Saying the agency is spinning out of control, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy is threatening to launch an initiative campaign to derail the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Yaroslavsky said his proposed initiative would bar the MTA from using the county’s Propositions A and C funds on subway construction. Those two voter-approved measures generate $750 million a year for the MTA through sales tax surcharges totalling 1 percent in L.A. County.
Yaroslavsky, who is also an MTA board member, said he hopes the threat of the initiative will force the MTA to scale back its ambitious rail construction program and focus on bus service. And he insists he is prepared to go forward if he does not see action in the next 60 days.
The supervisor has used the initiative before. While a member of the Los Angeles City Council in 1986, Yaroslavsky and then-Councilman Marvin Braude spearheaded the Proposition U campaign to slow development in the city. The measure passed with 69 percent of the vote.
Yaroslavksy talked about the MTA and other issues in a meeting last week with Business Journal editors and reporters.
Question: L.A.’s transit problems were supposed to be fixed by merging the old Rapid Transit District and the county Transportation Commission into one agency. It doesn’t seem to be working. What happened?
Answer: I supported the merger, because on paper it (was) the right thing to do. You’ve got two superfluous, seemingly overlapping agencies at work, let’s consolidate them, save the money, etc.
We would have been better off not merging. Maybe 10, 15 years from now when all these personalities who were merged together retire, maybe things will settle down. But history has a way of carrying on for generations. Look at Yugoslavia. How did it start in Yugoslavia? Well, in the 14th Century, someone shot his neighbor’s cow. And that’s the way it’s gone.
Q: So the MTA’s like Yugoslavia?
A: It really is. If the employees and the camps that have developed there had weapons, it would be a very serious situation.
But that’s been done, so let’s not cry over spilt milk.
The problem is it’s not in the structure of the place. It’s basically that the board and the executive leadership have been unwilling or unable to reassess where they’re going in light of changed circumstances. They have been unable or unwilling to say no to certain projects, or to kill certain projects, or defer certain projects.
Franklin White, who was two CEOs ago, told the board that you can’t build Pasadena, and Eastside, and finish the line to the Valley, and do Mid-Cities, and run your bus system, do it all on schedule, all on time, with the money you’ve got. The response of the board then was to fire Franklin White.
We now have incontrovertible evidence that the course we are on is a course to financial oblivion. What is the board going to do? It’s got about 60 days within which to make that decision maybe less.
Q: Or the Federal Transit Administration will pull the plug on funding?
A: The FTA will pull the plug on funding, and I’m going to go to an initiative countywide if they don’t get their act together to restrict the use of their sales tax to non-subway.
Q: So the Proposition A and the Proposition C money would go toward buses?
A: You would not be able to use it for subway any kind of subway, heavy or light rail subway, but heavy rail is primarily what we’re doing with it.
Q: Do you have the money for an initiative drive?
A: Yes I do. And there are a lot of people in this county who would like to fund an initiative drive. I don’t want to do it. I don’t like to spend my time on negative energy. And I consider this negative energy.
There are a lot of people who invested in the subway system a lot of contractors, a lot of engineers, a lot of architects, and they will fight this.
Q: Do you think it is up to Mayor Riordan to take charge of this agency and show some leadership?
A: I do. I don’t think it’s because he’s chairman of the board, although that’s an added ingredient, but because he controls four-thirteenths of the board, which means he controls the board. If he wants to do something, all he has to do is find three other people to do it. And he always can.
Q: How do you assess the mayor’s role to date?
A: The mayor wants off the MTA board, personally. He’s made that publicly clear. He sponsored the legislation to get rid of himself and, by the way all five supervisors, from the board of the MTA. But he took care of himself when he ensured that he would have three appointments to the board a nine-member board. So he would appoint you, me and the other guy and would call the shots from behind closed doors, which is the way he likes to do business.
Q: What do you think is driving the mayor’s MTA policy?
A: I don’t know. The mayor needs to focus on the MTA in a coherent, long-term way. The mayor is a very bright man. I consider him a friend. I have fundamental differences with him at the MTA, not rhetorically, because rhetorically he and I say the same exact thing. (But) his votes don’t match his rhetoric. He’s got to bite the bullet and be willing to say “no” to people he may have promised “yes.”
Q: Do you need layoffs at the MTA?
A: I think it’s going to be very likely, They’ve got to bring their spending into line with their revenue. I don’t think it’s massive, but that place has more people than it needs.
Q: Are we reaching a point with rail where essentially we wrap up what we’re doing and call it a day, then concentrate on buses?
A: Right now where I’m at is to finish the Red Line to North Hollywood and declare victory. Just do what you can afford to do. Light rail is still affordable. With the Burbank-Chandler branch in the San Fernando Valley we paid $300 million for that right-of-way let’s do something with it. And buses are not what to do with it. The mayor wants to put in a bus-way. That’s not the way to go. But there are things we can do. There are other rail lines. And then the bus system which is the backbone of our operations let’s improve that. And then let’s see what happens. If the economy turns around, if there’s federal transit largess that comes into our lives, we can reassess where we go.
Q: Turning to some other issues, where are you on the rebuilding of the County USC Medical Center?
A: The big decision we’re going to have to make is how big to rebuild County USC Medical.
Q: What is taking so long on that decision? Is it the opposition of Supervisor Gloria Molina?
A: I think there’s clearly a difference of opinion between Supervisor Molina and the rest of the board. She is committed to a 750-bed option. The rest of us have been looking at it in the following terms: First of all, what do we need? What can we afford to build? And the most important question or an equally important question is what can we afford to operate once we build it?
And I will tell you that when I asked that last question of the health department eight months ago or nine months ago, we were told that nobody had ever asked that question in the county before.
So we said, fine, take all the time you need to figure it out. What they showed is that the difference between a 750-bed hospital and a 500-bed hospital, just to use that as an example, the operating cost differential was $95 million a year, just at County USC, every year for the lifetime of this hospital in today’s terms.
A 750-bed hospital ran a $65 million deficit. A 500-bed hospital ran a $30 million surplus actually a surplus.
So if we could run some option that ran a $30 million a year surplus, you know what we could do with that money? We could build a lot of comprehensive health care clinics.
Q: So what’s the delay? You’ve got the votes.
A: No, it’s not a question of a delay. (This is) a major, irrevocable decision that the county is about to make, and it will have to make it I think before the end of this calendar year.
Q: On another subject, what do you think of the trend of large corporations moving their corporate headquarters out of Los Angeles.
A: Where are corporate people at all today? There are some cities where there are still hometown corporations. We still have ours, largely the motion picture industry and a couple of others. But what defined and characterized a corporation in its behavior in the past was that it was in the community for the long haul.
I like to use Arco as an example in this town. Arco was in it for the long haul. So when they make a $7.5 million contribution to Disney Hall, they do it not because they love classical music although I’m sure some of their people do they do it because it’s part of a community interest. It’s a civic project that’s going to last 75 years. And their frame of reference is we’re probably going to be here 75 years from now. I don’t want to mention any names, but there are a lot of people who haven’t contributed a nickel to Disney Hall or to any of the other projects, who are much better positioned to make that kind of contribution than Arco is because, in my opinion, they don’t think they’re going to be in here for the long haul.