Sunday, November 13, 2011

Metro Board Report for October 2011

October was a rather boring month at Metro this year, with very few tricks or treats. Nevertheless, there were a couple of matters worth reporting on …

The Saga Of The Metro Rail Gates, Chapter XXVIX: Not surprisingly, the experimental locking of the fare gates at selected stations is quickly becoming a case of the left hand not always knowing what the right hand is doing, with the usual micro-managing tendency of the Board trying to be a third hand.

No sooner did a limited test (see last month’s column) end than the Board, in its infinite wisdom, want to expand the test to rush hour and to heavily used stations such as 7th Street/Metro Center and North Hollywood. (It was only because of concerns about the high Metrolink transfer rate at Union Station that Director Zev Yaroslavsky removed that station from the motion before it was voted on.) And, since the motion included a request for a report on types of fare media used, the discussion quickly turned toward TAP.

Not surprising, Metro’s Chief Communications Officer, Matt Raymond – who somehow got saddled with this albatross when he wasn’t looking – reports that the major stumbling block is still the non-Metro operators. According to a matrix displayed during his report, Metrolink is still “in discussions”, Gardena Municipal Bus Lines is installing equipment but only for cash purses (no passes), Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus is still working on issuing a contract for TAP installation, Torrance Transit has installed TAP equipment but not actually using it, and LADOT is still in the process of installing the equipment (how many years has it been since they started?). But the real slap in the face is Long Beach Transit, which issued a contract for the equipment but subsequently pulled out of the program.

These revelations led to some pointed questions from Director John Fasana, such as when discussions will take place about the disparity of fares between agencies and how to create a seamless passenger experience. Raymond didn’t give direct answers, saying only that these are “policy decisions”; CEO Art Leahy said he hopes some of the issues will be resolved within the next year, but I’m not holding my breath.

Director Diane DuBois, providing an excellent example of stating the obvious then ignoring all other relevant facts in drawing a conclusion, said that fare checks and gate locking force more people to purchase a ticket, and that this would lead to revenue increases. That was rebutted by both Leahy and gadfly John Walsh, who reminded her that there would also be increases in expenses, primarily from the need to have station attendants once (if?) the gates were permanently locked.

And the expanded gate locking tests were approved, despite Director Richard Katz’s comment that “it would be nice to know what the previous results are before we approve going forward”. But being outvoted on fare gate-related matters is nothing new to Katz by now.

I Guess We’re At The Point Where All You Have To Do Is Say “710” And The Arguing Starts: In the discussion over the hiring of the firm that will prepare the environmental impact report (EIR) for the 710 freeway extension, the city of South Pasadena tried to make Metro’s legal decisions for them. They did so by claiming that a recent state law (AB 751) gave Metro the authority to remove the surface route from consideration before the EIR process. When told that the law only gave cities more power to act after an EIR was issued, Katz then asked the city’s attorney if there was case law that would reassure the Board they wouldn’t get sued; the attorney’s response cited “guidelines for alternative analysis” but gave no direct answer to the question.

This was followed by the No On 710 people, who still think they are going to bully Metro into dropping the whole project, offering their legal opinion that a 1973 injunction against considering the surface route still applies, 38 years later; this was followed by those wonderful folks at the National Resources Defense Council claiming studying the surface route “is a waste of time and money because it won’t be considered in the end”.

When asked by Fasana for his opinion, Leahy said keeping all the options going into the EIR process would prevent someone suing because the option they didn’t like was kept when others were removed. And so, despite everyone’s usual unsuccessful efforts to make the project go away, the process moves forward, with the only “no” vote coming – predictably – from Director Ara Najarian.

We’re The City Of Beverly Hills, And We’re Too Rich To Be Pushed Aside By The Facts: The long-awaited report on tunnel safety and fault investigation was released and the news was not good if you are in any way connected with the governance of Beverly Hills; it turns out that there is a fault zone right where the City wants the future Century City Purple Line Station to be located in order to avoid tunneling under the Beverly Hills High School campus. And guess where it’s not a good idea to build a subway station?

The Planning and Programming Committee received an oral report and overview of the presentation by a panel of experts, who were followed by a report from an independent review panel which included one name familiar to anyone who has tuned into local television news after an earthquake, Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Service. To no one’s surprise, they found the report to be credible, factual, and compelling … which of course led the City to complain bitterly that they hadn’t gotten to see the report in advance of the meeting. Antonovich sided with them, calling the withholding of the report until the meeting “irresponsible” … but then, he never did like the idea of spending money to extend the subway.

You can read the whole thing for yourself, including the presentation given to the committee, at

Is This Renaming Really Necessary?: For reasons that were supposed to be made clear in his six-page motion, Antonovich pushed through changing the name of the Operations Committee – a name which has served through the entire 18 years that MTA has existed – to the “System Safety and Operations Committee”. While I don’t disagree with keeping a focus on safe operations, changing the committee name doesn’t change what Metro does about safety. Indeed, system safety has always been among the top issues that committee deals with, and changing the name is, well … kind of silly.

I read the entire motion, several times, and while Antonovich’s efforts to improve the “safety culture” at Metro, including evaluating existing efforts with reports and recommendations, are well-intentioned, the motion also (in addition to renaming the committee) calls for a review of the agency by-laws to determine if promoting safety is “the Board’s top oversight role and the agency’s top priority”. Excuse me, Mr. Supervisor, but Metro’s top priority is providing public transit service. While safety has to be a part of that, your motion has made it sound as if that is a secondary role (and I guess all those Measure R projects that Mayor Villaraigosa has been trying to accelerate funding for aren't a high priority either?). I can hardly wait for the day when someone proposes cancellation of a bus line – Line 204 on Vermont Avenue comes to mind – because the presence of criminal elements makes it unsafe to ride!

Besides, if it’s that important a role for the Board to play, you should have renamed the Executive Management Committee instead.

Quote Of The Month: Richard Katz, trying to get the presenters of the tunnel safety and fault investigation report to not rush through the presentation: “Could you slow down? I’m trying to understand this and I’m having to take notes in crayon!”

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, November 16 & 17

Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, December 15 (rescheduled as usual, due to Thanksgiving always falling on what would usually be the meeting date)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Metro Board Report for September 2011

I finally located my folder with the September Board meeting agendas and my notes, which went astray during some reorganization of my home office. So, much delayed but possibly still anticipated, here goes ...

Najarian vs. the 710 Extension: The latest in a series of "final reports" on the costing information for the 710 freeway gap closure between Alhambra and Pasadena was released to the Finance & Budget Committee, and as usual Director Ara Najarian started questioning the numbers, calling the report a "boondoggle" and suggesting that a panel of experts conduct a review. Metro's real estate director, Roger Moliére (who somehow has been saddled with this albatross) surprised Najarian by agreeing and asking him to submit his questions.

The No on 710 Committee, meanwhile, continued to misstep, first by repeating their favorite misconception that the funds could be shifted to transit projects, then calling Metro "non-credible", then calling the project a "truck tunnel" and the budget projection a "sham" on that basis. They then provided a comparison of the project budget to their own (unsubstantiated) numbers. On the other side of the aisle, representatives of the various local unions continued to state their support but are worried that non-local workers will be brought in once (or even if) the project goes forward.

I'm expecting Najarian to object to the experts selected for the review. Meanwhile, the Planning & Programming Committee got into its own argument over the project when Director Richard Katz started questioning the award of a contract for the professional services (technical assessments, conceptual and preliminary engineering, and the like) on the project. The No on 710ers, of course, took the opportunity to point out that in their considered opinion most of the companies bidding for the contract are committing fraud. (No, of course they didn't bring any facts to back up their statement. What were you expecting?)

The whole matter ended up going to the full Board without committee recommendation, at which time CEO Art Leahy withdrew the item for further study by staff. Which means everyone gets another chance to attack it again when it comes back in a month or two.

When Is A Park-Ride Lot Really A White Elephant?: It should come to no one's surprise that the state budget problems are now trickling down to the local level. The latest example of this is Caltrans' proposal to transfer as many as 41 of their park and ride facilities along the 105 and 110 freeways to Metro, because they no longer have sufficient funding to maintain them. The problem is that Metro might not have the money for that either, with the further complication that the transfer of such facilities from the state to a local authority has never been done before. Nevertheless, a phased transfer has been hesitantly approved, beginning with the Artesia Transit Center sometime after the first of the year.

To their credit, Directors Pam O'Connor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Don Knabe introduced an amendment that prioritizes the order in which facilities are transferred so that the ones considered "most critical to Metro's transit goals" come first. Still, no one knows just where the maintenance bucks are coming from, so we'll be hearing more about this in future months.

Do You Know What A "PLA" Is?: No, it isn't the Palestine Liberation Army, it's a Project Labor Agreement, and the negotiation of one with the building trade councils for Los Angeles and Orange Counties of a master PLA covering all of the upcoming Measure R projects was on the agenda this month. And as usual, not only did politics raise its ugly head, the unions made a show of force that ended up making them look a little foolish.

First, the politics: Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa joined with Directors Ridley-Thomas and Katz to bring forward their own version of how a PLA should be negotiated, calling for a recognition of the limitations on targeted hiring -- basing hiring on the percentage of unemployment in the hiring areas -- that sometimes comes with the federal funds Metro is seeking for Measure R ... which was answered by Director Zev Yaroslavsky calling the maps showing said unemployment "incongruous" because for some reason Brentwood and Bel Air have higher percentages than Van Nuys. Director Michael Antonovich then countered by trying to limit the PLA only to the upcoming Crenshaw/LAX light rail project and using "lessons learned" to better negotiate PLAs for future projects; when his amendment was voted down he followed his usual course of action when that happens ... he voted against the entire proposal (a pure vote on principle, as it turned out, because the rest of the Board, except the absent Director Gloria Molina, voted in favor).

And then came the unions. For some reason, the organized labor unions in our area think it is a good idea to overfill the Boardroom every time a matter comes up involving construction contracts and the like. I don't think it is a bad idea for them to show their interest, but when every union sends a half-dozen rank-and-file members, the result is a lack of available seating for everyone else who have come about other items. It doesn't help their cause either when they have to be chastised by Chairman Villaraigosa for booing the one-minute public comment rule; that rule has existed for many years and they aren't so "special" as to warrant an exception ... especially when they have dozens of speaker request cards in the queue. Nor is it considered good form to applaud after every speaker, as has been proven over the years by the Bus Riders Union.

But the most egregious, albeit inadvertent, violation of public decorum always comes (as it did this time as well) after "their" item has been voted on. Instead of quietly leaving the room and allowing the meeting to continue, they linger. And carry on conversations, the cumulative effect of which is to drown out the official proceedings, even though the latter are amplified.

So, I'm going to end my report on this item with an open appeal to my friend Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor: Please, when you bring the rank-and-file to Metro as a "show of force", realize that there are only so many seats in the Boardroom and that other people are going to need the seats that, for lack of a better word, you hog. You don't need a hundred-plus construction and trade workers to make your point. And those workers don't need to be seen as disrespectful by booing the Chair for enforcing the regular rules on public comment. Nor do they need to be seen as further disrespecting the Board by being disruptive on the way out of the room afterwards. You're approaching the point where these behaviors are going to irritate the Board rather than influence them to make decisions that favor you. As one who has been a union member herself in the past, I do not want to see the Metro Board become hostile to labor ... so please, dial it back a few notches in the future.

Here We Go Again With Line 442: The low-performing express line, which Metro South Bay has been trying to cancel since 2007, won yet another unearned reprieve this month, as Directors Ridley-Thomas and Knabe again suspended its cancellation (which was supposed to happen any minute) and forcing yet another study of the line, along with low-performing local Lines 126, 177, 202, 607 and 620. Never mind that all of this has been studied before; never mind that Metro has cancelled ten lines in the past year with higher ridership than Line 442; and never mind that this action defies a Board decision from this past April.

This latest decision is an excellent example of micro-management by the Board, and one that delivers a slap in the face to the Metro South Bay Service Council (who is supposed to have the responsibility for such matters) and by extension, to the four other regional Service Councils.* I can only repeat what I told the Board during public comment: Last December, Line 168 was cancelled, having first been identified by RTD staff as being low-performing in September, 1977. I only hope it doesn't take 33 years to cancel Line 442 as well.

I Bet This Proves The Exact Opposite Of What Staff Intends: If you live near Hollywood/Western, Vermont/Beverly, or Wilshire/Normandie Stations and use the Red/Purple Line in the middle of the day, you may have already gotten tangled up in a gate locking test that has been taking place on Wednesday afternoons since the week after the Board meeting. The purpose, according to Metro's Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond (I'm still trying to figure out how he ended up with the TAP and fare gate debacle responsibilities), is to determine how much non-TAP fare media still exists; for some reason, choosing stations that have lower ridership and less non-TAP media usage is supposed to create a baseline so that later tests at higher-use stations at other times of the day will create meaningful data.

Why do I think this is going to prove what I (and many others, including Katz) have been saying all along? Raymond himself admitted that the biggest obstacle to full fare gate locking is the failure of Metrolink, municipal operator-issued transfers, and the EZ Pass to convert to TAP.

As a footnote, here is a TAP "fun fact" ... did you know that, since TAP enabled the "cash purse" option on its fareboxes and ticket vending machines, you can load cash value on your TAP card at a participating municipal operator, then tap the card on a Metro farebox and have a cash fare deducted, but because of a glitch in the financial reconciliation process Metro won't get the money? (Sigh.)

Quote Of The Month: Richard Katz, after a report on freeway beautification projects that followed the discussion on the park and ride facilities transfer: "I don't remember getting the 'Caltrans is going out of business' notice!"

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, October 19 & 20
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, October 27

* - Disclaimer: I am a member of the Metro San Fernando Valley Service Council, presently serving as its chair, and my remarks on Line 442 quoted above were delivered in the context of my position as same.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Metro Board Report for July (and August) 2011

This month's column is less about decisions taken by the Metro Board in the July-August cycle than it is about gadflies, public commenters, and the usual discourse by the Directors.

I sit through a lot of meetings every month to determine what goes in each month's column; it usually surprises people to learn that most of the "receive and file" reports are heard only in committee and are not repeated at the full Board meeting unless a Director requests that. So, in order to hear the answers to questions that likely originally were asked at a Board meeting, one must sit through -- at a minimum -- five committee meetings (Planning & Programming; Finance, Budget & Audit; Executive Management; Construction; and Operations) over a two-day period, plus the full Board meeting a week later. And when you sit through that many meetings, you start to hear the same people saying the same things over and over and over and ...

For example, the Bus Riders Union always wants one of three things: (1) a fare rollback, (2) reversal of bus line cancellations, and (3) less rail construction. Community activist Damien Goodmon will always try to play the race card about rail safety and do so in a strident tone of voice that is practically guaranteed to alienate the Board. 68-year-old gadfly John Walsh will attack whichever Director he disagrees with most at the moment ... usually Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The perpetually clueless Arnold Sachs will always manage to impress everyone in the room with how little he really knows (when he's not questioning the legality of the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority, that is). And the list goes on and on, with some players dropping by the wayside as they realize they have no impact and others taking their place, trying to impress everyone with how much more knowledge they have than the Board or staff.

Just this past month, Goodmon claimed that a $170 million loan for additional rail yard needs was a "reprogramming of funds", whereby Walsh immediately blamed Zev for it. Malcolm Klugman, who in recent months has graduated from regional Service Council gadfly to Board committee gadfly, attacked the new enhanced bicycle policies approved by the board last September and April on the basis of bikes and strollers being on escalators (which is indeed a problem, but context is everything when you're speaking at Metro). Walsh later claimed a Board action to submit a TIFIA* loan application for the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line creates a new construction authority and that the nonprofit benefit corporation created as the conduit borrower "proves Metro can't get the loan on its own". The next day, Walsh claimed that the early reopening of the 405 freeway during "Carmageddon" weekend had been pre-planned ("the schedule was padded and Metro lied about the timetable") and therefore somehow illegal. Two weeks later at the Board meeting, Goodmon tried to beat the one-minute clock by talking as fast as John Moschitta did in those FedEx commercials years ago, making his point (if there was one) impossible to find ... and still got cut off when he couldn't fit everything into the minute. The BRU, after complaining about general public comment being heard without a quorum being present (it's allowed under Robert's Rules, guys), again claimed Metro is under a federal civil rights investigation when it isn't and demanded that the past five years' worth of service changes be reversed. Several student representatives from Los Angeles City College insisted that Metro reinstate the "I-Pass" which was cancelled when LACC refused to continue funding it. (One of the LACC speakers thought that employer pass programs are funded by Metro and essentially given away to employees of participating businesses free of charge!)

And that's just public comment. During one committee meeting, close to 20 minutes of discussion took place because of the lack of understanding why ridership levels have leveled off but fare revenue doesn't show elasticity, and the question of how much the extra bus and rail service during "Carmageddon" cost, three days after it happened.

Somehow, even with all this helpful comment, the Metro Board does manage to make decisions. This month's significant issues:
  • The Board approved the TIFIA loan and the related non-profit mutual benefit corporation, allowing Metro to seek federal funds for the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line;
  • Extended the contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for transit policing services for two months while the long-term contract continues to be renegotiated;
  • Approved motions to explore opportunities for bike share programs along rail and bus rapid transit lines, adopt a green construction policy for projects on Metro properties and rights-of-way, authorized the contract for citation processing services when the Metro "transit court" becomes operational later this year, established a one-year program to provide EZ Transit Passes to foster youth, and reaffirmed support for the California High Speed Rail alignment through the Antelope Valley with a station in Palmdale.
But what really took the bulk of the Board's time this month was a Villaraigosa motion to freeze bus service levels on Tier 1 service for the entire fiscal year, coupled with enhanced monitoring of passenger loads and on-time performance. This might have been a good idea on its own, except that the Mayor brought pressure to cancel the December 2011 service change program (which did not involve Tier 1 lines and could leave some low-performing lines in jeopardy now) and its related public hearings mere days before the public hearings, essentially overriding the regional Service Councils before they could even discuss and act on the program proposals. While the Board has always retained the right to reverse Council decisions, this "reversal before the decision was made" leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth and raises the question of whether the Mayor even believes the Service Councils know what they are doing. Further, the motion created a laundry list of service factors that will now need to be reported to the Councils and the Board every month, all of which are already part of regular reports and/or service policies. And before anyone gets the idea that all this does is create a lot more receive-and-file reports for the committees, it also requires a report in October on "a minimum of five corridors in the County that can accommodate an effective Bus Rapid Transit system". That latter point caused Directors Ara Najarian, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe to become confused on the difference between BRT (on-street Rapid service with bus lanes) and express service (freeway operation), with Najarian trying to force the dormant proposal for "Tri-Cities Express" Line 580 into consideration and Ridley-Thomas and Knabe trying to revive the about-to-be-cancelled Line 442 under the BRT plan. I'm sure there will be more said when the initial staff report arrives in October.

Metro's government relations people also reported that the federal debt ceiling action will likely result in a 3% cut in federal spending on transportation and that the reauthorization of the federal transportation funding program -- already delayed far beyond when it was supposed to be approved -- is now in danger, with the federal excise tax on gasoline in danger of expiring as well. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation has asked Metro to increase the amount of local funding for the Regional Connector (decreasing the amount of federal funds) and decrease the amount of local funding for the Westside Subway Extension (increasing the amount of federal funds). How that's going to be done when Measure R specified dollar amounts for those projects is likely to be another quandry the Board will face in the next few months.

Me? I just sit in the back of the room, nursing the headache all this gives me every month.

Quote Of The Month: Sachs, commenting on the transit court citation processing contract: "I'm against stupidity!" Even after being chastised by Chair Villaraigosa for the context of that remark ...?

A reminder that the Board will not hold its usual cycle of committee meetings and Board meeting in August. For that reason, the next update to the blog will be at the end of September.

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, September 14 & 15
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, September 22

(*-TIFIA is the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program for creating loans to transportation agencies for capital projects.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Metro Board Report for June 2011


While there were some important decisions taken by the Metro Board in June, the usual discourse and argument was largely missing, so I was completely non-motivated to write this month's column. However, knowing that there are at least a few people who do read it, I'm belatedly throwing together this list of the three notable decisions, followed by a comment or two ...
  • A report on the Los Angeles City Council's motion for Metro to put the "condo canyon" segment back into the Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit lanes project was received and filed, with Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas and Director Mel Wilson abstaining. Abstaining on a receive and file? Not only unheard of, but totally meaningless.
  • The matter of former Metrolink CEO David Solow buying out Metro's share of his Orange County residence, which was supposedly tossed out the door without Board approval in April, returned by way of a "special Board agenda" and was finally approved, with Supervisors Antonovich and Gloria Molina voting against the settlement and Ridley-Thomas abstaining. The smartest of the bunch was Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, who left the room during the discussion and didn't come back to vote.
  • Remember when Ridley-Thomas singlehandedly killed a proposal to exercise an option with North American Bus Industries (NABI) to acquire 100 additional 45-foot buses, claiming that not going out for a new bid was "fostering an anti-competitive environment"? Well, it turns out that exercising that option is the only way to prevent losing $34 million in state grant money for high-capacity clean-fuel buses. And so the proposal returned, Ridley-Thomas was persuaded to keep his mouth shut lest he get the blame for losing the grant funding, and it was finally passed. If only he'd done that back in November ...
Quote Of The Month: The perpetually clueless gadfly Arnold Sachs, commenting on the exercising of the option with NABI: "It was the RTD's decision to eliminate articulated buses that led to the Bus Riders Union lawsuit and the consent decree!" What alternate dimension history book did he get that from?

I will close by congratulating John Roberts, who was announced at the Operations Committee meeting as the permanent executive director for transportation at Metro. I've known John for many years, including his long stay at Division 15 in Sun Valley, and he is well-versed in all areas of bus operations and maintenance; to have him heading up the largest department at Metro is one of the best moves the agency has made in revamping the system.

The Board, as has been the case for all but three of the years it has been in existence, will not hold its usual cycle of committee meetings and Board meeting in August. For that reason, the July Board meeting has been moved ahead one week, so please take note of that if you choose to attend.

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, July 20 and 21
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, August 4

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Metro Board Report for May 2011

My apologies for posting this almost on the eve of the next month's Board cycle. The Board meeting of the 26th was a three-ring circus (as explained below) which required me to wait for both the Board Recap and the draft Board Minutes to be certain I had some details correct. I'd like to be able to say it won't happen again, but this is the Metro Board of Directors we're talking about ...

Undergrounding The Crenshaw/LAX Line, The Sequel: A considerable amount of time was again wasted this month, this time at the Board meeting, by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose continuing attempts to underground a part of the future Crenshaw/LAX light rail line between 48th to 59th Streets, including a new Leimert Park/Vernon Station, is becoming a major distraction to us all.

This time the Supervisor spent heaven-knows-how-much money to bus in enough of his constituents as to cause a seating shortage in the Metro Boardroom ... then gave Chair Don Knabe a list of those persons he wanted to have speak. (I would love to know how some of those who were brought to the meeting, then not "allowed" to speak, felt about that. While not a specific violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, it appeared to this observer that the crowd was told not to sign up for public comment.) And speak they did, almost parroting each other in trying to convince the Board to spend money the project does not have to make it bend to Ridley-Thomas' vision.

All told, we heard from several elected officials' representatives, the Los Angeles Urban League, activist Damien Goodmon (who invoked the memory of his great-grandfather, the first African-American millionaire in the region), and the Bus Riders Union (who, predictably, wanted the entire project killed in favor of increased bus service on Crenshaw Blvd.) before hearing from the handful of ordinary people who signed up to speak. These included gadfly John Walsh, who called himself a "white rapper" ("Subway to the Sea, it ain't for me, it won't hurt to add Leimert").

Once all the public comment was finished -- another hour of my life I'll never get back -- the Board started weighing in. Director John Fasana moved to consider the undergrounding and added station as separate motions; after Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky reviewed the project timeline with staff (going back to when it was a proposed bus rapid transit project, championed by then-Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite-Burke), then stated his opposition to increasing the project budget, Supervisor Gloria Molina challenged him by pointing out that Zev's 1998 ballot measure disallowing local sales tax revenue from being used on future Red Line construction killed the Eastside subway extension so "of course you refuse to allow any money to be spent on undergrounding lines outside of your own district." Director Richard Katz was left to rebut Molina by pointing out that the Metro Orange Line carries more than twice the daily ridership as is projected for the Crenshaw Line (and four times that of the Gold Line Eastside extension that opened in 2009).

Ultimately, the vote to add the underground segment was squarely against, with only Ridley-Thomas, Molina, and Supervisor Michael Antonovich voting in favor. And then came the move that put the meeting into "three-ring circus" mode.

Katz produced a substitute motion that would add a bid option to the project, allowing bidders to offer separate bids for the baseline project, an unfinished station "box" at Leimert Park, and a full station at that location, with the project budget to be the determiner of which "bid version" to accept. Predictably, Ridley-Thomas objected, despite CEO Art Leahy's reminder that the project is already over budget and that there are street running segments of the Blue Line on Washington and Long Beach Blvds. that have no safety issues. And so Ridley-Thomas, Katz, and deputies for several other Board members caucussed in the Board conference room over language changes that would make everyone happy, while the Katz motion remained tabled.

Meanwhile, Knabe bounced between all the other agenda items, in haphazard fashion, leading many in the audience -- and some Board members -- frequently asking "what item are we on now?"

When the dust settled (nearly two hours later) and the language was modified to allow for a Leimert Park station only if it could be accomplished within the existing project budget (Ridley-Thomas still being upset since, as regular readers will recall, he wanted savings from other projects used for this as well), the Katz motion passed overwhelmingly, with only Ridley-Thomas, Antonovich and Fasana voting against and Molina absenting herself from the vote.

Ridley-Thomas was later quoted in the media as saying "the discussion isn't over ... I'm going to continue to fight for it, I have no intention of turning back."

What part of a nine-to-three vote against his wishes does the Supervisor not understand, I wonder?

Wilshire Bus Lane Project Moves Forward: Despite continued protests by Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl over the continued inclusion of the Brentwood segment, the Wilshire Blvd. bus lane project was approved by the Metro Board, leaving only the details of whether or not the City Council will concur.

Rosendahl's deputy, speaking from the strange perspective that removing the bus lane west of the 405 freeway would somehow make the project better, drew fire from Yaroslavsky, who expressed disappointment in Rosendahl's continued campaign against the project but ultimately disowned the idea that the campaign was consituent-based (Rosendahl's Council district is entirely within Zev's Supervisorial district) by saying "I'm not involved with the Brentwood removal issue and I'm not going to propose it today."

One consequence of this coming before the Board so many times is that previous decisions are being second guessed, with both Green LA and the L.A. Bicycle Coalition wanting the deleted "condo canyon" segment restored to the project. The BRU, meanwhile, babbled an unproven warning that a truncated project would not win federal funding approval.

At the Planning & Programming Committee discussion, there was one bit of humor as one idiot commenter wasted her minute ranting on her inability to find either the Metro headquarters building or -- once inside -- the Boardroom. This prompted Walsh to pass on his minute, saying "I can't follow that."

Ultimately, LADOT (the City's transportation department) bolstered the project by indicating they had found a way to add the eastbound bus lane in Brentwood without taking away a traffic lane. There was no comment from Rosendahl's office as to whether or not that satisfied his concerns. I suspect not.

Oh, By The Way, We Also Approved Next Year's Budget: The Board passed the fiscal year 2012 budget, despite BRU demands to reverse last year's fare increase and rescind the June service change program. The rest of public comment wasn't much better, with John Walsh still repeating the BRU's rhetoric about a federal investigation of the agency and another person wasting their minute commenting on their perceived lack of fare inspection on the rail lines and the Orange Line.

The final vote was unanimous among the eight Board members who were still in the room for the vote after everything else on the agenda was decided (there is a tendency, when Board meetings go beyond 1:00, to start losing members to other commitments on their schedules). Absent from the vote were Directors Ara Najarian, Ridley-Thomas, Molina, Yaroslavsky, and Antonovich.

Also noted was that, during their wasted public comment time, the BRU also cried that the Board "no longer pays attention to us." You know, guys, that's what happens when a consent decree expires and you wasted the term of that decree by not laying a foundation for future discussion with the agency. Instead, you spent ten years operating as if you were in charge of Metro and never conceded anything over the decree's term. The Board doesn't listen to you? Why should they, after the way you treated them?

Escalator Maintenance Contract Finally Approved: It took a report from the Metro Inspector General's office certifying that there were no significant deviations from the agency's procurement policies and procedures to warrant rebidding the contract, and a presentation by staff showing the types of vandalism and damage that makes escalator and elevator maintenance expensive, but the contract -- which has been delayed since January -- was finally approved at an amount that was about $5.9 million less than originally proposed.

Not surprisingly, a report on Metro staff's surveying the maintenance companies that did not bid showed that three of the four cited liability and risk exposure concerns as a primary reason, with one saying "the biggest challenges are the unknown factors." I hope Ridley-Thomas, whose concerns about "lack of competitive bidding" is what delayed this essential maintenance contract from being approved, read that section of the report. Perhaps he did, for this time through the process, even he voted yes.

Dissatisfaction With TAP & Gating Continues: Instead of writing a review of the discussion of the TAP card and the rail station gates that took place as part of the approval for a one-year discount on the day pass of $1.00 if you remember to bring your TAP card (and the issuance of a TAP card for the full $6.00 day pass cost if you don't already have one), I'll just offer these three quotes:

  • "I want TAP cards made available on buses for passengers that don't already have one." (Yaroslavsky)
  • "How much have we spent so far? On TAP, $164 million. On gates, $5 million. What have we recovered so far? Nada." (Katz)
  • On the suggestion by current TAP czar Matt Raymond on a test locking of the gates, admitting that it will cause problems for non-TAP fare media holders: "I just don't see how this can be done." (Yaroslavsky again)

I still think it is just a matter of time before the gates are removed and sold to an agency that can actually use them ...

Mel Wilson, What Are You Doing Here?: I'm closing this month with that rhetorical question, which is my way of asking why the newest Director doesn't seem to do any research on his own nor even listen to the answers when they are given. Don't get me wrong ... I like Mel; he and I served together on the Metro San Fernando Valley Governance Council together a few years back. But he is rapidly getting a reputation as the most clueless Board member to come along in quite a while.

In May alone, Wilson listened to a report on the pending closure of the 405 freeway for the Mulholland bridge demolition, then proceeded to ask questions that were already covered in the report; objected to an increase in the contract for construction management support services, first by asking why projects coming online after the contract was issued were included (and ignoring the reply from Knabe, which is that the Board specifically ordered the contract written that way, for flexibility) and then admitting he didn't understand what "construction management support services" really were; asked a series of questions about the new NexTrip real-time bus arrival information system (which he repeatedly called "Next Generation" even after being corrected) that could have been answered just by reading the public "take one" brochure ... prompting Walsh to comment "I don't know what planet you're on"; and, as a grand finale, thought the Metro budget should have included funds from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "30/10" initiative, even though Congress is nowhere near approving it and Leahy's explanation that doing so would create an unbalanced agency budget.

Mel, I beg you ... please start asking these questions beforehand and don't ask them during open session. You are a Director of the third largest public transportation agency in North America, but you sound like you just got here from the 276th. Metro has a staff filled with dedicated, professional people who are really good at giving complete answers to questions, if not suddenly hit with them during meetings. I promise you, from my own experience, that you can gain quite an education about all the things Metro does, if you'll only take the time to ask them. Just don't wait until the meetings to ask.

Quote Of The Month: Ridley-Thomas, pontificating about his motion to add the Leimert Park station to the Crenshaw Line: "Leimert Park is second in importance in the region only to LAX. Building this line without the Leimert Park station would be like building the Purple Line without a Century City station, the Red Line without a stop in Hollywood or the Gold Line without Mariachi Plaza."

I told you the man was arrogant and self-centered ...

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, June 15 and 16.
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, June 23.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Metro Board Report for April 2011

This month the Board took up the question of whether one County Supervisor either knows more about public transportation engineering than his bio indicates ... or thinks he deserves an exception to existing policies simply because his ego demands it.

Undergrounding The Crenshaw/LAX Line: A considerable amount of time was wasted this month at the Measure R Project Delivery Committee meeting by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' continuing attempts to underground a part of the future Crenshaw/LAX light rail line between 48th to 59th Streets, including a new Leimert Park/Vernon Station.

One problem, which the Supervisor fails to understand, is there are no monies to be "redirected" (as his motion words it) to fund that segment. The bigger problem is that, despite his selective quoting of last year's Park Mesa grade separation analysis, the segment in question does not meet the Board-established criteria for grade separation.

The facts aren't stopping the unyielding and arrogant Ridley-Thomas, though; he arranged for representatives of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce, the Westchester Neighbors Association, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP to speak in favor of his motion. Several business owners also spoke, as did Damien "light rail kills black people" Goodmon and a representative of the Leimert Park neighborhood council.

All of it was for naught, as committee chair Diane DuBois refused to allow the motion to go to the Board with any recommendation ... and by the time of the Board meeting the following week, the motion had been withdrawn. I wish I could say it won't return in a future month, but I have come to understand that Ridley-Thomas believes he should always get his way and I am certain he will try again.

The sad, but comic, ending to this chapter is that the committee meeting was subsequently recessed for several minutes due to lack of a quorum. The reason: Ridley-Thomas had absented himself to hold a press conference on his motion.

Well, There's Another Hour Of My Life That I'll Never Get Back: The requested Board report with additional information on the impacts of the forthcoming June service changes, as expected, accomplished little, if anything. Despite Chair Don Knabe's statement that the report was "just a receive and file ... there will be no action taken" a full hour of public comment was heard, dominated by those champions of little-used and non-productive service, the Bus Riders Union.

BRU co-chair Barbara Lott-Holland, in fact, continued their unbroken streak of dire predictions of "devastating effects" from the changes, oblivious to the fact that the Board no longer pays any attention to that argument (probably because the BRU, like Chicken Little before them, has been saying that for years but has never produced any evidence of the devastation). Among the clueless comments from non-BRUers was a veterans advocate who decried Line 577X "will no longer serve the V.A. Hospital in Long Beach" (the line is actually going to have its south terminal there) and one person who declared "keep this up and we will boycott your service" (ummm, boycotts only work for profit-making concerns ... boycott transit service and you just make more of it eligible for cancellation).

The previous cancellation of Line 30 service in the Gold Line corridor a year ago also came into the discussion, with several people claiming there was no longer any service between Rowan and Atlantic on the Eastside. This came as news to Supervisor Gloria Molina, who championed the El Sol shuttle service in that area several years ago, and rebutted the comments with a reminder of same.

Although -- not surprisingly -- the Board did not rescind the June changes as the BRU had vainly hoped, Director Richard Katz did call for a staff report on the tracking process for bus/rail and bus/bus transfers (which could prove very useful to the Service Councils in future service change programs) and a quarterly report on efficiencies from implemented changes.

We'll Get No Money From David Solow: The former Metrolink CEO has been trying, for several months, to negotiate a settlement of the agreement made when he purchased his Orange County home that gave Metro an equity share in same. Now that Solow is moving on, there is the matter of Metro getting $141,000 back by selling that equity back to him.

The matter has come before the Finance and Budget Committee several times in the past few months, with more questions being asked every time. This month, the matter ended up at the full Board meeting for discussion, where Molina opposed the deal because Solow failed to follow a provision in the agreement that required him to get approval from Metro before making improvements to the property. This led CEO Art Leahy to ask, tongue-in-cheek, "how much money do you want to pay to validate the cost of a ceiling fan?"

Solow reportedly waived claims for an additional $27,000 in equity related to unapproved improvements, but the agreement still failed on a 5-2 vote, with three Directors abstaining (seven "yes" votes were necessary to approve the agreement). Leahy has said he would not bring the matter back before the Board, but I wonder now what happens to that equity ...

Making Metro Rail More Bicycle-Friendly: The Board also voted to revise the policies regarding bicycles on the Metro Rail system, in the process approving the removal of seats in the Green and Gold Line cars to create an open location for bikes, as was done on Red/Purple Line cars in 2008. Blue Line cars, because of the wide open spaces at the ends of each pair of cars, were not included in the new seat removal program.

The major policy revision removes time restrictions on peak-hour use of the system by cyclists (which were largely ignored anyway). However, an existing safety issue -- the use of escalators rather than elevators and stairs by cyclists inside stations -- will now be enforced more stringently, with citations to be issued in the future.

Quote Of The Month: Gadfly John Walsh, during discussion of state legislation that would reallocate some Proposition 1B transit security funds, if and when bond sales resume: "The fall bond sales have as much chance of happening as Kadafi has of ruling Tripoli in the fall."

But does Tripoli have transit security issues?

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, May 18 and 19.
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, May 26.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Metro Board Report for March 2011

Approval of the June service changes took up most of the March 24 agenda for the Board, with pretty much everything else happening at the committee meetings the week before (and nothing all that earth-shaking happening there, either).

June Service Changes Win, By A Nose: If you read the newspaper reports, you may have noted that the service changes to be implemented the last Sunday in June were narrowly approved by a 7-6 vote (the dissenters were Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his three appointees Richard Katz, Mel Wilson, and City Councilman José Huizar, plus County Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas). But that vote followed a lengthy public comment session -- making one wonder just what the service change public hearings are really for -- an alternate motion by Villaraigosa and Molina which muddied the waters far more than was needed, and several questions by the dissenting Board members that fall into the category of "we don't know what we don't know but we certainly can realize when we don't know it."

The public comment period was, as might be expected, dominated by the Bus Riders Union and their clueless supporters, plus a handful of transit users whose comments made it clear they didn't read the readily-available staff report. The BRU, naturally, concentrated on their usual rhetoric about the changes being excessive and "undoing [our] gains from the Consent Decree," as well as their co-chair Barbara Lott-Holland attacking the widening of the Consent Decree-era load factor by saying "we don't pay fares to stand" (I didn't realize that paying a fare guaranteed a seat!?!) and "organizer" Eric Romann complaining that the regional Service Councils don't "push back" as much as they want them to. Also providing a chuckle was an individual arguing against the change to Line 96 on the basis that the replacement for its western half, Line 155, doesn't run on weekends (even though the staff report clearly pointed out that the proposal also would extend Line 155's operating hours and days to match current Line 96 service).

But the BRU, et al, nonsense paled by comparison to what was heard from Board members trying in vain to understand what was going on. Molina kept trying to make a connection between the service change program and the budget, even though CEO Art Leahy reassured her that no financial target was given to staff, and that roughly one-third of the savings would be reinvested in maintenance and service supervision; Ridley-Thomas thought Metro planning staff didn't "make their case" for the necessity of the changes; and Villaraigosa said he was concerned about the cumulative effect of changes every six months (as if this was the first time the semi-annual service changes happened this often). Only Director John Fasana, as chair of the Board's Operations Committee, had any praise for the planners and Service Councils, asking only for a follow-up report on the specific numbers of bus additions and reductions.

At one point, Molina said she didn't understand why staff could not work on the implementation without the Board approving the service change program first. Even Leahy couldn't craft an answer that she completely understood ...

Ultimately, the Villaraigosa-Molina motion was watered down by an amendment from Director Diane DuBois calling for Fasana's follow-up report as well as answers to Molina's questions. Only after the latter was reassured the Board could reconsider the decision on the service changes once the report was received did the matter move forward to a vote.

Metro planning staff apparently worked until the last minute on the program, removing the weekend change to Line 71 and limiting the cancellation of Rapid Line 757 to weekends; those changes happened so close to the deadline that the presentation slides still had them listed! (And for some reason, the Expo bus-rail interface is now again being called "proposed" for implementation in November.) The complete list is included in the staff report, starting on page 7 (but still listing the last-minute changes as they had been previously listed for the Operations Committee meeting a week previous).

One interesting side effect: Leahy is now proposing that the day pass cost be reduced from $6 to $5 next fiscal year, which starts a mere five days after the service changes take effect.

And There Is Still The Matter Of The Budget: To some degree, the discussion of the service changes spilled over into the discussion on what planning parameters are being used to craft the Metro budget for the next fiscal year. The BRU, still refusing to believe after all these years that capital project money isn't eligible to be spent on operations, claimed Metro "has plenty of money" and didn't need to plan a budget based on the June service changes. Molina, continuing her policy of not understanding that calculating for mid-year (December) service programs is a simple matter of dividing the annual savings by two, asked the same question three different ways in the Finance & Budget Committee meeting -- just as she has practically every year -- only to receive the same answer. Sigh.

There was one bit of intelligent thought in the discussion, and it came from the newest Board member, Mel Wilson (if that name sounds familiar, it is because he also served on the Board years ago as an appointee of Mayor James Hahn) ... Wilson, asking if tax revenues from declining fuel sales was taken into account, received the answer that while consumption does decline when gasoline prices go up, those higher prices tend to make the amount of sales tax balance out. A more pressing concern, according to CEO Leahy, is that the federal excise tax on gasoline, which funds the federal transportation program and therefore the federal share of Metro's project funding, has remained unchanged over the years and -- because it is a per-gallon tax -- has declined in terms of total revenues for some time.

Streetcars & Light Rail & Wilshire, Oh My: Discussion of funding for the proposed streetcar line in downtown Los Angeles, for which Metro is acting as the go-between for federal funding, caused some consternation at the Planning & Programming Committee meeting, where County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky expressed concerns that if the City Redevelopment Agency were to be dissolved by the state, monies advanced them by Metro might not be repaid (as it turns out, the City gets no money from Metro until Metro gets it from DC). The answer, though, made Yaroslavsky even more nervous that the streetcar project would detract from funding for the Purple Line and the downtown Regional Connector.

Then there was the latest report from the Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority that the first segment would need more of the Measure R money (about $27.4 million more) than was planned. Construction Authority CEO Habib Balian now calls the remaining Measure R funds after this advance draw "seed money" for the second phase, which in layman's terms means don't expect the extension to go much farther than Azusa unless Balian and his people find more change hidden underneath the sofa cushions.

And the Wilshire Blvd. bus lanes project is now causing concern that buses are damaging the pavement not only on that venerable artery but on others as well, which has Metro staff now helping the City of Los Angeles identify the corridors with high enough transit ridership to potentially cause damage, especially on the lanes next to the curb. To his credit, Supervisor Michael Antonovich warned that this type of request could set a dangerous precedent leaving Metro liable for costly pavement repairs; however, staff says the repairs would have to be paid for by existing local return funds from Measure R and 1990's Proposition C, which apparently can be used for road repair if there is a public transit benefit. As an example of dangerous precedents being set, clueless gadfly Dr. Clyde Williams immediately insisted that arterial streets Mission Blvd., Cesar E. Chavez Ave., and Huntington Dr. (all outside the City) be added to the program. On the other hand, veteran gadfly John Walsh pointed out that there are at least 100 cars on the street for every bus ...

Quotes Of The Month: This month, we have a tie, because both are too good not to spotlight. Both came during discussion of the June service change program, and both were aimed directly at the BRU.
Gloria Molina: "I don't buy into the 'I'll lose my job if I don't have the bus' argument."
Zev Yaroslavsky (to BRU lead organizer Esperanza Martinez when she interrupted him from the audience): "I have the floor."

Enough said. See you next month.

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, April 20 and 21.
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, April 28.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Metro Board Report for February 2011

February 24 was not the most exciting of Metro Board meetings, with a lot of routine business and very little that required significant discussion. So we'll just hit the highlights:

Oops, It Looks Like Those Gates Probably Weren't Worth It: The monthly update on the TAP program brought forward the widely-known but little-discussed fact that the fare gates still operate unlocked (although now a red light flashes if you go through one without TAP-ping) because of delays in getting all of Metro's passes onto TAP. This, of course, means that fare inspections are still being done manually by Sheriff's Department personnel, many months after the gates were installed.

Director Zev Yaroslavsky, who is well-known for barely controlling the loss of his temper when things get out of hand at Metro, asked "we spent $54 million on gates we can't lock, because we didn't address the conversion issue? We've 'evolved' to the same system as before, but with an extra barrier!" That was followed by Chairman Don Knabe saying that "everything we were told at the time turned out to be wrong ... if we had known this, there wouldn't have been support for it."

Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond, around whose neck the albatross of TAP and fare gates currently hangs, says it would cost $20 million a year to have station agents during all hours of Metro Rail operation, at all gated locations. Calling that "absurd," Yaroslavsky has now called for a full report on the matter.

(You know, guys, Director Richard Katz and I tried to tell you this was a bad idea in the first place ...)

Incidentally, at the Operations Committee meeting, Director John Fasana asked Commander Pat Jordan of the Sheriff's Department Transit Services Bureau if those flashing red lights were helping with fare checks. Jordan's response was that more fare evaders are caught when inspections are done at the exit points of their trips, not at the entry points. Of course, the lights are ineffective with that strategy of catching offenders.

And speaking of TAP, a staff report on the municipal operators concerns regarding the program included a fascinating matrix of what they feel are the numerous remaining stumbling blocks toward getting full countywide usage of the fare card.

The Answer On The 710 Tunnel Cost Is ... Incomplete?: It turns out that Deputy CEO Paul Taylor was omniscient when he warned that Director Ara Najarian's motion in December on the I-710 tunnel would result in a staff report containing “incomplete cost estimates.”

Said staff report used the similar tunnel in Seattle for which bids were recently received, which prompted Najarian to ask why Boston's "Big Dig" wasn't used for comparison instead. The reason, according to Metro's manager for real estate management and development Roger Moliére, is that Boston's project transferred risk to the public-private partner, which prevents direct comparison to Metro's proposed project.

That answer wasn't good enough for Najarian who -- despite CEO Art Leahy's statement that staff did its best to comply, Director Fasana declaring the report "responsive," and Director Gloria Molina declaring in exasperation "we haven't even chosen a route yet!" -- insisted that the report be redone "with a full-cost estimate, on the longest possible route, with all additional costs, and comparing the per-mile cost with Boston." Meanwhile, the anti-tunnel forces raised their usual objection to the entire project, in their apparent belief that this project will somehow go away if they keep protesting it.

And so we still wait to see what the answer is to Najarian's question. Or even if we know what the question really is.

And Here's What's Going On In Washington & Sacramento: As usual, when dealing with federal and state transportation funding, it's always a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that President Obama's proposed budget contains $569 million in transportation funding, half of which would go to public transit, and $400 million set aside for the New Starts program. The bad news is that the California Legislature is getting cold feet about the swap of the sales tax on gasoline for an increased sales tax on diesel that would go to the state Public Transportation Account; some legislators are now floating a proposal to remove the sales tax on diesel as well and increase motor vehicle fees instead, which would eliminate transit funding from the mix. No one is yet commenting on whether or not the state's transit agencies would use recently-passed Proposition 22 to challenge such a move.

Quote Of The Month: During the discussion on the 710 tunnel project, Director Najarian said at the outset that "I'm not saying the report was dishonest" ... only to turn around several minutes later and say "we are selling this report as a lie to the public." Well, Ara, which is it?

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, March 16 & 17.
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, March 24.

Posting Delays

I have been reminded, by way of an e-mail from someone who used to read this column in the Southern California Transit Advocates newsletter, that I have been consistently late in posting the monthly Board Report online.

This, of course, is the danger in not having a newsletter editor constantly reminding you of your deadline for submitting your column. Nevertheless, the criticism is well-deserved and I shall try, in the future, to post the column over the weekend following the Board meeting.

You can all send me e-mails chastising me if I fail. I won't be offended.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Metro Board Report for January 2011

Mark Ridley-Thomas Strikes Again: The Supervisor from the Second District continues his tirade against what he sees as slipshod procedures for approving expenses. This past month, the Board took on his insistent demand for "a unified process and policy for the management and minimization of project costs for Measure R transit projects," which CEO Art Leahy immediately cautioned would bring some "uncomfortable" issues, such as budget-affecting design issues, to the Board.
Because the Construction Committee was unable to reconcile some of the issues involved, the entire matter went before the full Board of Directors with no recommendation. And, as usual, the discussion went far afield and produced a couple of amendments before being resolved. The first, by Directors Gloria Molina, Pam O'Connor and Chair Don Knabe, reinserted the transit corridor and subregional steps into the cost management process, which is expected to, in CEO Leahy's words, "increase self-discipline by staff and create balanced project budgets."
The second amendment, by Directors Molina, O'Connor, and Diane DuBois, creates a "fiscal responsibility policy" for capital project contingency funds. If that sounds like a lot of governmental doublespeak, all you really need to know is that there is a perception that contingencies are budgeted so high that projects get funded on a "first come, first served" basis, and the new policy is hoped to create virtual "lockboxes" for contingency funds. We'll find out more about how this is supposed to work when staff reports back in April.
But back to the original Ridley-Thomas motion. Despite Director Zev Yaroslavsky pointing out that the entire new policy is symbolic, given the requirement under Measure R for a two-thirds Board vote to move funds from one subregion for another, and his worries that the new policy will create problems if there are cost overruns, the motion passed unanimously. Time will tell, as more projects begin construction over the next several years, whether the Supervisor from the Third District was more prescient than his colleague from the Second ...

Mark Ridley-Thomas Strikes Again, The Sequel: If you thought the Supervisor from the Second District was overdoing it when he forced Metro staff to go out for new bids on the next order of new buses (rather than exercising a less-expensive option on the last contract with North American Bus Industries), you won't believe his latest attack on (in his words) "tolerance for a culture of non-competitive behavior and a need to arrest that behavior."
The issue is the maintenance contract for Metro Rail escalators and elevators, which is scheduled to expire at the end of February. Despite staff following the normal procedures to solicit bids for the new contract, only one firm submitted same ... Mitsubishi, which happens to be the holder of the current contract. When this was revealed at the Operations Committee meeting, the Supervisor then declared that something was wrong with the bidding process and that CEO Leahy needed to implement "mediating factors" to remedy this perceived problem.
When the entire Board took up the matter -- because Ridley-Thomas refused to make any concessions to his position which would have allowed the contract to be awarded by at the committee level -- the Supervisor reiterated, practically verbatim, his speech at Operations, with a complete disregard for staff responses given at the committee level. Even Chair Knabe pointing out that the process did include inviting competing companies to inspect the Metro Rail facilities and bid couldn't stop Ridley-Thomas from claiming the process was to blame; in his idealized view of a competitive world, every contract should have at least three bidders or it is somehow flawed.
I will not go into detail on the ensuing discussions, except to say that Ridley-Thomas is the most stubborn individual I have encountered in my many years of transit advocacy, and he is going to have to learn that the real world doesn't operate by his personal sense of what is right and wrong. Ultimately, a substitute motion by Director Yaroslavsky to extend the current contract for three months at the same rate as what was proposed for the new contract passed, while staff undertakes to have an independent review of the bidding process done. My prediction: Whatever the review turns up will not satisfy Ridley-Thomas, and the rebid contract will cost more than the one he prevented the Board from approving.

Good News/Bad News: The Board received word from the Federal Transit Adminsitration that both the Westside Subway Extension and the Regional Connector have received preliminary engineering approval, marking the first time in Metro's history that two projects are in line for New Starts funding at the same time. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has convened a study group that is proposing the elimination of the New Starts Program.
More good news: Incoming Governor Jerry Brown's proposed state budget preserves public transportation funding by re-enacting a sales tax-gas tax swap that would permanently designate the sales tax on diesel fuel to the Public Transportation Account. More bad news: The House has enacted a rules change that undoes previous federal funding guarantees for most programs, including transportation.
So the Purple Line extension and the downtown light-rail connector are now approved for funding under a program that may not exist (or may be underfunded) by the time Metro jumps through the hoops ... with the only potential backfill based upon taxing a fuel that many would like to see outlawed. And you thought Measure R would solve everything?

Soon, There Will Be No Excuse For Not Having A TAP Card: It was announced at the Executive Management and Audit Committee that 22 of the Metro Rail ticket vending machines (TVMs) have been modified to issue plastic TAP cards. Those same TVMs have the ability to allow customers to load a "cash purse" rather than a one-day or monthly pass on the card, whereby the cash fare can be deducted by fareboxes and gates. The program is targeted for full deployment later this year. No word on the timeline for implementing paper TAP cards that Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond had been promoting for much of the past two years, though; those will reportedly allow conversion of the EZ Pass to TAP, as well as bring daypass sales back to buses without having to have the plastic card first. Stay tuned: Those may be discussed in February when Raymond brings a report on the countywide Regional Fare Structure.

Batter Up! Maybe: The Board also approved the operation of the Dodger Stadium express service between Union Station and Dodger Stadium ... if outside funding can be obtained. Since no source had yet been identified, I'm not optimistic about the chances of it returning, short of the McCourts stopping their divorce battle long enough to open the team checkbook. I'm tempted to bet the cost of a Dodger Dog for a year's worth of home games that this won't be settled by opening day.

Quote Of The Month: Eric Romann of the Bus Riders Union, who attempted to weigh in on the bus/rail interface plan for the Expo Line (even though the public hearings were still over a week away): "This results in the removal of 75% of the Consent Decree service!" Ummm, Eric, the Consent Decree ended over 1500 days ago. Did you guys not get the memo?

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, February 16 & 17.
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, February 24.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

January Metro Board Committee Meeting Schedule

For those who may have an interest in attending the various committee meetings of the Metro Board of Directors, the agendas for same were posted today on the Metro website.

For those who don't know how Metro works, many of the informational items (where a staff report is received and filed, but no vote is necessary) are presented at the committee meetings, primarily to save time at the full Board meeting a week later. In fact, much of my column concerns these types of reports. So there are times when you'll find out things at the committee meetings that you wouldn't hear about otherwise.

The committee meetings, like the Board meeting itself, are held in the Board Room at the Metro headquarters building adjacent to Union Station. Several bus lines, as well as the Metro Red/Purple Line subway and Metro Gold Line light rail, serve this location. The Board Room is on the 3rd floor (just go up the escalators from the lobby).