The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's new chief executive, Phil Washington, starts Monday and he's got a huge job ahead of him. As head of the countywide agency, he will have to oversee a massive public transit system expansion, manage one of the nation's largest, most complex system of buses, subways and light rail and address an anticipated budget deficit that may force service cuts — all while maneuvering the politics of a governing board made up of elected officials who have their own competing interests.
It's a tough gig, but Washington comes with rave reviews after leading Denver's Regional Transportation District. He gets credit for keeping on track an ambitious voter-approved, sales-tax-funded program to construct more than 140 miles of rail and bus rapid-transit service in the city and its suburbs. When cost overruns and the recession threatened to slow the build-out, Washington developed one of the nation's first public-private partnerships for transit, attracting a private company to help pay for, build and operate a $2.2-billion commuter rail network. This is all useful experience, as Metro needs to keep Measure R-funded transit projects on time and on budget, and the agency is considering seeking private partners to help build a tunnel for rails and cars under the Sepulveda Pass.
To help ease his transition to Los Angeles, we have some advice for the new CEO:
Ride the buses. Metro has 170 bus lines, and bus riders make up about 75% of daily transit boardings, yet buses are the stepchildren of the system. They can be unreliable and dirty, the schedules and routes can be confusing to the new riders, and when Metro's finances get tight, bus service gets cut first. But as Metro invests in rail lines across the region, bus service should be seen as an equal priority and essential for a fully developed system.
Think like a rider. Metro needs to make the user experience easier, more predictable and pleasant. Can more seating be installed in stations and shady bus stops? What will make riders feel safer? Could Metro develop a more useful app? Why is there no Wi-Fi in subway stations? How can riders get more information about travel alternatives when buses are rerouted or subways delayed?
Get Metro's financial house in order. The agency will open four new or extended rail lines in the coming years, but it also faces an operating deficit that might force it to cut service. Metro must bring expenses under control and balance its budget while keeping fares low enough to encourage ridership.
Stay focused on projects that deliver the greatest benefit. Metro's board of directors is expected to put a new sales tax increase proposal on the 2016 ballot. The CEO will play a crucial role in the decisions about which projects are included in the proposal and in balancing regional and individual political demands to shape a modern, convenient public transit system.