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The Right Move for Mass Transit : New unified authority should prove better structure than region now has

Los Angeles finally has a single transit agency to forge high-speed links in the county and with the rest of the region.

The state Legislature has ended the quarrels over turf between the county’s old Rapid Transit District and a newer, richer agency that seemed bent on running it all.

Under pressure from Sacramento, the RTD and the County Transportation Commission merged their operations last year. On Monday, the Legislature gave the merger its blessing, formally creating a new Metropolitan Transit Authority that will operate under a new set of ground rules. Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to sign the bill setting up the authority.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who had struggled for years to bring order to regional transit planning and operations, said, “We got everything we wanted.”

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The authority’s policy board will include all five Los Angeles County supervisors, the mayor and three other representatives of the City of Los Angeles, four mayors of smaller cities in the county and a non-voting representative of the governor.

That may not seem a major change from the old approach to setting transit policy, but the new law is designed to make elected officials more accountable for policy decisions by making it harder for them to routinely send alternates to meetings.

That is crucial in an agency that expects to have $183 billion to spend over the next 30 years on better bus service, smarter, faster-flowing highways and commuter trains to link Los Angeles to Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and--eventually--San Diego counties.

Between now and Feb. 1, the RTD and the commission must rearrange their operations into three major units, reporting to a single chief executive.

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One will plan a 350-mile rail network and ways to make traffic flow more smoothly on 510 miles of freeway. One will build what needs building. The third will operate the finished systems.

The law also calls for tighter controls intended to end the extravagant spending on travel and other perquisites that have come to light in recent months at the transportation commission. The commission says it already has been taking steps to correct that problem.

Auditors recently confirmed that the staff also had been in the habit of letting contracts on the assumption that commission members would approve them at their next meeting, some calling for millions of dollars in spending.

The new directors will want to make sure next year that executive promises to clean up the shenanigans have been kept.

But the most pointed reason for cheering is there is hope that creation of the authority means full attention will be given to the real task of transit--getting people from here to there and back.


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