A Metro man from a transit family wants the lines to keep growing

Arthur T. Leahy has been in the transit business for over 40 years, and he knows better than to commute by car

Arthur F. Leahy, a Navy sailor, came home to Los Angeles after World War II and settled back into his job as a streetcar operator for the L.A. Railway. He was assigned to Division 3 in Cypress Park, where the "Yellow Car" operators included women who'd been recruited during the war.

Leahy had an eye for one of those women: a Kentucky transplant named Janie Weir. They married and had two sons, and just as the caboose follows the engine, the boys followed their parents into transit.

Mike is now retired, but Arthur T. Leahy is still going, and his journey has been a remarkable one. He went from driving a bus to riding an elevator to the top of the L.A. Metro headquarters at Union Station, where he has been CEO for six years but will step down in April.

I joined Leahy — who of course married a bus driver, now retired — Thursday morning at the Gold Line's Sierra Madre Villa station for his ride to work. He's been in the transportation business for more than 40 years, and he knows better than to commute by car. He does not drive the 5 Freeway, he said, and he lives where he does because it's minutes from transit.

"Isn't this a beautiful day?" Leahy, 65, said on the platform as the sun rose over the San Gabriel Valley.

Getting Leahy to talk is not much of a challenge. He chatted up a Metro employee, warned me that he'd be reflecting on scenes from his childhood when we rolled through Highland Park, and gave me a quiz. If you don't know where, or what, the Original Pantry, Angels Flight and Philippe's are, you're not an Angeleno in his book.

In Highland Park, he showed me the pool he swam in, the streets where he rode his bike, the movie house he went to.

"That's the first place I ever went with a girl," Leahy said.

He said the movie was "A Hard Day's Night," and I asked if he got anywhere on the date.

"No," he said. "I was 14."

That was an era, Leahy said, when you could drive anywhere you wanted to go in greater Los Angeles in 30 minutes. Transit was dying, he said, and if there'd been a funeral, nobody would have come.

"We lost ridership 29 years in a row" ending in 1974, Leahy said.

Despite huge investments in transit since then, the population has exploded and Southern California is said to have more cars per square mile than any other metropolis. Thanks to Measure R and Leahy's considerable powers of persuasion in Washington, Metro has $14 billion worth of highway and transit projects underway, including five rail lines.

When all of that is completed, commutes will be a little easier for those who go by bus or train, and the current number of daily boardings — 1.4 million — could shoot up significantly. But will there be any less congestion on roads and highways?

Don't bet on it. If the population continues to grow, and the economy continues to improve, traffic could very well be worse than it is today.

There's much that could be done about that, Leahy said, but not enough money to grant everyone's wish. Some would want more rail, others more buses, and the list of demands and constituencies goes on and on. That's one of the biggest challenges of his job — every one of the 13 MTA board members has a different agenda.

But why not take a success like the Valley's Orange Line busway and duplicate it wherever possible? Ridership is running near capacity at nearly 25,000 boardings daily, and that system cost a fraction of what rail costs per mile.

That'd be great, said Leahy, but land acquisition challenges make it hard to duplicate the Orange Line.

Why not expand the rapid bus system and build more dedicated bus lanes?

Leahy isn't opposed, but every such proposal leads to a battle among competing constituencies. Merchants don't want to lose a lane of parking outside their stores, and motorists don't want to lose a lane to anyone for any reason.

"I don't think the answer is any one big thing. It's the big things, plus a bunch of little things," said Leahy.

The little things being more bikeways, carpools and transit-oriented residential development, along with restrictions on free parking.

"You need to give people options, but also convince them they need to change their behavior," said Leahy, who has tried to grow the number of people who use transit by choice rather than need. "If they use transit once a week, or carpool once a week, that makes a difference."

Last weekend, he said, he and his wife left their home in Pasadena for a lovely evening in Chinatown.

"I could have driven," he said, but the Gold Line made too much sense. "Why bother having to drive around looking for parking?"

There's been talk of putting another sales tax increase on the ballot to fund another round of investments, and Leahy said his staff is meeting with regional leaders to hear their priorities. One of the bigger ideas is to build a rail and roadway tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass.

"If we don't do anything, things won't stay the same as they are" in terms of congestion, Leahy said. "They'll get worse."

On our ride downtown Thursday morning, Leahy told me it was his choice to leave in April, but insiders tell me he might not have had the votes for a contract renewal from the MTA board, which is headed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The explanations I got include dissatisfaction with some of Leahy's personnel moves, a projected budget deficit in 2016 despite fare increases, the 405 Freeway widening project that was over budget and overdue, and Leahy's frugal opposition to the pet projects of some board members.

No one disputes, however, that MTA became a bigger and better system under Leahy, who previously ran transit authorities in Orange County and Minnesota. If I could pick a nit, though, they've got to figure out a way to make sure passengers pay to ride the trains, especially given the fact that only 26% of the budget comes from fares.

"We're working on that," said Leahy.

Leahy, rumor had it, might not be leaving transit when he steps away from MTA. He might not even leave the building, because Metrolink is looking for a new chief. The regional rail agency is a much smaller operation, but a less politicized one, too.

"I absolutely am going to apply," Leahy told me, saying he relishes the challenge of increasing Metrolink's efficiency and ridership.

The man just can't get it out of his blood.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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