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.)