Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Metro Board Report for May 2012

In a month where John Walsh pushed the envelope far enough to be thrown out of the Boardroom not once, but twice, the plan to lock the fare gates on the Red/Purple Lines moved forward, and a budget for next fiscal year that (amazingly) does not call for a fare increase, the big news was approval of the subway extension to Westwood.

The Subway Goes Under Beverly Hills High: As we reported last month, the city of Beverly Hills forced Metro to hold a special hearing May 17 on the proposed route of the Purple Line tunnel under Beverly Hills High School in order to put the Century City station at the intersection of Constellation Blvd. and Avenue of the Stars. But, because the city invoked a somewhat obscure section (§30639) of the state Public Utilities Code which only applies to Metro as the successor agency to RTD, it was unlike any public hearing any of us are used to; the hearing was conducted as a way for the city to put forward its specific findings from its own geological surveys (which it did, in mind-numbing fashion, for more than two hours) and make its own suggestions for getting to Constellation without going underneath their precious high school campus.

The hearing went on so long, in fact, that public comment had to be delayed to the regular Board meeting a week later. The highlights of same:
  • The Beverly Hills Homeowners Association defying its own city’s government by supporting Constellation as the station location;
  • Joe Dunn, representing Southern California Transit Advocates, claiming Beverly Hills “wants us all to go back to 8-track players and one phone company”;
  • Brian Goldberg, president of the Beverly Hills Board of Education, chastising Metro for not making its own experts available for cross-examination at the hearing, to which Zev Yaroslavsky responded that decision was deliberate to give the city the entire scheduled time (“this was supposed to be a hearing, not a debate”);
  • The Crenshaw Committee, in a burst of colossal misunderstanding, thinking they should have also had a hearing about their desire to underground the Crenshaw/LAX Line;
  • Damion Goodmon, similarly trying to draw the Crenshaw/LAX and Expo Lines into the discussion, claiming it was all about the “unsafe safety culture” at Metro;
  • The Century City Chamber of Commerce declaring the still-to-be-built station “the center of Century City”;
  • One commenter taking the opportunity to remind the Bus Riders Union that the consent decree is long over (off-topic, but the BRU needs to be reminded of that at any opportunity);
  • 28th Congressional District candidate Jenny Worman bringing a proposal for advanced technology – one sheet of paper with no specifics – and wanting the Board to sign off on it, sight unseen … boy, does she have a lot to learn about how government works (we checked her website and she’s never held elected office before, although she does take pride in serving on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors for six years … maybe she thinks this is all a movie?);
  • John Walsh calling the Beverly Hills Courier (source of many articles – some of them even factual – deriding Metro over the proposed route) his “favorite reading material”; and
  • Gadfly Malcolm Klugman asking “if there’s a fault, why is the high school itself there?”
There were more discussions by the Board after that postponed public comment, including a revelation by Yaroslavsky that even as the city of Beverly Hills attacked the credentials of Metro’s experts, they attempted to hire one – Dr. James Dolan of USC – for their own studies (“so apparently his credentials weren’t in doubt there”). On the other hand, Michael Antonovich, who seems to be trying every possible tactic to prevent money going to anything benefiting the Westside, called Metro’s experts “trained seals” and said that having USGS’ Lucy Jones as part of the expert panel was “akin to asking the weather girl for advice on how to secure your home during a hurricane” (which brought a subsequent charge of misogyny from Jack Lindblad, a candidate for the 39th Assembly District, in comments he made on the digg.com website after Rick Orlov quoted Antonovich in his Daily News column).

Antonovich went on to claim that one expert on the panel – Dr. Thomas K. Rockwell of San Diego State University – had recanted his testimony and now opposed the project, but staff claimed no knowledge of such a statement by Rockwell and the 5th District Supervisor produced no evidence of same. He did, however, try to delay a vote on the matter in order to conduct “a full seismic fault analysis by the California Geological Survey,” which lost steam after Jones pointed out that there was no such thing as a standard analysis, that CGS was brought in to review the original data of the Metro fault study, and that such a request might take years to be approved by the state. In the end, only John Fasana sided with Antonovich … and they were the only two votes against approving the alignment and the rest of the EIR. (For the record, Diane DuBois, Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas were absent for the vote on the alignment; those three, plus Don Knabe, were absent for the EIR vote.)

There was a breath of fresh air at one point, provided by a resident of Beverly Hills objecting to her city spending $3 million on the fight “because it was politically motivated.” One wonders how many more residents of that affluent city feel the same way, and how many members of the City Council and Board of Education won’t win their bids for re-election in the future over this.

Gate Locking Approved, With Little Discussion: Although the staff report brought up a number of potential pitfalls to locking the fare gates on the Metro Red and Purple Lines, including a possible violation of the state Transportation Development Act requiring seniors to have reduced fare access without special media (such as a TAP card) and continuing problems integrating Metrolink and the municipal operators’ interagency transfers into the system, the Board rushed through a decision to phase in the locking, starting with Wilshire/Normandie Station near the end summer and continuing over a 12-week period, ending with 7th St/Metro Center and Union Station.

One possible mitigation mentioned would be the use of Sheriff’s Department Assistants, which are best known to Metro patrons as the white-shirted fare inspectors, as station attendants. We did the math and offered it up to Metro during public comment, for their use: 16 Red and Purple Line stations, six of which have two entry portals and sets of gates, and one of which (7th St/Metro Center) has three such gate sets, totals 24 locations requiring attendants. The subway operates a 20 hour span of service, seven days per week, for a total of 3,360 attendant hours per week (774,720 hours per year). We are told that Sheriff’s Assistants make about $12.50 per hour, which means the annual total would be $9,684,760. Is there that high an amount of lost fare revenue from evasion to justify continuing this expensive experiment?

Gloria Molina, For Whom “Yes” Is Not An Acceptable Answer: The Finance & Budget Committee meeting took a full half-hour longer than it needed to, because Molina felt the need to berate Government Affairs head Michael Turner about AB 1446 (Feuer) which would remove the 30-year sunset date on Measure R – making it a continuing source of funding, like Proposition A in 1980 and Proposition C in 1990 – and authorize an extension to be placed on the ballot to fund projects beyond the ones listed in the original Measure R.

The gist of Molina’s argument about supporting the legislation is valid, actually; she wants the extension to have flexibility by not including a list of specific projects (she thinks former CEO Roger Snoble should never have insisted on such a list in the original) and worries that the bill could be amended before passage in a way that would negatively impact Metro. However, Turner twice addressed those concerns, first by pointing out that it is his job to advise the Board when adverse changes occur in pending legislation, and again by suggesting that Board support be conditioned on the lack of a project list. Neither made the Supervisor from the 1st District happy, though, and by the time she let go of the matter, a full 30 minutes had passed … which was unfortunate because it was the last agenda item at the last committee meeting of the day.  We really wanted to go home, Gloria.

John Walsh’s Days May Be Numbered: In recent months, perpetual gadfly John Walsh has been pushing his luck, having played “the Jewish card” more and more in his public comments, usually in an offensive context. This month, he got thrown out of the Boardroom for those remarks … not once, but twice.

The first came during the Planning & Programming Committee, when chair Yaroslavsky pointedly told Walsh to “keep ethnicity and religion out of this … one more time and you’re out of here.” Walsh retorted that Zev was violating his First Amendment rights (to which Zev replied, “Sue me.”) and then shouted from the audience that “all the Jews will be here tomorrow [for the special public hearing on the subway extension]” at which point Zev ejected him.

Not to be outdone, Walsh continued his ethnic ranting during public comment at the Board meeting during discussion of the subway alignment to Century City, at which point chair Antonio Villaraigosa also ejected him. To Walsh’s question “What’d I say?” the response was “I think you know.” The latter expulsion included a 60-day ban on Walsh attending Board meetings, which with the usual August “dark” month means the next time we’ll hear anything from him will be September 19.

Wonder how long he’ll go after that before being thrown out again … and how long the next ban will be?

The Budget In Brief: I know that most readers of this column worry more about the budget for transit service operations more than anything else, so here's that part of the 2012-13 Metro budget.

Higher operating costs for the Orange Line because of the extension to Chatsworth are more than offset by the cancellation of service duplicating the new Expo Line, so the bus operating budget is pretty much the same as last year (up by 0.3%, if you want to be technical). The rail operating budget is up by 16% due to the Expo Line and the increase in late night Red Line service.

All transit-eligible funding is used for operations, including the 20% Measure R bus operations allocation.

Metro has put the entire budget online at the website, in PDF format, if you want to read it for yourself.

Bruce DuBois, R.I.P.: Much of the May 24 agenda was held for the June meeting because of the passing of Diane DuBois’ husband of 53 years, Bruce, on May 15 at age 76; the funeral was held the afternoon of the Board meeting, so once the two important matters were dealt with, the meeting adjourned to allow the Board to attend. We offer our condolences to Mrs. DuBois on her loss.

Quote Of The Month: Richard Katz, reacting to background sounds from Mel Wilson’s attending the Finance & Budget Committee via phone from Washington, DC (incredibly, Wilson was on a phone without a mute button): “Can’t we just disconnect him?”

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, June 20 & 21
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, June 28

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Metro Board Report for April 2012

The big news this month was the tentative approval of both the Westside Subway Extension environmental impact report and an order for enough new light rail cars to see Metro through the opening of the second phase of the Expo Line, the Gold Line extension to Azusa, and the Crenshaw/LAX line, with enough left over to retire the oldest of the Blue Line cars.

Did Everyone In Beverly Hills Sign Up To Speak?: After a whopping two hours and twenty minutes of public comment, the Board finally approved the EIR for the Purple Line extension to Westwood, as well as starting the process to construct the line underneath Wilshire Blvd. as far as La Cienega Blvd. Of course, that massive amount of public input followed yet another presentation of the geological study conducted on the now-famous fault under Santa Monica Blvd., which is the basis for putting the Century City Station under Constellation Blvd. instead. And of course, the Beverly Hills City Council still doesn’t believe any of it, turning out en masse to again voice their opposition (prompting Chair Antonio Villaraigosa to comment that there appeared to be a quorum of the Council present, which sounds like a Brown Act violation to me!) even though the study was headed by no less an expert than Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey … if you’ve ever watched television news coverage of a local earthquake, you’ve seen her.

Without going into too many of the details – suffice it to say that if you live anywhere but Beverly Hills you probably were in support of the project, and if you did live there, you were probably opposed (there were 90 commenters, according to the Board Secretary’s office, 50 in favor of the project and 40 against) – the matter will continue to be discussed at a special public hearing on May 17 requested by the City of Beverly Hills under an obscure statute written back in 1964 originally applying to the RTD. Not that anyone expects that to solve anything.

Of all the Board members, it was Zev Yaroslavsky who unearthed (so to speak) what I think is the most compelling piece of information that has the effect of destroying Beverly Hills’ argument: The Purple Line tunnel will not, based on the Beverly Hills High School master plan’s charts, go underneath any of the historic buildings, but will instead go underneath a newer single-story annex to one of those buildings. Oh, wait … no it won’t, because the master plan calls for that annex to be demolished when they build their underground parking garage, long before Metro’s tunnel boring machines arrive. (After pointing out that there are tunnels underneath schools, hospitals, and government buildings throughout the county, he pointed out that “if it’s safe in one part of L.A. County, it’s safe everywhere in L.A. County.”)

Of course, that came after the clueless remarks at the Planning & Programming Committee by Beverly Hills’ city attorney, who – apparently not understanding how committees work in government – tried to interpret the wording of the item on the committee agenda as being a Brown Act violation, only to be challenged by Zev and his 35 years of experience with government bodies’ committees and a tongue-in-cheek request of County Counsel Charles Safer to confirm that the committee had authority to make a recommendation to the full Board. There must be something about all that money floating around in Beverly Hills that makes its government somewhat less than candidates for Mensa …

One humorous moment came when my favorite Los Angeles City Councilman, Tom LaBonge, quoted the lyrics of Fleetwood Mac’s song “Don’t Stop” … but then Tom is famous for his enthusiasm when public transit is the matter at hand.

In the end, the vote was nearly unanimous, with only Michael Antonovich dissenting in his usual symbolic stand against the Westside getting Measure R money, and Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining, thus avoiding a vote on a matter which would undoubtedly give him grief with his Crenshaw constituents.

The Blue Line May Get To Pasadena After All: After all the wasted public comment at the February Board meeting about the Regional Connector environmental impact report, it was refreshing to have only a half-hour of comments before the Board approved the EIR this month. Naturally, there is still contentiousness over the 5th/Flower station which was removed from the project, which has now grown out of proportion into a concern by the Bonaventure Hotel about cut-and-cover construction on Flower triggering some obscure clause in their event agreements. (I detect a straw man.) The Board appears ready to call their bluff, though, by separating the final design decision into a separate vote which includes a determination if any additional mitigation is possible on Flower. With the exception of Villaraigosa being conflicted on that part of the matter, the vote to approve was unanimous except for Ridley-Thomas’ abstaining (again).

Gee, You Mean Measure R Funds Are Still Dependent On The Economy?: With economic recovery taking longer than anyone would like, the Board was asked to make changes in the Measure R contingency policy to more accurately reflect interest earning and interest costs for the federal Build America bonds, and stipulate the reimbursement policy for funds advanced on Measure R projects from other sources. Sounds simple enough, until Ridley-Thomas woke up from his nap of abstentions just in time to berate Metro’s David Yale about deferred maintenance, then calling Yale’s answer “non-responsive” (Yale said he would need to refer to Metro’s short-term transportation plan to give a complete answer) before finally admitting that Yale is not an expert on all the specific areas.  

Then, citing a need to tie back the policy to specific projects and to define same, John Fasana put forward a motion to defer the matter, prompting Yaroslavsky to have one of his well-timed explosions by pointing out that the matter had already been deferred twice in order to be on the same agenda as the Regional Connector. That was enough to kill the Fasana motion 8-4 (by this time, Villaraigosa had apparently had enough and left) and approve the changes 7-5 (with Fasana joined by all the Supervisors other than Zev in voting against).

As Long As It Isn’t AnsaldoBreda: It took a special meeting of the Board on April 30 to decide the matter, but a contract for 235 light rail vehicles was tentatively issued on a 8-2 vote – Villaraigosa conflicted, Richard Katz abstaining, and Gloria Molina conspicuously absent – to the Japanese firm Kinkisharyo, pending resolution of protests from the losing bidders, Siemens Corporation and CAF USA. Key to the discussion and public comment was the fact that the winning bid was 12% higher than that of second-place Siemens, the result of using “best value” criteria to decide the winner … said process having been put in place after the disastrous negotiations three years ago with AnsaldoBreda to have the new cars built under an existing 1998 contract with Metro fell apart (and we’re still waiting for the last cars from that order), putting Metro, as CEO Art Leahy put it, “out of slack” in terms of waiting to issue a contract. That much would have been obvious even if references weren’t made to AB during the meeting; Kinkisharyo’s reputation for being the only company which has never failed to deliver on time was repeatedly cited as the reason they were the preferred bidder.

On Siemens’ side was the County Federation of Labor, which appears to have finally worn out their welcome in the Metro boardroom with their usual focus on local jobs, which I (and others) have taken them to task for because the Federal Transit Administration does not allow local jobs creation to be considered in awarding these types of contracts. This time, the Federation shot itself in the foot by continuing to claim that the construction would take place in Japan rather than California … and continued to claim that after it was revealed that Kinkisharyo would indeed conduct final assembly in the Golden State, creating 348 jobs in the process (only 43 fewer than would have Siemens).

Perhaps the Bus Riders Union has been giving the County Federation of Labor lessons on making misstatements.

A Special Comment: I would be remiss if I did not weigh in on the unfortunate comment by Antonovich at the Executive Management Committee meeting. In case you missed all of the media coverage, during a discussion of AB 1446, pending legislation that would authorize Metro to put an extension of Measure R (including removing the sunset date) on the ballot, the esteemed Supervisor from the 5th District said he believed more public input was needed "unlike last time, which was a gang rape." He was referring to his view of the original Measure R, but that comment was enough to make Villaraigosa absent himself for several minutes, returning when the matter came to a vote in favor of supporting the bill.

First, I think the Mayor’s response was wonderfully restrained. Even his choice of words in responding to the Supervisor (“That kind of terminology is unacceptable from a board member, sir.”) concealed what must have been a seething furor within. But I have to ask why Antonovich would make a remark which the vast majority of people find offensive. Does he not realize that the subject of rape – especially gang rape – is one that virtually everyone other than the rapists finds repulsive? Does he also fail to realize that his comparison disrespects his own constituents, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of Measure R?

Is it because he is past the usual age of retirement (72) and therefore believes he can get away with saying anything he wants because he’s an “old man”? Or does he not care because he terms out in another four years?

Whatever the reason, he owes the residents of Los Angeles County an apology. Not that I think we’re going to get one.

Quote Of The Month: Zev Yaroslavsky, on the continuing protests of the Beverly Hills Board of Education: “I sense crocodile tears.”

Next Metro Board Committee Meetings: Wednesday and Thursday, May 16 & 17*
Next Metro Board Meeting: Thursday, May 24
* - The May 17 committee meetings will be followed at 1:30pm by the special public hearing on the Westside Subway Extension.

(My thanks to Jerard Wright of Move LA for his assistance in taking notes for this month's column during periods when I was unable to do so.)