September 16, 2015 - From the September, 2015 issue

Katz Voices SF Valley’s R2 Transportation Needs & Priorities

Richard Katz has spent many decades devoted to Southern California’s transportation systems, from sitting on the Metro, Metrolink, and California High Speed Rail boards to his service as a state assemblymember. Now, in his new role as chair of the Valley Economic Alliance, Katz speaks with MIR about the often-overlooked mobility needs of San Fernando Valley residents. With an eye to a potential sales tax measure on the 2016 ballot—Measure R2—Katz identifies where funds should be spent to improve Valley transportation conditions.


Richard Katz

“High-speed rail is going to get built and it’s going to take time. Twenty years from now, people will wonder why it was so controversial. ” —Richard Katz

Richard, as the newly elected chair of the Valley Economic Alliance, share the Alliance’s concerns regarding the current priorities of those drafting the 2016 LA County half-cent sales tax transportation measure. 

Richard Katz: There are tremendous opportunities in a new sales tax measure. 

Stakeholders in the Valley are concerned about being left behind. The coalition Valley on Track, started by the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA) and other organizations, has done a great job of identifying a couple of the projects that need to be built in the Valley. 

But when Metro’s staff say that, in their view, the Valley is entitled to $3 billion out of what could be a $40 billion or greater bond measure, you begin to wonder who’s playing with the numbers and how they possibly think that’s equitable.

The San Fernando Valley COG reportedly provided, as requested, a list of over 150 projects to Metro this spring. What are the Valley’s priorities, and are funds likely to be allocated for these transportation projects?

The COG was told by Metro staff to limit their request to $3 billion, which seemed inappropriate to me from both a timing and substance standpoint. Consider that by population, the Valley is close to 40 percent of the City of LA—and by voter turnout, close to 50 percent. Taking into account the need for a two-thirds vote to pass a sales-tax bond measure, it would be a mistake not to address the Valley’s needs. 

Two variables in this are really important: the amount of money allocated and what year that money is allocated. Measure R1, as we call it, had three tranches—one for each decade. Projects in the third decade may not get funded, as inflation and other projects that were added to the list by the current board are using up some of that money. So, what are they going to do with the projects that were in Measure R1? 

We need to focus on transit: moving the most people with the greatest efficiency and the best air quality results. We do not have enough access to rapid transit in the Valley. Projects that were supposed to alleviate congestion around the 405 are lagging way behind at Metro. Even the conversion of the Orange Line to light or heavy rail, or additional north-south transit options, are funded “some day in the future.” There aren’t enough hard commitments. 

The 405 Transit Reliever Project was envisioned to begin at the Van Nuys Civic Center, go underground to UCLA, and then go to the subway stop on Wilshire and Veteran, providing relief for the most congested freeway and the biggest bottleneck—not just in the Valley, but in the city overall. It would be a two-deck tunnel: On the top would be mass transit vehicles, and on the bottom, four HOT lanes that would help pay for the project. In 2012, during the Villaraigosa administration, it was accelerated from the last project on Metro’s list to the next project, by designing it as a public-private partnership rather than utilizing public money in the third decade of Measure R (the money would remain in the subregion of the Valley and the Westside). 

Since the end of 2012 there’s been some work done on it, but for a project that was supposed to be next, it’s received very little attention. There’s been very little care and feeding. As a result, I can’t tell you today in 2015 if that project is any closer to being built than it was in 2012.

Richard, there are few more knowledgeable than yourself regarding LA County transportation planning and finance, having served in state and regional positions of public responsibility over three decades. Please enlighten our readers on the process of planning for a 2016 Measure R2 on the region’s ballot. 

I wish I could tell you with certitude what the process is. I’m not sure, to be honest with you. I think it’s a work in progress. Metro staff, at the direction of the board, asked all the councils of government around the county to recommend projects. They came up with a list of over 2,000 projects, I’m told, which was submitted to Metro at a price tag of over $200 billion. Obviously, that won’t be funded by any measure. It’s just too big an ask. Now they’re in the process of figuring out how to whittle down that list, and at the same time, to not disappoint, anger, or turn off everybody who spent considerable time and effort putting that list together. 

Since 2012, many new locally elected officials—county supervisors, mayors, and League of Cities members—have joined Metro’s board. How have the politics changed as a result, in terms of support for San Fernando Valley transit interests?

Councilmember Krekorian is the strongest advocate for the Valley on the Metro Board today, as well as advocating for the Valley on the Metrolink Board. He understands numbers and budgets. But other than Paul, you don’t have the same focus on Valley projects that others had in previous years. It’s not just in LA—it’s countywide. 

Other parts of the county are doing what they should be doing: being louder, stronger advocates for what they need in their area. Part of what I have to do as chair of the Economic Alliance, along with VICA, the United Chambers, and our other partners in the Valley, is to be a louder voice for what needs to be done in the Valley. We can take some lessons from the San Gabriel Valley’s approach to Measure R1. They made it very clear that their participation and votes were contingent on getting projects that were important to them. We in the Valley need to argue for our share of the money and for funding projects in the first decade.

In addition to relief on the 405 Sepulveda Pass, what are likely to be the other R2 priorities of the Valley Economic Alliance?

We need grade separations for the eventual conversion of the Orange Line to light rail or even heavy rail. We’d like to see that move forward as soon as possible. That would be a tremendous relief for commuters in the Valley, and allow for even more passengers on the Orange Line than are on there today. It’s a wildly successful line, which came out of the napkin drawing by Zev Yaroslavsky on a trip back from Curitiba, Brazil, with Bob Herzberg, David Fleming and Mayor Riordan. Grade separations will allow the line to move even more people. If we do the grade separations right, by putting the Orange Line under the street, we also lay the groundwork for eventual conversion to light or heavy rail, depending on what Metro chooses to put there. That’s the top priority, along with the 405 transit reliever. 

The north-south bus-rapid-transit or light-rail option down Van Nuys Boulevard, and perhaps Lankershim, is also a priority. We’d also like to see the expansion of the rapid bus program in the Valley. The Valley has a large number of people who are potential transit riders, but because there’s never been access to good transit there, they’ve found other ways to get around. If we were to develop a much more mature bus system in the Valley, ridership would grow exponentially.

A potential bus rapid transit line between North Hollywood, Bob Hope Airport, and the Gold Line in Pasadena is also an important project. Along the same lines, we’d like to see the Orange Line connect to the media center in Burbank. Hilary Norton and Jim Thomas have been putting their time and effort into the FAST program, which could expand into Burbank. It makes very simple modifications on Van Owen and Victory Boulevards that have the potential to cut 20 minutes off a commute across the San Fernando Valley on surface streets for less than $2 million. 

The new construction at the Hollywood-Burbank Airport, the new terminals, the potential for high-speed rail, Metrolink, and the Gold Line, make all the sense in the world to help make that a viable regional hub.

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Is linking high-speed rail to the Valley a priority?

I think high-speed rail is going to get built and it’s going to take time. Twenty years from now, people will wonder why it was so controversial. 

It’s important to recognize technology changes and take advantage of them. It’s hard for some of us older folks to understand them. That’s partially why I have an eight-year-old son, so somebody can explain them to me. 

High-speed rail has huge potential. It makes sense to be ready to accommodate it in our various construction programs. I think technologies are coming that will make it even better. It’s significant when you’re talking about connecting Palmdale to LA in a 20-minute ride. If at some point, high-speed rail is going to come through that corridor, maybe the money we were going to use to upgrade the Antelope Valley line of Metrolink could be used to develop other Metrolink services instead. Multiple purposes can be served here. It’s just a question of keeping our heads down, watching the costs, and building it.

You mentioned earlier the trip from LA to Curitiba, Brazil two-plus decades ago to investigate the latter’s innovative and cost-effective transportation system. Included on that trip were Supervisors Yaroslavsky and Burke, LA Mayor Riordan, and Assembly Speaker Hertzberg. That trip is said to have inspired the rapid-bus Orange Line that’s now a Valley success story. Today, what inspires the political leadership crafting and prioritizing visionary R2 transportation plans for the 2016 ballot? 

So far, many on the current board have shown more of a tendency to small ball than big ball. Those 2,600 projects are an example. 

Mayor Villaraigosa deserves credit for having a transportation vision. In order to get voters to vote for a countywide sales tax, they have to know there’s an overarching vision for an interconnected, interoperable system. Whether or not you were supportive of the subway to the sea, it’s now being built—at least to the VA on the west side of the 405. I don’t think people countywide vote for small ball, because that’s mostly stuff done in other people’s neighborhoods. 

Voters are much smarter than politicians in understanding that the solution to congestion may not be a project in their backyard. It may be down the road. Unlike elected officials, they don’t care what jurisdiction they’re in if they’re on San Fernando Road or Sepulveda Boulevard and aren’t going anywhere. They just want the problem solved. Elected officials, by our nature, take care of our backyards because that’s how we get elected. 

If you’re going to serve on the Metro Board, you need a broader vision than that. It requires people who are willing to take a risk. Pam O’Connor started pushing the sales-tax increase and Antonio led the fight to make it happen. In 2008, in the middle of the recession, people said, “Are you out of your mind to propose a sales-tax increase?” Yet innumerable businesses throughout Los Angeles County will tell you that, had Measure R failed and had Metro not been building those needed projects, their engineering, construction, and construction-management firms would have gone out of business. They would have laid off all of their employees. In addition to cleaning the air and improving mobility, those projects kept a lot of people employed.

Metro’s new leader, Phillip Washington, is a big proponent of public-private partnerships. What role do P3s play in contributing to the expansion of our current transit system?

They’re going to play a critical role. For reasons I’ve never understood, Los Angeles seems to approach P3 projects, at every stage, like they’ve never been done before anywhere in the world. They study it to death.

But P3s have been used successfully around the world to move projects more quickly and at lower costs. The liability transfer is also important: P3s shift more of the risk to the contractors from the public sector. 

Metro needs to take advantage of the ability to do design-build projects, as opposed to design-bid-build, in order to deliver the projects on the books. You can’t keep doing business the same old way. P3s and design-build are proven methods. Phil Washington’s great experience and success doing that in Denver is one of the reasons he was hired. I’m optimistic he’ll be able to do the same thing here. 

Lastly, as a former board member, update our readers on Metrolink.

Metrolink is in its best shape in a number of years. It will be the first in the country to have positive train control, a dramatically improved life-saving technology, in operation on its entire system by the end of the year. Right now positive train control is operating on everything that we own, which is 341 miles of track. The other track that’s owned by UP or BNSF will be done by the end of the year. Unlike some other systems, our railroad’s computers talk to the BNSF’s computers or the UP’s computers to achieve the interoperability that’s so critical from a safety standpoint. 

We have new leadership—Art Leahy, who came over from Metro. Art has helped calm the waters at Metrolink, which was sorely needed. Financial safeguards are in place that have never been there before, and projects are moving forward. 

They just put together another purchase of Tier 4 locomotives, which eliminate 84 percent of smokestack pollution before it leaves the train. They’re state-of-the art and meet the air-quality goals mandated by the federal government. Metrolink’s taking delivery on the first group of locomotives later this year. They have another group coming in over the next 18 months. The other advantage of these locomotives is that they have more horsepower, so you can have three more cars that pull 450 more passengers without increasing operating costs. It will greatly reduce mechanical issues that impact service reliability. 

When I first joined the Metrolink board at Mayor Villaraigosa’s request, we promised we’d make Metrolink the safest railroad in America. With positive train control, inward-outward-facing cameras, additional training, and everything else Metrolink is doing, it’s well on its way to being the safest passenger railroad in America—if it’s not already.

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