Sunday, October 16, 2011

Metro Board Report for September 2011

I finally located my folder with the September Board meeting agendas and my notes, which went astray during some reorganization of my home office. So, much delayed but possibly still anticipated, here goes ...

Najarian vs. the 710 Extension: The latest in a series of "final reports" on the costing information for the 710 freeway gap closure between Alhambra and Pasadena was released to the Finance & Budget Committee, and as usual Director Ara Najarian started questioning the numbers, calling the report a "boondoggle" and suggesting that a panel of experts conduct a review. Metro's real estate director, Roger MoliƩre (who somehow has been saddled with this albatross) surprised Najarian by agreeing and asking him to submit his questions.

The No on 710 Committee, meanwhile, continued to misstep, first by repeating their favorite misconception that the funds could be shifted to transit projects, then calling Metro "non-credible", then calling the project a "truck tunnel" and the budget projection a "sham" on that basis. They then provided a comparison of the project budget to their own (unsubstantiated) numbers. On the other side of the aisle, representatives of the various local unions continued to state their support but are worried that non-local workers will be brought in once (or even if) the project goes forward.

I'm expecting Najarian to object to the experts selected for the review. Meanwhile, the Planning & Programming Committee got into its own argument over the project when Director Richard Katz started questioning the award of a contract for the professional services (technical assessments, conceptual and preliminary engineering, and the like) on the project. The No on 710ers, of course, took the opportunity to point out that in their considered opinion most of the companies bidding for the contract are committing fraud. (No, of course they didn't bring any facts to back up their statement. What were you expecting?)

The whole matter ended up going to the full Board without committee recommendation, at which time CEO Art Leahy withdrew the item for further study by staff. Which means everyone gets another chance to attack it again when it comes back in a month or two.

When Is A Park-Ride Lot Really A White Elephant?: It should come to no one's surprise that the state budget problems are now trickling down to the local level. The latest example of this is Caltrans' proposal to transfer as many as 41 of their park and ride facilities along the 105 and 110 freeways to Metro, because they no longer have sufficient funding to maintain them. The problem is that Metro might not have the money for that either, with the further complication that the transfer of such facilities from the state to a local authority has never been done before. Nevertheless, a phased transfer has been hesitantly approved, beginning with the Artesia Transit Center sometime after the first of the year.

To their credit, Directors Pam O'Connor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Don Knabe introduced an amendment that prioritizes the order in which facilities are transferred so that the ones considered "most critical to Metro's transit goals" come first. Still, no one knows just where the maintenance bucks are coming from, so we'll be hearing more about this in future months.

Do You Know What A "PLA" Is?: No, it isn't the Palestine Liberation Army, it's a Project Labor Agreement, and the negotiation of one with the building trade councils for Los Angeles and Orange Counties of a master PLA covering all of the upcoming Measure R projects was on the agenda this month. And as usual, not only did politics raise its ugly head, the unions made a show of force that ended up making them look a little foolish.

First, the politics: Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa joined with Directors Ridley-Thomas and Katz to bring forward their own version of how a PLA should be negotiated, calling for a recognition of the limitations on targeted hiring -- basing hiring on the percentage of unemployment in the hiring areas -- that sometimes comes with the federal funds Metro is seeking for Measure R ... which was answered by Director Zev Yaroslavsky calling the maps showing said unemployment "incongruous" because for some reason Brentwood and Bel Air have higher percentages than Van Nuys. Director Michael Antonovich then countered by trying to limit the PLA only to the upcoming Crenshaw/LAX light rail project and using "lessons learned" to better negotiate PLAs for future projects; when his amendment was voted down he followed his usual course of action when that happens ... he voted against the entire proposal (a pure vote on principle, as it turned out, because the rest of the Board, except the absent Director Gloria Molina, voted in favor).

And then came the unions. For some reason, the organized labor unions in our area think it is a good idea to overfill the Boardroom every time a matter comes up involving construction contracts and the like. I don't think it is a bad idea for them to show their interest, but when every union sends a half-dozen rank-and-file members, the result is a lack of available seating for everyone else who have come about other items. It doesn't help their cause either when they have to be chastised by Chairman Villaraigosa for booing the one-minute public comment rule; that rule has existed for many years and they aren't so "special" as to warrant an exception ... especially when they have dozens of speaker request cards in the queue. Nor is it considered good form to applaud after every speaker, as has been proven over the years by the Bus Riders Union.

But the most egregious, albeit inadvertent, violation of public decorum always comes (as it did this time as well) after "their" item has been voted on. Instead of quietly leaving the room and allowing the meeting to continue, they linger. And carry on conversations, the cumulative effect of which is to drown out the official proceedings, even though the latter are amplified.

So, I'm going to end my report on this item with an open appeal to my friend Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor: Please, when you bring the rank-and-file to Metro as a "show of force", realize that there are only so many seats in the Boardroom and that other people are going to need the seats that, for lack of a better word, you hog. You don't need a hundred-plus construction and trade workers to make your point. And those workers don't need to be seen as disrespectful by booing the Chair for enforcing the regular rules on public comment. Nor do they need to be seen as further disrespecting the Board by being disruptive on the way out of the room afterwards. You're approaching the point where these behaviors are going to irritate the Board rather than influence them to make decisions that favor you. As one who has been a union member herself in the past, I do not want to see the Metro Board become hostile to labor ... so please, dial it back a few notches in the future.

Here We Go Again With Line 442: The low-performing express line, which Metro South Bay has been trying to cancel since 2007, won yet another unearned reprieve this month, as Directors Ridley-Thomas and Knabe again suspended its cancellation (which was supposed to happen any minute) and forcing yet another study of the line, along with low-performing local Lines 126, 177, 202, 607 and 620. Never mind that all of this has been studied before; never mind that Metro has cancelled ten lines in the past year with higher ridership than Line 442; and never mind that this action defies a Board decision from this past April.

This latest decision is an excellent example of micro-management by the Board, and one that delivers a slap in the face to the Metro South Bay Service Council (who is supposed to have the responsibility for such matters) and by extension, to the four other regional Service Councils.* I can only repeat what I told the Board during public comment: Last December, Line 168 was cancelled, having first been identified by RTD staff as being low-performing in September, 1977. I only hope it doesn't take 33 years to cancel Line 442 as well.

I Bet This Proves The Exact Opposite Of What Staff Intends: If you live near Hollywood/Western, Vermont/Beverly, or Wilshire/Normandie Stations and use the Red/Purple Line in the middle of the day, you may have already gotten tangled up in a gate locking test that has been taking place on Wednesday afternoons since the week after the Board meeting. The purpose, according to Metro's Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond (I'm still trying to figure out how he ended up with the TAP and fare gate debacle responsibilities), is to determine how much non-TAP fare media still exists; for some reason, choosing stations that have lower ridership and less non-TAP media usage is supposed to create a baseline so that later tests at higher-use stations at other times of the day will create meaningful data.

Why do I think this is going to prove what I (and many others, including Katz) have been saying all along? Raymond himself admitted that the biggest obstacle to full fare gate locking is the failure of Metrolink, municipal operator-issued transfers, and the EZ Pass to convert to TAP.

As a footnote, here is a TAP "fun fact" ... did you know that, since TAP enabled the "cash purse" option on its fareboxes and ticket vending machines, you can load cash value on your TAP card at a participating municipal operator, then tap the card on a Metro farebox and have a cash fare deducted, but because of a glitch in the financial reconciliation process Metro won't get the money? (Sigh.)

Quote Of The Month: Richard Katz, after a report on freeway beautification projects that followed the discussion on the park and ride facilities transfer: "I don't remember getting the 'Caltrans is going out of business' notice!"

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, October 19 & 20
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, October 27

* - Disclaimer: I am a member of the Metro San Fernando Valley Service Council, presently serving as its chair, and my remarks on Line 442 quoted above were delivered in the context of my position as same.