Meet the Obstacle to L.A. Metro Rail : ‘Politically Smart’ Transit Chief Stanley Staunchly Defends Reagan Mandates

Times Staff Writer

As cities struggle to secure increasingly scarce federal funds for projects such as the Los Angeles Metro Rail subway, one of their major obstacles is Ralph Stanley.

The Reagan Administration opposes new transit projects, and the President’s conservative young head of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration has been adept at bureaucratic maneuvering to stall construction of those that have won congressional support.

“Congress gives and Stanley takes away,” said one congressional source who specializes in transportation.

The 34-year-old Princeton-educated attorney is the man Southern California Rapid Transit District officials now face at the negotiating table as they try to secure a federal funding contract to begin the $3.3-billion downtown-to-North Hollywood Metro Rail subway.


The President has personally attacked the project as an example of the “ton of fat” in the federal budget, and Stanley has made exhaustive use of administrative delaying tactics to hold up the release of funds, including some appropriated by Congress more than two years ago.

Under a legal mandate from Congress, Stanley is now reluctantly negotiating an agreement to provide the $429 million in federal funds needed to begin the first 4.4-mile segment of the Los Angeles project. Nonetheless, he has managed to slow the process by demanding that Mayor Tom Bradley and Los Angeles County officials sign agreements to pay for potentially large cost overruns, and to cover any shortfalls that might occur in federal appropriations for construction.

Given the delicate stage of Metro Rail negotiations, RTD officials are guarded in their comments about the UMTA administrator. “Politically, he’s smart,” said RTD President Nikolas Patsaouras, who sits opposite Stanley at the negotiating table. “He represents the mandates and the philosophy of (the President), but stays within the bounds of the law. He’s working a fine line.”

The foot-dragging on the Los Angeles project is part of Stanley’s larger effort to implement a controversial new vision of urban transit--one stressing the elimination of most federal support and a greatly increased role for private industry.

Calling press conferences in such cities as Detroit and New York to blast cost overruns, warning of huge operating deficits on Washington’s subway, stalling projects from Seattle to Miami, challenging powerful congressional leaders and criticizing many of the programs he oversees, Stanley is seen as a hatchet man by the nation’s transportation establishment.

“He’s someone who, frankly, has been a disappointment to the transit industry,” said Jack Gilstrap, executive vice president of the American Public Transit Assn., a national lobbying group for local transit systems. “We would like to think that the agency that is responsible for our functions would be more of an advocate for us.

“But here we have an Administration that wants to get rid of public transit, and Ralph’s job is to do everything he can to accomplish it. . . . That means going to cities planning new systems and telling them it won’t work or it’s too expensive.”

Even Stanley’s harshest critics describe him as personable, bright and clever. And many acknowledge that through skillful use of his executive powers, he has been at least partially successful in accomplishing administratively what the President has failed to get legislatively.

“Stanley is effective,” said one aide to a California Democratic congressman who has been active in the fight for Metro Rail funds. “Stanley causes real pain. . . . (He knows) how to work the system.”

Others say Stanley gets too much credit. “He’s more of a nuisance than a threat,” said Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.), the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.

Slow-Moving Proposals

Even though Stanley’s bureaucratic maneuvering has slowed distribution of funds, the Administration’s legislative proposals for mass transit, which Stanley has helped develop, have not advanced very far in Congress.

Generally, they call for huge reductions in federal support, including elimination of day-to-day operating subsidies that account for about 10% of the typical big city transit system’s budget. Stanley also has been one of the Administration’s leading advocates of “privatization"--a controversial concept that attempts to reduce costs by hiring private firms to provide services traditionally performed by government workers.

This year, Stanley is trying to condense transit and highway construction funds into new “urban mobility” bloc grants--essentially giving local governments far less money, but more flexibility in spending it.

In speeches across the country, Stanley contends that the federal government can no longer afford the $4 billion a year it spends subsidizing local transit. He argues that there is not enough money to complete all of the transit projects Congress is ordering built and he says current funding practices are based on pork-barrel politics rather than merit.

Different Viewpoint

“We measure the program each year by how much we spent, not what we bought,” he said in an interview with The Times. “I’m advocating a different point of view. . . . My argument is, who are we subsidizing, the transit authority or the rider?”

Miami’s Metro Rail system is one of Stanley’s favorite targets. Citing its low ridership, he offers the Miami system as an example of a bad public investment made on the basis of politics. "(It is) indefensible as good transportation. It was built because of (Rep.) Bill Lehman’s position,” he said.

As for the proposed Los Angeles subway, Stanley actually ranked it among the most cost-effective in the country a few years ago and at one time argued that it should be funded. He said recently that high Administration officials, including former budget director David Stockman, had agreed to support the Los Angeles project if Congress would agree to drop funding for poorly rated projects like Miami’s.

“The biggest hurdle to the Los Angeles project is not Ralph Stanley and the Reagan Administration,” Stanley said. “It is Congress’ failure to choose the best projects.”

Strength in Numbers

But Los Angeles and other cities seeking new transit systems have chosen to pursue a unity-in-numbers approach to lobbying, forming broad-based congressional coalitions in which delegations from various cities swap support for their transit projects.

“We face reality,” said RTD’s Patsaouras, explaining why Los Angeles officials chose that approach.

The Administration now is opposing all transit projects and has used requests for so-called deferrals, reprogrammings and recisions--bureaucratic terms for procedures that allow the President to postpone releasing money--to stall the Los Angeles project and others.

Stopping the Los Angeles project is particularly important to the Administration because it is the most expensive in the nation, apart from the partially finished Washington subway. If and when construction begins on a new system in Los Angeles, many transit observers believe it will be difficult for the Administration to hold back about a dozen other projects Congress has approved across the country.

Some question the legality of Stanley’s methods of blocking transit spending.

Authority Questioned

A recent General Accounting Office report said the Administration is withholding some of those transit funds without authority, and critics contend that actions by Stanley and others border on an illegal impoundment of funds. Additionally, the House Appropriations Committee is investigating Stanley’s handling of transit funds appropriated by Congress.

The critics--among them some House and Senate Republicans--also claim the Administration’s transit cuts would lead to higher fares and poorer service for the nation’s big-city transit systems, which they say help revitalize urban areas and are used heavily by the poor. During a recent Senate Public Works Committee hearing, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) told Stanley he should call his proposal the urban “morbidity” program.

Moving workers in and out of America’s cities, transit officials argue, should get higher priority than building a high-speed plane that would whisk passengers to Japan in two hours--a program the President expressed support for in his recent budget message to Congress.

Some Are Praised

While some label him “anti-transit,” Stanley does praise a few urban transit programs. One is Houston’s busway system, a proposed 68-mile network that is being built for less than half the cost of the first phase of Los Angeles’ subway.

“I don’t see him as anti-transit,” said Alan Kiepper, general manager of the Houston Transit Authority. “It is the policy of the Reagan Administration to reduce the federal role of funding transit. . . . It’s a different vision.

“That’s one reason (Stanley) has been supportive (of Houston). Our costs are extremely low compared to some other cities.”

Stanley has had a behind-the-scenes role in shaping the Administration’s transportation policies since Reagan was elected. Before taking over the UMTA, a branch of the Department of Transportation, in 1983, Stanley was chief of staff to Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole and remains one of her closest political advisers. Before that he was a top assistant to former Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis.

Research for Ford

He entered national Republican politics as a Washington law student, doing issues research for the 1976 Ford campaign and continued in the that role in the 1980 Reagan campaign.

Sometimes referred to as “the Administration’s yuppie,” Stanley blends the conservative politics of his white-haired Administration colleagues with the contemporary life style of a with-it young executive. He was the chairman of youth activities for Reagan’s 1984 inauguration and he is married to a producer for New York-based MTV, the music video television station. He is a fan of rock artists like Dire Straits and Cyndi Lauper and, according to one of his aides, has a satin jacket he wears to music industry functions.

A one-time documentary writer for NBC, Stanley also has proven to be a media-wise administrator and, in 1982, worked in the White House communications office.

One example of how Stanley uses his position to advance the President’s philosophy--and infuriate the transit establishment--came recently when he popped up in the U.S. Senate press room.

‘Golden Fleece’ Award

Stanley went to the Hill to accept one of Democratic Sen. William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards--a barb given to UMTA for what the senator termed the “spectacular flop” of 20 years and $30 billion of federal subsidies for local transit agencies.

As Proxmire told reporters that no one had ever come to get a Fleece award, Stanley gleefully said he would have to share the honor with a “strong supporting cast in Congress.” He then attacked “the enormous waste” in the nation’s mass transit program, which he claimed has “forgotten the rider and the taxpayer for whom it was intended to benefit.”

Both the Washington Post and Washington Times carried the story.

“That probably seemed very funny to everybody but the transit guys,” said Gilstrap of the American Public Transit Assn. “It was a slap in the face to everyone in the industry, a belittling of a service, a public service that we spent our careers managing.”

Promotes Reagan Policies

Considered ambitious by both critics and supporters, Stanley has promoted the Administration’s transit philosophy in newspaper and magazine articles and recently took to the speaking circuit on behalf of Citizens for America, a national political action group that promotes the Reagan agenda.

The government job he covets most is White House budget director, Stanley told The Times. And he is an admirer of Stockman, the controversial former budget director who was regarded by many on Capitol Hill as a ruthless slasher of domestic programs.

Rep. Lehman said Stanley has “defined himself into a political personality, a clone of David Stockman. . . . He’s a really bright guy with his own fiscally doctrinaire program.”

However, many conservatives see him as a rising GOP star. “He is in my opinion--I’ve been here 15 years and worked in the Nixon Administration--one of the two or three most able people I’ve seen while in this town,” said David Keene, board chairman of the Washington-based American Conservative Union, one of the umbrella lobbying organizations for conservatives. “He’s viewed as one of the real heroes at that level of the Administration.”