June 27, 2016 - From the June, 2016 issue

LA Metro’s New Chief Planning Officer on Region’s Investment in Transportation

Metro’s new Chief of Planning Therese McMillan joins the agency at a pivotal moment, as county voters will decide in November whether to approve a new, evergreen sales tax to fund future Metro expansion. The proposed expenditure plan for 45 projects countywide would transform the region for decades to come, and McMillan brings expertise from her years at the Federal Transit Administration to bear on LA’s need to plan for long-term maintenance and reinvestment. With experience at both the federal and regional levels, McMillan is practiced at managing the many equally pressing transit priorities of a diverse populace. She paints a comprehensive picture of the role that planning will play in realizing Metro’s innovative, community-oriented vision for LA. 

Therese McMillan

“Planning is not just about getting a project ready to be built. It’s about anticipating the whole life cycle of the transportation system.” —Therese McMillian

You’ve worked at the federal level since 2009, and are now moving to an aggressive and robust regional transportation-planning agency. What’s it like to come back to the local level? 

Therese McMillan: It hasn’t been a jarring transition for me.

Working at the national level meant dealing with a wide array of scales and types of challenges. I worked everywhere from New York City to Fargo to St. Louis to Portland to small areas in the south. While the scales may be different, from where I sit, the types of issues and the intensity of the challenges aren’t that different. The diversity that I had to address at the Federal Transit Administration gave me an excellent background for the diversity of issues and concerns in a county as large, rich, and diverse as Los Angeles.

That being said, I’m still learning a lot about what’s going on in LA County. It has changed remarkably since I grew up here in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s astonishing how in 25 years—a relatively short time in the planning milieu—we’ve transformed the public transit footprint for LA.

It validates our belief that with good planning and smart investments, we can really turn around what many folks think of as “the car capital of the world.” Yes, we have lots of cars here in LA, but we can and do envision a future with real, viable options for moving to and through this county. That’s incredibly exciting. 

In your first two months at Metro, how have you begun to prioritize among the agency’s many projects—new rail corridors, the Regional Connector, the Union Station Master Plan, and the November ballot measure ("Measure R2"), to name a few?

Prior to my federal experience, I worked at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, so I’m well versed in juggling a number of priorities. You learn quickly to work in multiple channels.

In terms of immediate priorities, the measure that was recently approved by the Metro board to go on the ballot in November has taken up a significant amount of energy throughout the agency, and the Planning Department that I’m now head of was very actively involved in its development.

Beyond that, we’re in the business of running a huge transit system. We do the day-to-day work that is the bread and butter of Metro: keeping tabs on discretionary programs coming down the pike at the state and federal level, getting grants out to our partners in various jurisdictions, and monitoring our ongoing projects. All of that is in the portfolio. 

How is your department’s ongoing work reflected in the proposal that will go to the ballot in November?

I’m beginning to appreciate the range of politics attached to a measure of this scale, with the significant new capacity it brings. From a planning point of view, the important thing is to bring as many facts as possible to bear on the debate.

LA County has a broad array of challenges in the transportation sphere, and a critical function of planning is to knit together all the different layers. To do that, we look at mobility issues as well as the socio-demographic needs of the county. With the recent measure, we were keenly aware that we had to work from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

For example, we pay special attention to lower-income individuals who may not have access to cars. We’re also starting to see, nationwide, the need to anticipate a generation of people who will be getting older: As seniors continue to make up a larger and larger proportion of the overall population, what will their transportation and mobility needs be going forward?

We consider the needs of the business community: How are we going to anticipate the county’s focus areas for employment in various sectors? What freight needs will be attached to those areas? We think about moving not just people, but also goods, to and through the county.

All of these moving parts make up a planning mosaic that clarifies who our transportation system needs to serve, the assets that we need to put forward, and what resources we need. The role of planning is to lay out all of these factors and to bring some clarity to the discussion—including by pointing out the trade-offs that may be involved in resource allocation.

We illuminate the situation on the ground and offer projections of what the future may look like, so that our decision-makers are more informed about the choices they need to make. 

The projects afforded by the November ballot measure could profoundly transform this 4,000-square-mile region for decades—especially with the recent decision to remove the measure’s expiration date. How does making the tax “evergreen” affect the role of planning in executing these investments?

An ongoing source of revenue will allow us to pursue one of the most important parts our work, and something very important to me coming into this job: anticipating the arc of a transportation system.

Currently, a lot of attention is paid to the front end of that arc: the project options we consider, what we decide to build, and all the environmental studies and community outreach we do. But after the ribbon cutting, there’s often a sense that the baton has been handed off and Planning doesn’t have a role in the project anymore. That’s absolutely not true.

I believe that a critical part of planning is anticipating what it will take to maintain and sustain projects and programs, and how they’ll need to change over time based on different circumstances. It’s not just about getting a project ready to be built; it’s about anticipating the whole life cycle of the transportation system. And it’s not about just building new things; it’s about reinvesting, and maintaining the huge investment we already have in transportation infrastructure.

State of good repair is an important part of Planning’s responsibilities. Now that our sales tax measure will go forward in perpetuity, we have the opportunity to reserve funding for the ongoing maintenance and rehabilitation of the transportation system. 

No doubt some of this perspective is born of your experience at the federal level and with the failure of Washington, D.C. and other urban metro systems to deal with maintenance and reinvestment. In the term-limited political world, is this simply going to be a never-ending challenge? 

The challenge has always has been there—it didn’t just come out of the ether. Now, at least, it’s finally getting the attention that it needs.

A great advantage of working at the federal level was being able to see how different parts of the country deal with their unique circumstances. The legacy systems of Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, each for their own unique reasons, are all facing huge challenges in managing their older infrastructure. In fact, the FTA anticipates that throughout the country we have close to a $90-billion backlog in deferred rehabilitation and maintenance of the nation’s rail and bus assets. That’s a huge number.

For LA to get ahead of that curve, we have to deliberately plan for maintenance at the front end. There is a critical need to find a source for that revenue. It would be incredibly shortsighted not to do that, if we want to avoid the outcome of many older urbanized areas throughout the country. 

Has planning staff been successful in inserting some long-term guarantees into the pending measure to assure that we will avoid that result?

There is a specific provision for state of good repair in the programmatic recommendation. And a major advantage of moving forward without a sunset is that we now have a more robust stream of funding for ongoing maintenance.

We’ve addressed this need in more areas than transit. An important part of this measure is local return, which 17 is percent going back in jurisdiction to our county, and increasing to 20 percent in 2040. That is a result of staff listening to and hearing the voices of local areas, which said, “We need more assistance for local streets and roads that need repair.”


The entire transportation system needs varying degrees and levels of reinvestment. This measure overall makes accommodations for that, and I think that’s very forward thinking. 

CEO Phil Washington has been very enthusiastic about enacting public-private partnerships to carry out Metro projects. What is the role of planning in the agenda in the rollout of this pending sales tax measure’s expenditure?

Partnerships are hugely important in terms of creating new capacity to deliver a project on the ground. P3s are innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors, and Phil’s P3 agenda is very much part of the overall push for innovation that he has spoken to since joining Metro.

As an industry overall, we’re in a time where new technologies are reshaping society, and we need to be very mindful of the opportunities that are emerging as a result. Phil is putting forward that the transportation industry in the United States, writ large, needs to be more aggressive in terms of forging partnerships that improve and accelerate project delivery and take advantage of new technologies and techniques.

Planning does a piece of this by pulling together the parties that need to sit around the table in order to creatively manage an array of regulatory requirements against the needs of project delivery. But we will all be working together across the agency—Planning working with Construction working with Operations working with Finance—working outside our “cylinders of excellence,” as I like to say. Our new Office of Extraordinary Innovation has also been helpful, especially on the research side of things. The agency as a whole needs to work, and will be working, in a much more collaborative fashion than before.

Where does first mile/last mile planning fit your department’s work and into the pending ballot measure?

First mile/last mile is a really exciting and clear example of how comprehensive thinking about how we move people can lead to very real and important results. The Metro Board has acknowledged that these smaller-scale connections can really contribute to the success of the large investments we’re making in our transportation network.

You can build a transit system, but folks need to be able to get to the system in order to use it. Rather than leaving it up in the air for any single person to figure that part of their trip out, first mile/last mile and active transportation planning look deliberately at how we can offer people options to get to the transit network in a safe and reliable way.

This means making sure that we’ve got a network of sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly infrastructure for people who walk. It means evaluating whether we have the infrastructure for people who ride bikes to do so safely, and to be able to connect to the transit system in a way that makes sense. Very importantly, it also means looking at local transit connections to rail—thinking about where those connections happen, and put in whatever facilities and schedules and other coordination is necessary. It’s a kind of integrated, beginning-of-trip to end-of-trip thinking that involves planning at the community level as well as at the countywide level.

Our Active Transportation Plan recognizes that a lot of first mile/last mile infrastructure is not under Metro’s jurisdiction; it’s under local jurisdiction. Sidewalks, bikeways, and the like are very often the realm of a given jurisdiction’s Public Works Department, and we need to work with them in a collaborative fashion to identify, fund, and deliver projects that involve those assets.

We also have a very clear direction from the board to ensure that Metro provides technical assistance, particularly to our smaller jurisdictions that may not have the in-house capacity. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve already learned to appreciate the great diversity of needs among the 88 cities across the county, and the importance of planning around those differences.

As we put the Active Transportation Plan into implementation mode, my department will be very focused on determining how we can provide assistance that’s tailored to every jurisdiction’s particular needs.

Your predecessor Martha Welborne once told TPR that the charge of Metro’s Chief Planning Officer was “very specific”: to plan individual transit projects identified by the agency. Today, Metro CEO Phil Washington says that transit agencies must aspire to do “more than the T in TOD” by asking how transportation assets fit into communities. Can you address your thoughts and approach to executing on Washington’s value?

I’ve been involved with transit-oriented development both in my tenure with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and at the Federal Transit Administration, where it was beginning to take root in some very specific policies.

The notion of transit-oriented development—or as Phil says, transit-oriented communities—speaks to the fact that land use and transportation are inextricably linked. You can’t just drop a transit network on top of an established, urbanized area and expect all the pieces to fit without thinking ahead to how it’s going to impact the community that it goes in.

This is a very people-oriented approach. From a planning perspective, a large part of our process is asking questions like: What does the existing community look like? Who lives there, and what are their needs within the community that a transportation investment can help to support?

We have to ask these types of questions because transportation doesn’t exist for itself. Transportation exists to link people to education, to health care, to jobs. Transit-oriented development takes a comprehensive view of the transportation investments, the land-use decisions, and the development resources that help make those connections.

If you are going to site a new employment center, or a new school, part of the planning process must be to ask: How can people get back and forth to that particular activity center? Are there opportunities to use the transportation network that’s already on the ground in a more effective and efficient way?

Likewise, if you’ve got land-use decisions to be made where you can choose alignments between future transportation options, how does that fit into the main question of: Who lives in the community? Where do they want to go and why, and what options do they have available to them? From a planning perspective, that’s what defines transit-oriented development.

This approach involves getting various sectors to collaborate with each other. Jurisdictions and other parties involved with land-use planning need to be at the same table as those involved with transportation planning. A huge part of “doing more than the T in TOD” is working outside the silos. If you don’t do that, it just becomes a concept and not an opportunity for change. 

In your time at the FTA, you worked with the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a federal collaboration among USDOT, US-EPA, and HUD. What can you draw from that experience that applies to how projects get done in LA? 

My biggest takeaway from that experience was an understanding of the long-term process that is required in interdepartmental collaboration.

In pulling that partnership together, it became clear that the transportation sector, the housing sector, and the workforce development sector have very often spoken different languages. They have not just different terms, but also different expectations, rules, and regulations—all of which have been developed over a long period of time without the presumption of having to collaborate and work together.

A hugely educational challenge of this partnership was comparing the regulatory frameworks of HUD and USDOT. There are different limitations on resources—different eligibilities and requirements for funding programs. We had to accept that these things existed, and figure out how to work within them when they didn’t always seem to work in the same direction.

Once we understood the procedures, processes, rules, and partners that each department dealt with, we could identify those areas where there was some overlap and the opportunity for easy coordination—as well as the more challenging areas where we might have to pursue administrative or legislative change. The lesson was to appreciate both the opportunities as well as the barriers to collaboration, and to be prepared to make an effort over the long term.

To collaborate across government agencies, you need to buy into an ongoing effort over a long period of time, and commit to the long term for change. That’s the biggest lesson I brought back, and it’s something that I think will help in Phil’s and our efforts here in the county.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.