Big Wheels : El Segundo Employers Assn. Wields Clout to Push Transit Programs

Times Staff Writer

The year was 1985 and the El Segundo Employers Assn. had locked horns with the state Department of Transportation.

The group, which employs thousands of aerospace and defense industry employees, wanted the state to ante up money to add a lane to the San Diego Freeway. Caltrans said more study was needed.

To break the impasse, the group called out its biggest guns. It sent a letter to Gov. George Deukmejian signed by the chief executive officers of Northrop Corp., Rockwell International Corp., TRW Inc. and Hughes Aircraft Co., the state's largest industrial employer.

Two weeks later, the group got word from Caltrans that the agency now supported the project.

"That was pretty heavy-handed," a smiling Donald Camph, the association's executive director, acknowledged the other day as he recalled the group's tactic.

Ed Nahabedian, who until recently was in charge of Caltrans operations in the South Bay, said the letter undoubtedly expedited the project.

Whatever its impact, the letter incident illustrates the association's name-dropping clout and political prowess--major advantages as the group seeks support for several major road and transit programs in the El Segundo area.

The campaign is a change of emphasis for the nonprofit group, which was formed seven years ago primarily to develop ride-sharing programs. To accomplish its goals, Camph said, the philosophy is to "go out and hustle for the bucks" as well as political support.

The association, which has 26 members employing more than 75,000 people, is one of a growing number of employer groups that have sprung up in the state to tackle transportation problems in their areas, state transportation officials say.

The employers, motivated by a desire to attract workers and cut down on absenteeism and tardiness, have used the groups to fight for a share of the public money earmarked for transportation projects.

Employer groups "are coming of age at this point," said Michael Evanhoe, who served for six years as executive director of the California Transportation Commission, which oversees Caltrans, and is now an executive with a Northern California development firm.

He said the groups have become more sophisticated in the past three or four years, with some hiring consultants to push their causes.

One successful group is the Santa Clara County Manufacturing Group, which counts more than 80 companies among its members. Established about 10 years ago, the group worked for the passage in 1984 of a countywide measure that added a half-cent to the sales tax. The tax, which expires in 1995, is being used for three major highway improvement projects.

Traffic problems also prompted formation of the El Segundo association. Growth among the employers, as well as new developments and increased activity around nearby Los Angeles International Airport, has caused traffic to mushroom in recent years.

Traffic Overload

While traffic volume in the Los Angeles Basin is increasing at annual rate of 2% to 3%, volume in El Segundo is rising at a 10% clip, Caltrans' Nahabedian says, overloading the San Diego Freeway and major arteries like Sepulveda Boulevard and Imperial Highway.

The employers group says it does not know how many workers in the area were participating in ride-sharing programs at the time it began its efforts. But it estimates that about 25% of the workers represented by its member companies now take part.

Camph said interest in such programs appears to have peaked, however. "The programs are no more or less successful than they were three years ago."

An effort by Hughes to get its workers to ride company-driven buses--undertaken before the employer's group was formed--fizzled last year because of a lack of interest among employees, according to a Hughes spokeswoman.

Although the group is still interested in promoting ride-sharing, it shifted its emphasis in 1984 when it hired Camph, who spent five years working for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission before establishing a consulting firm. A holder of two college degrees--one in electrical engineering, the other in public policy--Camph came to the association determined to focus on infrastructure, roads and other public works projects.

Moving to Next Step

"It was an evolutionary thing," said Donald Smith, a Hughes executive who serves on the group's board of directors. "When we formed the organization, we were concerned with ride-sharing and other issues of that nature. By 1983 most of the companies in the organization had those kinds of programs in operation. It was just time to move on to the next step."

The 40-year-old baritone-voiced Camph said that the group, which has annual budget of $140,000, the group has not been shy about waving the flag to accomplish its goals.

"We use defense a lot in our arguments," Camph said, referring to employers' many Pentagon contracts. "You use what you got."

Through his consulting firm, he employs two lobbyists--one stationed in Sacramento and the other in Washington. On occasion, he said, lobbyists employed by the group's individual members have been used on the state level. "They have turned their own people loose to talk to key legislators," he said.

Sepulveda Project

Among the projects that the group has strenuously advocated are four major improvements for Sepulveda Boulevard that Caltrans initially had not recommended for state funding. Work, which is expected to cost the state between $3 million and $4 million, is to begin in the next fiscal year, assuming all environmental hurdles are cleared, Camph said.

The group also has pushed for funds to restripe two South Bay stretches of the traffic-clogged San Diego Freeway so that another traffic lane can be added. It also lobbied hard to ensure that a 21-mile Norwalk-to-El Segundo light rail line was included in the Century Freeway project now under construction and for an extension of the line into El Segundo.

More recently, the association announced that three of its members--Xerox Corp., TRW and Continental Development Corp.--will work with El Segundo, Manhattan Beach and Hawthorne to reconstruct the frequently jammed intersection of Aviation Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue, as well as to widen Aviation Boulevard between Century and Artesia boulevards.

Another of the group's efforts--to obtain $2.4-million in federal funds for a study to determine how to improve traffic flow in the Sepulveda Boulevard tunnel under Los Angeles International Airport--became a reality this year.

Traffic within the six-lane tunnel, which travels under runways on the south side of the airport, is expected almost to double as development in the LAX area continues and work is completed on the Century Freeway in 1993. Already, an estimated 75,000 vehicles a day travel through the tunnel, according to the employers' group.

High Marks

One observer who gives the association high marks for doing its homework is Paul Schlesinger, who works on the staff of the House Public Works subcommittee on surface transportation.

U. S. Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Harbor City), chairman of the subcommittee, included funding for the tunnel project in the $88-billion Omnibus Highway Reauthorization Bill that Congress passed last April.

Schlesinger said that when the group came to Anderson to seek funds for the Sepulveda tunnel project, "they knew what they wanted and they knew what the problem was."

Closer to home, Jacki Bacharach, a Rancho Palos Verdes councilwoman who serves on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, said that she believes the association has been able to form an effective coalition to muster support for its pet projects.

Not everyone is entirely pleased with the group's change in emphasis, including Don Torluemke, who served as the group's first executive director while employed at the Aerospace Corp.

Outward Focus

When he oversaw the association, he said, it attempted to build coalitions among South Bay cities to find regional solutions to transportation issues.

"I think that now the focus is outward, toward the state and federal government and help from afar," said Torluemke, who now operates his own transportation consulting firm. "While we were interested in that, we saw it as a high-risk approach. You either win it all or lose it all."

Smith and Camph both say the association, by virtue of its activities in the ride-sharing area, is not strictly relying on government money to solve local transportation problems.

"My perception is that the ESEA is trying to . . . work across the whole spectrum," Smith said.

Said Camph: "Our philosophy has been that there is a laundry list of things that need to be done and that 15% are controversial and 85% are not. So let's take the 85% and start knocking it down."

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