Article from Moving People, Nov., 1996. Index.

Feds Demand MTA Ethics Reform


Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is drawing up a new code of conduct for its board members, following repeated scandals over cost overruns, engineering failures, and favoritism in awarding consultant contracts. The code was demanded by U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Peña as a prerequisite for any additional federal funds for extension of the Red Line subway

According to MTA ethics officer William C. Lowe, who helped draft the code, "It's like sending [MTA Board Members] all back to catechism class. We're saying 'This is wrong and this is right..' It's everything you're supposed to learn in kindergarten but they were absent that day."

MTA rail extension plans were already under siege by critics of repeated obvious flaws in engineering and system design five years ago. Since that time, repeated tunnel collapses, cost overruns and contracting scandals have undermined the credibility of the rail program. The 1994 failure of the state rail bond measure is widely attributed to the refusal of Los Angeles County voters to put any more money into the Red Line, widely viewed as an endless sink hole for money.

Also, in 1994 the ethical lapses of board members and consultants became so destructive that they put the future of the Los Angeles system at risk. For example, the MTA directly hurt the interests of transit to enrich engineering firms, when it pushed for destruction of the perfectly functional Santa Fe line between Pasadena and Los Angeles, so that it could be rebuilt at higher cost.

A Turning Point

Rick Cole, former Mayor of Pasadena, who supported the removal at the time now says, "the failure in Los Angeles stems from serving contractors and consultants, not the public interest." A 1995 peer review of plans for the Pasadena extension of the light rail Blue Line was apparently the turning point for Cole. The review criticized MTA design standards that made implementing light rail on an existing 10-mile rail line into a $1 billion project. Calling the costs "unprecedented in the industry," the panel called for changes in "the way business is carried out in all phases of MTA activities."

The most critical new ethics rules will affect the contracting process, found to be seriously flawed by a recent independent audit. Proposed regulations will prohibit board members from communicating with staff during a procurement, or trying to glean information about a procurement before the award is publicly announced, but new state laws would be required to put teeth into the rules. According to James Cragin, a Gardena city councilman who is on the MTA Board, "We've got to make this thing hurt. The board won't like it, but tough. We've got to turn around and get our credibility back."

A Real Cure Needed

Reformers don't look like they will stop at just a housecleaning. They seem to want to adapt MTA projects to actually respond to the local travel market. The absence of frequent rail service to vast areas of Los Angeles, including the entire west side of the basin, LAX, and the San Fernando Valley, has apparently convinced a majority on the MTA that the network needs more light rail and less subway.

It may take a decade, but look for Los Angeles to start emulating successful rail systems in other ways. A recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece authored by Rick Cole and Katharine Perez of the Pasadena Transportation Advisory Commission notes that San Diego is extending light rail service to Jack Murphy Stadium, home of the Padres, Portland has attracted a $200 million Nike headquarters expansion to its new western extension, and San Jose's Sharks play in a new arena right next to Diridon Station. Cole and Perez say the failure in Los Angeles to connect rail construction with land use "explains how the $1 billion Green Line could miss serving Los Angeles Internation Airport, to which 10,000 workers commute every day."

Most observers of the MTA ascribe the poor ridership of the three rail lines to the MTA's avoidance of destinations capable of attracting middle class riders. At present, average weekday ridership is about 99,100. Two years ago, before the opening of the Green Line, 50,450 passengers used MTA's light rail services on weekdays.

MTA somewhat misleadingly claims that it has surpassed rail ridership in 12 other cities, including San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento, Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, Denver, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Portland (Oregon), and St. Louis.

That performance is not so outstanding, considering 9 of the 12 systems are light rail systems that cost a fraction of L.A. Metro's pricetag. Two of the other three, Baltimore and Miami, suffered from the same poor planning and lack of fiscal responsibility that L.A. has endured. When compared to other systems that cost an equivalent amount, Los Angeles still comes out near the bottom of the stack, despite its recent growth in riders.

The same ridership that Sacramento, San Diego, and St. Louis achieved for about $12 million a mile of capital took L.A. nearly $100 million a mile in capital.

Faulty Reasoning

The Reason Foundation, authors of a recent report "Ten Transit Myths," speaks about these same issues but would like Californians to believe that all rail transit is economically inferior to buses and cannot solve traffic problems.

According to the Reason Foundation, support for rail is based on flawed reasoning and trains do not provide more rapid transportation than buses, "once out-of-vehicle, station access and transfer delay time is accounted for."

That line of argument would be a tough sell in cities like Sacramento and San Diego where residents have seen cost-effective rail transit development. But, in Los Angeles, there is no visible evidence of alternative methods of building rail cost-consiously. Rail advocates cannot point to a single facility that was built with economy in mind. And until recently there weren't any spokespersons for cost-effective rail among local institutions.

Could Metrolink Be the Way?

Other large metropolitan areas, including Boston, Chicago, and Toronto, have adopted the European idea of making commuter rail into a frequent mode, serving dispersed trips and carrying a tremendous share of regional travel. This was most rail supporters' hope for Metrolink in Los Angeles. Metrolink, alone among the projects considered at the beginning of the 1990's had the geographical span and the potential speeds to make rail popular throughout the Southland.

Unfortunately, Metrolink hasn't measured up to its potential. Metrolink has so far evaded the direct attacks that MTA has seen, largely because it built a firewall between itself and the MTA by becoming "regional." It is not any more cost effective.

And Metrolink is just as vulnerable as the MTA to the charge that it has favorite vendors and undue costs. The Reason Foundation calculates Metrolink costs at $46 per passenger, about 80 percent in amortized capital costs.

Metrolink ridership continues to grow, but is a fraction of what a billion-dollar five-county system should be. November counts averaged about 23,000 weekday passengers, substantially less than the 27,000 carried by Sacramento's $160 million light rail system.

What makes Metrolink service so costly per passenger? It sits idle most of the day, like its managers and operating employees. Metrolink train equipment is probably the most underutilized transportation capital in the Southland, as most of the 100-car fleet sits needlessly unused between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. That puts all costs of most train sets onto a pair of peak hour runs. One running inbound in the morning, the other outbound in the evening. Metrolink officials mistakenly believe that filling each seat twice a day for less than an hour constitutes full use.

Waiting for a Regional Metro

What if Metrolink were to marshall its copious equipment to provide a continuous half-hourly service all day from. Pomona to Los Angeles and Van Nuys? Instead of being a "commuter train" irrelevant to most residents needs, Metrolink could become a mass market carrier. Instead of being shut out from funding by hostility from unserved constituencies, Metrolink could become the sweetheart of Los Angeles politicians.

The proliferation of half-hourly services in many European regional cities of less than a million residents suggests strong success in a market like L.A. where 5 million residents live within 8 miles of the line. A half-hourly shuttle service with supporting bus feeders is likely to carry as much as than the rest of Metrolink. Most importantly, it would extend frequent rail transit to a huge span of the county and make it relevant to voters.

As the only rail service in Los Angeles capable of rapid implementation or regional service, Metrolink has a great opportunity to show what it can do with existing capital. For those unfamiliar with conditions on L.A. freeways during the daytime, gridlock does not necessarily disappear at the end of rush hour. It is only Metrolink train service that suddenly vanishes.

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