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County’s Transit Board Gets New Executive Director

Times Staff Writer

A veteran transit official credited with improving a mismanaged Oakland system was named Wednesday as executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and promptly predicted success in tackling the region’s traffic woes.

“Despite what people around the country think, it’s not a hopeless task at all,” said Neil Peterson, the man who could ultimately become Los Angeles’ transportation czar. To commuters who spend two hours and more on the freeway each day, Peterson said, “Don’t lose faith yet.”

The 44-year-old manager, who ran Seattle’s heralded transit system from 1977 to 1983, cited the challenge posed by Los Angeles as one of the prime influences in his decision to accept the five-year contract. “Nobody thinks it can be done here.”

More Powerful Agency

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Another consideration, Peterson acknowledged, was proposed state legislation that could consolidate the Transportation Commission and the massive Southern California Rapid Transit District, two agencies that are often feuding. Consolidation would make Peterson and RTD General Manager Alan Pegg likely candidates to direct a much larger, more powerful agency. However, “there are no promises on either side” on who would get the job, Peterson said.

In a press conference and interview after his appointment, Peterson said he hopes to continue the “de-escalation” of the rivalry between the Transportation Commission and the RTD. The commission, which allocates transit tax revenue to the RTD and several smaller public bus systems, has quarreled with the RTD, among other issues, over terms of labor contracts, the construction of Metro Rail and the creation of the Foothill Transit Authority in the San Gabriel Valley, which the RTD opposed.

His primary role, Peterson said, will be to act as a catalyst to make the “balkanized” Los Angeles transportation system--with its freeways, buses and planned rail systems--better serve the public. In addition to overseeing the development of rail systems now under construction, Peterson said he would allocate local tax money to the RTD and several smaller public bus systems in ways to encourage competition within the public sector.

Tax Increases

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Peterson predicted that during the 1990s worsening traffic may prompt the federal government to put reallocated federal highway funds toward addressing urban congestion and also prompt local transit tax increases. “I’m not recommending it at this point,” he quickly added.

Supervisor Pete Schabarum, immediate past chairman of the commission, said in a statement that members are “very pleased that our nationwide search has produced an executive of Neil Peterson’s quality. . . . Neil will bring a unique combination of private and public sector experience to this challenging assignment.”

Peterson’s resume includes a master’s degree in public and international affairs from Princeton University and stints as a city manager for New Brunswick, N.J., and a division director for the state of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services. As executive director of Seattle METRO, Peterson headed transportation in the region, supervising 3,500 employees. In 1983, the Seattle METRO was recognized by the American Public Transit Assn. as the nation’s best-managed transit district.

Post in Oakland

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Peterson then headed his own company, Executemps, providing interim management services to private companies and government agencies. Last year, he served as interim general manager of the AC Transit District in Oakland, a large agency whose poor performance and financial mismanagement led to a grand jury investigation. In a six-month period, Peterson was credited with improving performance and turning a projected $7-million deficit into a surplus.

Peterson said his contract in Los Angeles calls for a base salary of $125,000 per year and a package of fringe benefits that includes a housing allowance to help him relocate his family from Seattle to Los Angeles.

The selection of Peterson ended a yearlong search that began when the commission’s former executive director, Rick Richmond, left for a post with a New Jersey transit agency. Paul Taylor, who had served as acting executive director, resumes other management duties.


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