MTA Stance Perplexes Panel Head
Kevin Murray, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, is having trouble figuring out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Why, he asked Monday, would an agency desperate for money support legislation that would direct how it spends millions of dollars?
As always with the MTA, the answer is anything but simple. And, as usual, it is rooted in politics.
At issue is a bill requiring the transit authority to share its state transportation funds with the county’s different regions. Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster) introduced the measure after the MTA allocated about $200 million in state funds to the North Hollywood subway extension, but provided no money to cities in the Antelope Valley.
Initially, the MTA opposed the bill, contending that cities already receive a share of the county’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax. “The MTA should not be supporting anything that boxes it in financially,” said one transit official. But when the bill came before Murray’s panel last week, the MTA supported it.
Murray said he has no objection to cities receiving a share of state funds but cannot understand why the MTA would support a bill reducing its flexibility to decide for itself how to spend the money. After all, the agency’s board recently voted to lobby Congress for greater latitude in spending federal dollars.
“I can’t protect them from themselves,” Murray said. “How could they let someone run a bill through the Legislature to give up 10% of their money?”
MTA officials say they supported the bill out of fear that the Legislature may take away even more money.
“This was a compromise,” said MTA board member Larry Zarian. “It saves the MTA dollars, and it gives the cities money.”
Originally, the bill required the MTA to split half of the state money with cities; the bill now directs the agency to allocate at least 10% of state money beginning in 2000 to various regions of the county, such as the San Gabriel Valley and South Bay.
Although the amounts at stake for the next few years are unclear, the MTA could be forced to share as much as $20 million a year starting in 2005, said one staff member.
“In order for the MTA to survive,” said Runner, “they know they have to try to keep those cities within their region satisfied that they’re getting their tax dollars back.”
The bill also illustrates the long-running conflict between MTA board members representing the city of Los Angeles and those representing suburban cities over the millions of dollars consumed by the Los Angeles subway project.
Asked why he would support a bill that would diminish his power as an MTA board member, Zarian said, “The cities ought to be guaranteed that they get something.”
Jaime de la Vega, transportation aide to Mayor Richard Riordan, the MTA board chairman, said the bill is “not inconsistent with the general allocation of funds now.”
Murray said that he, as committee chairman, could have helped to kill the bill. And, he said, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villariagosa, a Los Angeles Democrat, “would probably look to protect the MTA from a Republican bill that limited their ability to do things that he’s interested in,” such as transit improvements to the Eastside.
“Between the two of us, we would have been able to keep at least the Democratic members off of the bill, except it’s virtually impossible to do that if MTA says they support the bill,” said Murray, who plans to hold a legislative hearing on the MTA in Los Angeles next month.
Runner said the bill has support from Republicans and Democrats concerned about the lack of transportation funding for their communities.
The Runner bill passed Murray’s committee on a 12-3 vote with the chairman voting no. It is now before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
One legislative staff member joked that, considering the MTA’s bad reputation, its support of Runner’s bill could actually doom it.
On another front, a top-level shake-up at the MTA continued Monday as Ellen Levine, executive officer of operations, announced plans to leave the agency in late June. Transit chief Julian Burke said he will conduct a nationwide search to find an “expert in turning around transit operations.”