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.