Art Leahy, Los Angeles County’s top transit official, has quite a history in public transportation. His parents met in the 1940s when they were both operating streetcars in Los Angeles. He started his career at 21 as a Los Angeles bus driver, then moved into management at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In 1997, he took a job as general manager of the Minneapolis transit system, then moved back west to run the Orange County Transportation Authority. In April, he returned to the MTA as chief executive. He faces huge challenges: The MTA is wrestling with a series of improvements. The passage of Measure R will provide $40 billion over 30 years to improve bus service and build projects that include the extension of the Red Line west under Wilshire Boulevard – the so-called “Subway to the Sea” – and a handful of other rail line expansions. Leahy met with the Business Journal in his office 25 stories above Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to discuss his career, thoughts about life in Los Angeles and how he works his magic – literally – as a sleight-of-hand performer.
Question: How does a bus driver become head of the MTA?
Answer: It was a slow rise, learning about the system as I worked my way here. It’s been a progression, but one rich with experiences I couldn’t put a price on. It feels good. I can’t complain.
Q: Does your driving experience help shape your views as an administrator?
A: Yes, I have a deep respect for the drivers. I understand firsthand all the pressures on a driver. To be on time, deal with traffic, handle the customers, and operate a piece of heavy machinery all at one time can be really stressful. One time at Fifth and Broadway when I was driving a bus, a kid spat in my face. I didn’t do anything because he had like 10 friends with him. That kind of stuff rarely happens, but it does. So when we are looking at decisions, I think about how it will affect people on the ground like the drivers, whom I speak with often.
Q: How did you work your way up?
A: It took time. It allowed me to see a transit system from the ground up. Since I had a college degree and already worked for the Rapid Transit District, which later became the MTA, this made it easier to transition, going first into the marketing department and working with local government for about six years. Then I became a superintendent in charge of six bus bases and more than 3,000 employees in 1981. After four years as a superintendent, I became director of scheduling, and then assistant general manager for operations, managing the entire bus operations in L.A.
Q: You were in that job during the 1992 riots.
A: We had only seven employees injured during the riots but made more than a thousand trips. We transported prisoners, the Marine Corps, the U.S. Army and the National Guard. But it was tough because drivers were only allowed to abandon their route in some danger zones if they reported seeing gunfire or fire. I realized we had heroes working for us because some did not want to abandon our routes, but we ended up having to order them to turn around for their safety and that of the passengers on the buses.
Q: Did you grow up in Los Angeles?
A: Although I was born in Glendale, I grew up in Highland Park and went to many schools near there. I went to Burbank Junior High on Figueroa Street. Then I went to Benjamin Franklin High School on North Avenue 54 and finished at Franklin and then went off to East L.A. College before heading to Cal State L.A. So I am an L.A. person, born and raised.
Q: Your parents were both in transit. How did they meet?
A: My father, Arthur Leahy, was a rail operator for L.A. Railway before World War II. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he made the choice to serve his country and enlisted in the Navy. Meanwhile, my mom, Janie, was living in Kentucky but moved to California to become a streetcar operator during the war because they were hiring women then. After the war ended, my dad came back home and resumed streetcar operations, where he met my mom.
Q: Did you always want to work in transit?
A: I loved politics and thought I would run for office someday so I got a degree in political science. The bus driving job I got at Southern California RTD was back in 1971, when I was just 22 and wanted something to help make ends meet for the three years I was at Cal State L.A. My first paycheck for one day was $18. I got to drive buses all over, in South Los Angeles, Hollywood, and near LAX. One of my regular lines ended here at Union Station, so I guess I didn’t go that far.
Q: So why did you pursue it professionally?
A: Transit was losing ridership from 1945 until the mid-1970s. But then all of the sudden there was a fuel crisis and public investment started coming into transit so I went for a career in it as I saw a potentially bright future there.
Q: Why would anyone want to be the one responsible for scheduling buses in a city with L.A.’s notorious traffic problems?
A: Traffic wasn’t as bad then as it is now. It’s not just about being on time, it’s about knowing exactly how many buses and drivers you need, too. It’s not the most glamorous job, but scheduling is a very important function of the transit system. When riders look at the estimated arrival and departure time on a schedule, they expect the bus or train to be on time. It’s like a contract and we have to live up to our end of the bargain.
Q: How does safety factor in?
A: There’s a major focus on safety. The first fatal accident I went to as a manager was in 1981 and I saw a 19-month-old named Corey who had been killed when his uncle made a left turn in front of an MTA bus. I saw that baby. I still can’t shake that image and vowed to never forget the importance of safety because situations like that can happen.
Q: Do you ride public transit often?
A: Yes, I do. I take Metrolink up here from Santa Ana for work in the mornings every day and it’s fantastic. My wife goes to her dentist on the train to Pasadena. I ride the bus to meetings around downtown and nearby areas if I can.
Q: But you have a car, right?
A: Yes, a Ford Escape, which I drive to the train station from home and back. But I prefer not having to drive.
Q: Tell me about when you left the MTA and what you went on to do.
A: There was a management shake-up at the MTA and I was let go, so I ended up heading to Minneapolis in 1997 to become general manager of Metro Transit. I’d be there for four years until coming back to the West Coast in 2001 when I became head of the Orange County Transportation Authority.
Q: How was it in Minnesota?
A: It was wonderful with a high quality of living, but for someone like me used to Southern California weather, it was an adjustment. You got to have gloves and a parka. I also learned a lot about California while I was there. Every day in Minnesota you could feel something was happening out in California, whether it was a new social action or invention or academic study, or even some development in the entertainment industry.
Q: Is there a difference in attitude between Southern California people and Minnesotans?
A: They place a very high value on being nice in Minnesota, even calling it “Minnesota Nice” that links to being modest. Over time that led me to think about Los Angeles and California, and how we don’t have quite that value.
Q: What values do we have in Southern California?
A: Well, what we do have is aspirational values. You know, we think it is quite normal to aspire to be great, to be the best CEO in the country, to be the best MTA in the country. It’s not being immodest to think that way, it’s OK to say California is the best place on the planet.
Q: What political pressure do you face?
A: The board can look at the political implications but my job is to present the best business case as to why a contract or project should be approved or denied. I leave the politicking and lobbying pressures to the board.
Q: The MTA has hired a consulting firm to create more public-private partnerships. What is likely to result?
A: One idea we are looking at is getting the private sector involved in the congestion pricing project, which will charge a toll for single riders using carpool lanes that could lead to some opportunities in the El Monte area There are many opportunities for the private sector to step up with transit-oriented development with developing residences and shops along rail lines.
Q: Although L.A. is known as the nation’s car capital, do you think that Los Angeles is better embracing public transportation?
A: We are in the early stages of that change still. Yes, 25 years ago we were debating whether we should have a rail project or light rail in Los Angeles. Now, no one questions how much it is needed.
Q: Your wife also worked in transit.
A: My wife was a bus operator here in 1971 and she was the first female director of transportation at the MTA here, so that’s how we met. But she went to Cleveland in 1991 where she was a chief operating officer and later then went on to New Orleans where she was also chief operating officer. She is now retired and doing rose bushes and playing golf in O.C.
Q: How did you make the long-distance relationship work?
A: We would fly every weekend to see one another and it wasn’t so bad when I was in Minnesota. But I love her and respect her so much, so we made it work. But I’m so happy we don’t have to be long distance anymore. We used to go to Cleveland Indians games together, but I know that might get me in trouble with Dodgers fans.
Q: You’re also pretty good at magic tricks?
A: Yes, I am a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood. I haven’t done it as much lately, but I did a lot when I last worked at the MTA. In fact, in order to be a magician, you have to go through an audition and perform miracles in front of a panel of magicians.
Q: What did you do?
A: I had four MTA tokens and I gave the tokens to one of the magicians to inspect, and he did. And I said, “Would you please tell the group what they are.” And he said, “Coins.” I said, “No, sir, those are not coins they are tokens!” and I put them under four cards and made them disappear. There is a lot to be learned from magic because what a magician does is turn your brain against you and push you to think about what you just saw.
Q: Do you think that it’ll take a magic trick to improve public transportation better in Los Angeles?
A: It may seem that way, but I’m going to do my best without having to go there.
Title: Chief Executive
Organization: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Born: 1949; Glendale
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, California State University, Los Angeles; master’s degree in public administration, USC
Career Turning Point: Getting promoted from bus driver into the MTA’s marketing department
Most Influential PERSON: His father, who taught him how to drive a bus as well as the importance of hard work
Personal: Lives in Santa Ana with his wife, Leilia, who also started out as a bus
driver. They have two sons, Arthur, 31, and Tim, 29.
Hobbies: Watching pro baseball and college football, reading, spending time with family and performing magic tricks
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