportation, infrastructure, planning and development. Other than Tom Bradley, I can think of no other mayor in my lifetime who has had so much of an impact on transportation in this county.

There are a lot of things Antonio has been criticized for in his eight years—some of them fair, some unfair—but if you’re going to criticize someone for things he hasn’t done well, you also have to credit him with the things he’s done right. The transportation legacy he has left is second only to Tom Bradley’s.                  

Measure R was a team effort, but Antonio was the first among equals on that team. Measure R is a seminal moment in the transportation infrastructure history of this region. In the last decade and a half we’ve completed the Green Line to El Segundo, the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley from North Hollywood to Woodland Hills and from Warner Center to Chatsworth, the Expo Rail from Downtown to Culver City. The Crenshaw Light Rail Line, the subway extension, and the Downtown regional connector are poised to being construction.

There hasn’t been as much transportation infrastructure built in such a compressed period of time in LA County since WWII. Indeed, this is the golden age of transportation infrastructure development in Los Angeles. It’s time for Antonio’s critics to zip it up and acknowledge that he played a key role in the transit projects that are now being built in the region.

Historically, there has been an anti-City of LA bias among some members of the Metro Board. Antonio and the rest of us who represent the city have had to combat that bias. Ironically he always sought to apportion Metro’s resources equitably throughout the region based on transportation needs. Every member of Metro’s board should take that same approach going forward.

Could you also comment on the unique role played by elected leaders in getting to a goal, in implementing public policy goals? Perhaps you could draw from how the Orange Line was developed on the back of a napkin by you and Bob Hertzberg flying back from Curitiba Brazil. 

Every major undertaking begins with a vision, and the vision almost inevitably starts out being quixotic. People wonder if the visionary is biting off more than he can chew. Is it possible? Is it going to work? There’s opposition from stakeholders who hate the thing. There are always 1000 reasons to critique a vision. There’s only one good reason to execute a vision, and that has to prevail and trump all the negativity.

Antonio’s vision was extending the subway to the sea. While it’s not going to go to the sea, it’s going to get to the West LA Veterans Administration. That’s not a failure; it’s more than we could have dreamt of just five years ago. The Orange Line, a less complicated project engineering-wise but just as complicated politically, was realized because we had the vision. It starts with a vision that has been vetted and rationalized, and then the practical policy and political skills have to be summoned to get it implemented.

The vision for the Orange Line was on the back of a napkin, but the execution of it was to put the financial resources and political support together. And, when there was a lack of support, the political leadership had to rise above the negativity, rise above the NIMBYism, and get it done. My philosophy is to listen carefully to what the critics have to say, and if they have good criticisms address them. Not every critic is wrong. But you have to be able to distinguish between legitimate input and people who want to kill a project completely. At some point, there is always a juncture where the political leadership has to rise to the occasion and say, “We’ve listened, we’ve adjusted, but we’re not going to abandon the vision.”

The public has always been ahead of the Metro board on these issues. Measure R was put on the ballot by the MTA board with one vote to spare. Yet, it was passed by the people with 68 percent approval. Measure J was placed on the ballot last year by a devided board, but 66.15 percent of the voters supported it. The political leaders of this region need to get in lockstep with the people they represent.


What Metro has to do is be about the people we know are out there; the people we know are out there who are dependent on public transportation, or those that don’t use it but would like to if there was a system that fit their needs. We also have to recognize that we cant build it all in our political lifetime. There is a tendency among politicians to build things that will be completed in time for them to cut the ribbon. But in the era of term limits, most of these major capital projects will break ground while we’re in office, but not have the ribbon cut until we’re out of office. But we have to be about the future, even if someone else is going to cut the ribbon, and be satisfied that we’re going to make a difference even after our political lifetime. That’s the challenge that the MTA board has, and always will have, and June 27 was a very reassuring day in that regard.

The July Metro meeting will include, in place of out-going Mayor Villaraigosa, in-coming Mayor Eric Garcetti and his four appointees. Share with us what counsel you may have shared with Mayor-elect Garcetti regarding his administration’s  regional transportation responsibilities?

The Mayor of LA is the most important figure on the MTA board, because he has four of the thirteen votes, and those votes can really shape the direction of Metro. The whole transportation infrastructure plan for this region is important on many fronts. It is important because we need an alternative to cars and traffic. It’s also a quality of life issue—if we can cut the amount of time people spend getting to and from work, we restore valuable time to their lives. It’s also an economic development issue. When we build these lines we are creating opportunities for economic development along the transit corridors, regenerating communities that have been languishing. It’s also a jobs program. If we can accelerate Measure R into the next decade, it will produce 200,000 construction and related jobs—it’s its own stimulus package. The economic implications for our region are huge.

Mayor Garcetti has made his first priority getting LA back to work. There is no greater tool that he has in his quest to turn the economy around than Metro. It controls billions of dollars of investment and construction, not just in the City of LA but throughout the region. My hope and expectation is that Eric understands that, and I hope he provides the same kind of focus that Villaraigosa and his team brought to the Metro board so that we keep this momentum going. It’s an opportunity I believe he will seize. 

Zev, before you leave public office in late 2014, after a distinguished, near four-decade tenure, will you lend your name to another effort to extend Measure R funding to accelerate a second generation of transportation investments?

I don’t know what you mean by second generation of investment. We tried to extend Measure R with Measure J last fall, which would have given us the capacity to borrow against future revenue to build projects now. It was a very solid plan, it got 66.15 percent of the vote, it fell 15,000 votes short. Only under California law can a 66.15 percent vote be considered a loss.

I will continue to fight for an extension of Measure R and the half-cent sales tax. It’s not going to get any easier to pass a two-thirds measure in the years ahead. I think it’s more likely in 2016 than 2014, because the more people who vote, the better chance we have of mustering a two-thirds majority. I think you’re looking at a measure on the ballot in 2016 that will extend Measure R and produce all of the results Measure J would have produced. There are also efforts underway in the legislature to ask state voters to lower the two-thirds threshold to 55 percent for this kind of infrastructure funding. So, the rules may favorably change in 2014.

We need to accelerate these projects. We cannot wait till 2035 to extend the subway to West LA. We cannot wait until 2035 to extend the East Side Gold Line to Whittier. We cannot wait till 2035 to build the 405 transit line from West LA to Van Nuys—the first north-south line we will have had in modern times. Those are some of the projects that are at the end of the Measure R timeline and we’d like to get them accelerated so they are built at the same time as all the “decade one” projects.

The reason? This region is going to choke on traffic more than anyone could imagine if we wait until 2035 to finish these projects. Second, we need the jobs. This is a win-win-win for transportation, the economy, and employment.

As long as I remain in elected office, until the end of next year, and even beyond—I’m not leaving town—I will be a voice for more responsible and effective investment in transportation infrastructure construction. 

Let’s close with a question about your future. Mayor Villaraigosa has hinted he will move to Venice and run for governor someday. Do you want to share with our readers what your plans might include after you retire from county office?

I don’t know what my plans are yet. I still have a year and a half to go, so it’s a little early for me to be thinking about that. Every minute I spend thinking about my future plans is a minute I don’t spend thinking about what I’m going to do while I’m still here.

I still have a lot of work to do both on the Metro board and as a county supervisor where I have many objectives to fulfill before I leave. I’m on pace to realize those objectives, and the rest will take care of itself. I have a lot of options once I leave, and the one thing I will say is I’m not “going out to pasture.” I’m retiring from elected office, I think 40 years is enough for any politician—certainly for me—and it’ll give me the opportunity to do many of the things I’ve longed to do but couldn’t even dream of while I had this more-than-fulltime job as a city councilman and county supervisor.

I’ve had a great run, and I am grateful to the people who have elected me over the years. Especially the people who elected me the first time in 1975, when I was just a few years out of college, and really hadn’t done anything professionally in my life to warrant being elected to govern the second-largest city in the country. The people took a chance on me, and I hope I’ve returned their trust in kind. I have helped change the face of our region on so many levels, and I am grateful for that opportunity. I can’t think of anything I would have rather done in my life than to have the opportunity to serve the people of the City and County of LA.  


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