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.