The MTA Is Not Political Enough

William Fulton is the editor of California Planning & Development Report. His next book, "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles," will be published in the spring by Solano Press Books

After Joseph E. Drew’s abrupt resignation last week as chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, conventional wisdom preached that the MTA is too political. Meddling politicians and influential lobbyists and contractors, the pundits said, put too much pressure on the MTA to do their bidding and, as a result, neither Drew (who lasted less than a year) nor anybody else can do the job.

True, interfering politicians and importuning contractors make the MTA a tough place to work. But the agency’s basic problem is that it is not political enough. Transit decisions, in Los Angeles or elsewhere, are inevitably going to be highly political decisions that must mollify several, often competing constituencies. But as it has evolved over the last decade, the MTA simply isn’t an effective forum for brokering political solutions.

The transit agency needs to be overhauled to reduce the influence of the contractors. As some commentators have suggested, the agency also should hire a new CEO who is politically savvy enough to stave off the parochial concerns of local politicians. But none of this will happen until Los Angeles goes back to square one and re-examines the city’s faltering political consensus--especially on the future of the subway--to build a rail system. Once the transit discussion becomes more political in this sense, it can become less political--and more effective--in the ways that matter.

To be able to survive petty attacks, the MTA has to win the backing of several powerful constituencies that have specific objectives and little common vision. The genius of the 1980 deal that led to passage of Proposition A, the original half-cent sales tax, was that it achieved this goal. In the agreement, crafted largely by former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, everybody got something: The bus riders and employee unions won a promise of lower bus fares; advocates of a downtown-Wilshire subway took a step toward realizing their project, and suburban politicians got two things--a commitment to a light-rail system and a pot of money for local transit, to be doled out by the cities.

It would be nice to think that all these constituencies share a vision--or that, after 16 years, they have all come to realize they have common interests. In fact, the opposite has happened. There is no longer any constituency in Los Angeles for this camel of a transit system. There are only interest groups pursuing one or another piece of the pie. As the MTA has faltered, these groups have merely diverged even more. One result is that they attack each another in hopes of gaining a strategic slice of the MTA’s budget.

All the sniping at the MTA--notably, from Mayor Richard Riordan and the county supervisors--isn’t the cause of the agency’s problems. Rather, it’s the predictable result of a situation in which the politicians accurately sense there is no political advantage in reaching consensus.

In these circumstances, it is probably impossible for Los Angeles to broker an enduring political consensus on transit that includes a cohesive vision that all interest groups could buy into. The second-best alternative, then, is to rebuild the interest-based political consensus from the ashes of the 1980 agreement. In other words, make a new deal that acknowledges both political and economic realities and hope that it sticks long enough to get implemented.

Such a deal probably should include these components:

* The MTA needs to solve the bus-system problem. A solution probably requires the agency to lop off, upfront, a large slug of funding to reduce fares permanently and buy new buses, and then separate the money--and the bus operations--from the rest of the agency to protect it from voracious rail contractors.

The basic reason for this action is political: Bus riders and transit unions have effectively collaborated to demand that more money flow into the bus system, and they now have the ability to undermine any MTA policy that works against them. But it is also the right thing to do. One undeniable change in Los Angeles since Proposition A is the rise of the working poor, who are a vital part of the economy and almost totally dependent on MTA buses.

* The MTA must decide which rail system it is going to build and “just do it.” Despite all the turmoil over rail construction in the past couple of years, the agency has been gradually moving in this direction as financial resources have dwindled. The solution probably includes a permanent commitment to build the east and west extensions of the Wilshire line, the Red Line to Universal City and the Pasadena line. If money problems slow the schedule down, so be it. If suburban politicians are disappointed that some pie-in-the-sky line to their city is axed, that is probably the price they are going to have to pay to get this agreement.

* The MTA’s governance must be reorganized to make it more politically effective and, in particular, to allow a savvy individual to be brought in to run it. Names like former Assemblyman Richard Katz and William McCarley, departing head of the Department of Water and Power, have been bandied about as possible successors to Drew. But as the MTA is presently constituted, such a person would never be hired for the job. The reason is not just that people like Katz and McCarley are too smart to want the job, though this is true. It’s also that the MTA board would never hire them.

After Drew quit, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky remarked that the MTA board “respects strength and devours weakness”. In fact, the MTA board devours everything. Board members may respect strength but, up to now, they have given no indication they actually want to see some strength in the backbone of the MTA chief.

The 13-member board is composed of political appointees and elected officials, including all five county supervisors; Riordan controls four votes. No wonder Drew and his predecessor, Franklin E. White, complained of constant meddling. The size of the MTA board needs to be scaled back, with local politicians heading the list.

To give the next CEO more breathing room, local representation on the board should include only the mayor, one county supervisor and one representative of the suburban cities. Beyond that, more members unbeholden to parochial interests should be added. This probably means two additional seats filled by the state, ideally by the governor, an elected official with a statewide constituency.

This last change would probably be the most controversial. Local politicians have successfully fought state-appointed board members on the MTA and its precursors for more than 30 years. The one thing they can all agree on is that they don’t want meddling from Sacramento. But who can say that has been a good thing? A little meddling from Sacramento at this point might not be such a bad thing. At the very least, it might offset everybody else’s meddling.

It’s important to remember that it is the political constituencies, not the politicians themselves, that have created the problem. If the political constituencies can buy into a reconstituted political deal on transit in Los Angeles, then reorganizing the MTA board will be the least difficult part of the task ahead.*