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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023


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JOE BEL BRUNO Staff Reporter

As chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board, Larry Zarian is helping to shape the future of transit in Los Angeles County a future that is very much in doubt.

Construction problems and the high cost of subway tunneling are jeopardizing the completion of the Metro Red Line. At the same time, the federal government is demanding that the 13-member MTA board come up with a plan to complete the lines or risk the loss of federal funding.

A four-term Glendale City Councilman, Zarian is the former owner of Anthony’s department stores and is a successful real estate investor. He talked with the Business Journal about trying to get the agency back on track.

Q: What are the region’s biggest transportation problems, and how do they affect business?

A: I was startled when I heard that by the year 2015, the population of this county will grow by 30 percent and it doesn’t look like we will finish out the lines we have promised. What are we going to do with gridlock? The air quality? And what are we promising our businesses? They are going to want to transport their goods and expect employees on a timely basis. But we are told that without a transit system, we will be traveling on our streets at a speed limit of 9-to-10 m.p.h. That’s unacceptable how will we encourage businesses to come in and expand?

Q: How do businesses and transit link?

A: When businesses come to Glendale, the very first questions they ask are about schools and transportation. All those questions need to be responded to, otherwise we are going to go through a period of losing businesses. If trucks can’t move on our streets, the cost of business will be too great. We need to get 13 board members to understand and commit themselves to one system in a timely fashion, taking politics out of it.

Q: What system are you looking at?

A: People in Southern California are not going to get out of their cars and use an alternate mode of transportation unless they can get on a bus or rail. We have to finish out the Red Line to North Hollywood, the Eastern extension, the Blue Line, and the east-west line. We are also paying very little attention to the fact that we don’t have to build rail that costs $350 million a mile. There is alternate technology that is available to the rest of the world that we aren’t using and nobody talks about it. We need alternate rail that runs on diesel at much less money, that can be built in far less time. That will send a message to Congress that we want to build a system that works. The public doesn’t really care if it is a subway, surface rail, or runs on electricity or diesel. The public wants to get out of their cars, and that’s the key.

Q: Do comments recently made by L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan about switching the MTA’s focus from rail to bus do more damage than good?

A: It’s shortsighted to think that buses are going to resolve our problems. It’s shortsighted to think that one form of transportation will solve our problems. We need both, and without both we can’t have a good transit system.

Q: Riordan has been criticized for having too much power on the board by controlling four votes. Is this something you’d like to see changed?

A: I get along with Riordan very well. He’s a good friend, and has done a good job with the city of Los Angeles. But his power is the biggest problem on the MTA. He has four votes (Riordan and three appointees), and that is overwhelming. Riordan can pull together four votes on any single issue. You always start with four votes, and then you go to the different constituencies to get the other three votes needed to pass something. Sometimes he goes to (county supervisors’) Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, the next he’ll go to Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky. I’ve been very up front about my dissatisfaction with this.

Q: So, how should the board be reformed to balance the power?

A: The City of Los Angeles has too much power. I would like to see one or two additional members from other cities in the county to add balance. Or, diminish one of the votes from the city of Los Angeles and have the mayor appoint only one person other than himself.

Q: The MTA board has taken much of the heat for the agency’s problems. What does the board need to do to overcome this?

A: I’d like to see our board members begin to realize that the country is looking at us through a magnifying glass both Washington and Sacramento. There is a great opportunity to build a transportation system for Southern California that is so badly needed and it may go by the wayside. That means everything we’ve accomplished might be delayed, and there is no reason for that. The board has to change.

Q: Why does each board member blame their counterparts instead of taking responsibility collectively?

A: It’s true, the problem comes from ourselves. We need to take an account of the way we conduct ourselves, what our demands are, and what we need to accomplish during our terms. We need to have a vision of transportation that’s not parochial. And, unless we end parochialism, we are not going to be able to get there. When I say each board member, it’s because I don’t have an agenda to advance. I don’t have a commitment to a constituency that is putting a gun to my head to deliver. This gives me an edge over the others.

Q: What efforts are you making to find a replacement for CEO Joseph Drew?

A: The MTA staff responds to 26 people (13 board members and 13 alternates), with each one demanding to speak right to the CEO. There’s got to be three people to do this one position. My recommendation is to create at least three CEOs to run the MTA’s operations. We need someone to handle management and contracts; someone to handle personnel matters; and someone who is savvy with politics and responsive to the board members. I’m going to suggest that it’s time that we not think that one person can handle everything. The requirements and things we expect out of one person just won’t work.

Q: Are you worried that state or federal lawmakers might force legislation on the MTA if things aren’t put on the right track?

A: If we don’t get our act together, the Legislature’s going to make us do it. I’d rather have us do it. I’d rather us send a message to Washington, and tell them that we’ve seen the light. There is no question that there will be legislation introduced that will recommend changes. We are seeing in Sacramento Quentin Kopp, Tom Hayden, and others looking for changes. They are not happy with the way we’re setup, and we need to do something about it.

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