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.