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.