Governor No and Selling of Rail Cars

You wouldn’t expect to find George Deukmejian on the cutting edge of technology.

In his eight years in the Capitol, he earned a reputation as “Governor No.” No to spending. No to taxes. And no to new ideas.

But that was then and--as the old saying goes--this is now.

Now, Deukmejian, partner in the law firm of Sidley & Austin, is representing the Sumitomo Corp. of America, which wants to build the rail cars for the Metro Green Line from Norwalk to Los Angeles International Airport. The Duke is the heavyweight in a group of influential lobbyists selling Sumitomo to the public agencies that will select the contractor.


What makes it interesting is that the Green Line includes all the things the Duke hated most when he was governor.

First is its runaway cost, which is estimated at more than $1 billion, 41% over the original estimate. Then there’s the issue of taxes. When the Duke was in Sacramento, he always liked voters to think he was keeping taxes down. But the Green Line is a voracious eater of tax revenues. It is consuming a substantial portion of the revenues from the local sales tax, state gas tax and various federal levies for mass transit projects.

And the technology is a really a new idea, never used in a mass transit project in this country.

These trains are going to run without drivers. They’re completely automated, with a computer at the helm. That makes me a little nervous. Maybe computers don’t drink or take drugs. But I wouldn’t want to be on board if the computer goes down.


Despite all this, on Monday afternoon, the board of the Rail Construction Corp., the public agency building the line, voted to award the car-building job to Sumitomo. Today, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which oversees the corporation and has backed the driverless trains on two occasions, makes a final decision on the contract.

It was a big victory for Deukmejian, and I could see he was pleased when he talked to reporters afterward.

True, he wore his usual gloomy expression. But even in the best of times, the Duke was never a laugher. Still, it was amusing to see how much life has changed for him since he became a lobbyist.

Two print reporters cornered him at the elevator, soon joined by a crew from Channel 13. The reporters did not treat him in the genteel way elder statesmen come to expect. They wanted to know if he was using his clout as a former governor to lobby for Sumitomo. “I am a partner in Sidley & Austin and our law firm represents Sumitomo,” Deukmejian replied.


There was no press secretary to break off the questioning. Deukmejian looked at the bank of elevators behind him. No help there. The elevators in the building are notoriously slow. All he could do was wait for the questions.

Deukmejian probably missed seeing the paradoxes of his position--the fact that he could no longer escape the reporters, the fact that he was chief spokesman for such an expensive project and, finally, the idea that he was pushing for a project likely to become another symbol of runaway government costs.

The reporters weren’t the only ones with questions about the driverless trains, their cost and complexity.

Although the corporation approved the contract with Sumitomo, members of its board expressed serious doubts about the trains. Worried about delays and other problems, a technical expert told the Rail Construction Corp. Monday that it was “a highly risky project.” Other construction obstacles will boost the cost even more.


The corporation was created to prevent such overruns. Several years ago, the commission was created as a new super-agency to bring order to an expensive, poorly managed public transit system. It gave the Rail Construction Corp. the job of laying of rails and building cars in a tough-minded, non-political way.

But in the case of the Norwalk-LAX Green Line, the doubts expressed by members of the construction corporation board are being ignored by the county Transportation Commission.

One reason is that Mayor Tom Bradley, who controls a few votes on the Transportation Commission, is fascinated with the driverless train concept. A high-tech train for a high-tech city. Other commission members seem to be buying the idea.

Another reason is the skill and the clout of the lobbying corps.


That is a final irony in the Deukmejian story. Deukmejian and Bradley--bitter foes in the 1982 and 1986 gubernatorial election--are on the same side this time. When it comes to big contracts and projects in the world of local politics, there are no partisan differences.

It’s a universe away from Sacramento, a world where “Governor No,” now a free-enterprising civilian, has become “Ex-Governor Yes.”