Julian Burke

Ron White is an editorial writer for The Times

Julian Burke was tapped as the interim CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at a time when the agency was hard-pressed to find a suitable candidate who wanted the permanent post. All the better for Burke, a corporate "crisis management" specialist who could clean house and then move on, leaving a smooth path for a permanent CEO. When Mayor Richard Riordan suggested Burke in 1997, the MTA was in shambles. The federal government had ordered the agency to put off other projects and develop a fiscally sound program to complete the Red Line subway extension.

The transit agency remains in peril today, shackled with a huge debt and facing a federal court case that may take away its control of the purse strings and place them in the hands of a judge. Its subway is perhaps the most costly in American history, yet spans fewer miles than the average commute. Meanwhile, traffic problems continue to worsen in the nation's most congested urban area.

It's an odd place for Burke, who never figured that he would hold the MTA's top job for two years. Now he might even have a judge, U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., as his new boss.

Hatter plans to rule soon in a landmark federal civil rights case that has pitted the MTA against the Bus Riders Union and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The bus riders' suit claimed the MTA financed an outrageously expensive and lightly used rail system on the backs of poor, bus-dependent residents. The MTA settled the case, agreeing to reduce severe overcrowding on its buses.

Just how well the agency has lived up to its promises is now hotly disputed. The MTA contends that it is in compliance with the settlement more than 95% of the time. Attorney's for the bus riders argue just as strongly that the buses are as crowded as ever. The special master appointed to oversee implementation of the agreement, Donald T. Bliss Jr., sided with the bus riders and ordered the transit agency to buy hundreds more buses than it had planned to.

MTA attorneys were so aggressive in pressing their case before Hatter, even threatening to to go directly to appeal and doubting the right of the judge to rule on the matter, that Hatter likened their behavior to segregationists who argued that the federal court had no right to legally impose integration. If Hatter rules in favor of the bus riders, the MTA will have to revisit a number of new spending projects and first spend more on additional bus service.

Burke's past work could make this task a lot easier. He rescued or propped up foundering entities, such as the scandal-ridden Teamster Central States Pension Funds. Burke's job was to get to the bottom of the problem, which often involved labyrinthine fiscal difficulties, rein excess and restore confidence. In that role, Burke wound up testifying in the 1982 bribery-conspiracy trial of Teamster President Roy Williams and four other defendants, who were accused of conspiring to bribe then-Sen. Howard Cannon of Nevada. In the early 1990s, Burke also tried to salvage and restructure properties affected by the savings-and-loan crisis in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, Burke, 72, considers the MTA post the toughest job he's ever had. Burke has been married since 1951 and has four children and eight grandchildren. He spoke to The Times from the MTA's downtown offices.

Question: How did you feel when Judge Hatter asked if you wanted to be on the side of former segregationists in challenging the authority of the federal courts?

A: Well, in the first place, I don't think the comment was directed toward me. I think some of it was directed toward some of the legal positions that were being made. Other than that, I really don't think it's either appropriate or desirable for me to latch onto any particular set of words. . . .

Q: We listened to one of your people tell the court that there is no money available to operate more buses. Now, here's what I think confuses people: About a week later, we heard that the MTA board is approving $568 million over the next four years for highways, bikeways and walkways.

A: This agency . . . is a multiresponsibility agency. It has clear obligations, statutory obligations to deal not only with its directly operated bus and train [operations], but it has obligations to deal with the roads and the freeways, the municipal bus operators in this county, in 16 cities, plus Foothill [Transit]. . . . So when [that] kind of statement is made, that there . . . is no additional money available for our directly operated bus system, it really is dealing with the reality that we have these other obligations, that . . . we have substantial restrictions on much of the money that we receive [and that it] is only available for certain kinds of things. Some of the money is only [for] freeway and roadway issues. Some of the money is only available to deal with the municipal operators. . . . Most of the money is only available for capital programs, as distinguished from operating expenses. So, once again, we simply don't have programmable money for operating additional bus service . . . that we can expand our bus operation for this purpose to meet the consent decree other than what we've already proposed.

Q: There's an irony here. You're saying that some of the money is for heavy rail, some for freeways and so forth. But if the judge so decides, he could wind up setting a new standard for where the money goes, superseding, in effect, the normal obligations that you have.

A: The consent decree itself expressly contemplates that this agency will allocate the monies necessary on a first-priority basis, to the extent that those monies are not committed by statute or otherwise to meet our other obligations and responsibilities. The consent decree is not silent on this point. The consent decree recognizes that we have other responsibilities. The sad reality is . . . the [special] master did not take evidence and did not take an analysis as to what our other responsibilities were or what restrictions our other responsibilities put on the availability of money. That was left for a later time, I believe. . . . Unfortunately, in the meantime, he said we need to buy this additional amount of buses and put them on the streets. So we are now in the strange position of having a master say to us, "Buy these buses and put them on the street," when we do not believe that he understands . . . [that] the record before him didn't allow us to put in all the evidence that would be necessary for him to understand, in a more discrete way, what those limitations were. . . . In any case, we did put before him our own remediation plan. He liked our remediation plan, and our remediation plan is working.

Q: There has been $7 billion spent on county transportation since 1990. Congestion has gone up substantially since then, and you have a situation where net transit boardings are down. Doesn't that sound like a failure?

A: We are all disappointed, all of us who have lived in this county for as long as I've lived in this county--42 years--that the freeways are getting more and more crowded, that [travel] on the streets off the freeways is very difficult. . . . Our train system, in particular the Blue Line, is getting increasingly crowded, more crowded, on average, than buses. There is only so much money available. We could perhaps do a better job in getting more money. . . . We must continue to ask the federal government and the state government to allocate increasing amounts to us, because this county is not only in a bad situation with respect to overall transportation issues, but it's going to get worse as the county grows.

Q: How often do you get out and ride buses? Do you ever do that?

A: Well, not often enough, I must say. But . . . there's no doubt in my mind that we've made a great deal of progress, and we continue to improve every day as we get new buses and we put more supervisors on the street and we teach ourselves how to be more responsive and how to keep to our schedules and how to behave better with with the frustrations that our bus drivers have. I can only say that the amount of change that has happened in this agency in the last two years, directing its resources to our bus operation, is not phenomenal but is really substantial. We have devoted more than 44% of our resources in the current fiscal year to our bus operations. Typically over the past years, this agency and its predecessor would have devoted something in the range of one-third of its resources to its bus operation. We have an accelerated bus-procurement program, and we have a lot of procurements out there already. We are receiving buses, new buses, every day and we are in training every day.

Q: When I ride an MTA bus, I'm still not finding the seating. I frequently wind up giving up my seat and see a lot of people standing.

A: Even anecdotally, I would expect that you would be noticing change. The consent decree contemplates that we will continuously . . . reduce our target of standees from an original one of 1.45 [per bus] down to ultimately. . .

Q: What does that mean?

A: Well, that means the relationship between the number of passengers on a bus compared to the number of seats on the bus. When you're talking about 40-foot buses, which is generally what we operate, before the consent decree was entered into, the target load factor was, in effect, 19 riders without seats. It's now reduced, I believe, to 15 . . . and it's going down to 11. Then, it goes ultimately down to nine over the periods involved in the consent decree. Those are targets. We are making the target that currently prevails . . . 97% or 98% of the time. That doesn't mean that we don't have some time periods in which there are too many people standing. . . . Nor do I believe that the consent decree contemplates an absolute 100% compliance. These are targets.

Q: The Bus Riders Union is saying pretty much the exact opposite. You've got this incredible discrepancy. You're saying no more than 15 people without seats, on average, on any bus, any time--even during peak periods.

A: In fact, all these statistics are based on peak periods.

Q: How, then, do the bus riders come up with their numbers?

A: Well, I believe they are saying, accurately, that 90-some-odd percentage of the times they observe, there is one standee exceeding the bus target [of 15]. When they say 90-some-odd percent of failures, they are counting all the occasions when there is one more.

Q: Just one?

A: Just one.

Q: So when people who ride the buses every day testify that "I haven't seen any improvement," do you think they are lying?

A: That wouldn't be a lie. . . . I mean, it's very sensitive . . . how often people are actually there to [tell how crowded the bus is]. . . . Another reason why it's impossible to hit any target 100% of the time is because . . .

Q: I don't think anybody is demanding 100% compliance all the time, but the implication again is . . .

A: Well, the way the Bus Riders Union reports it, they're focusing on 100% of the time.

Q: But the union's number is pretty high in terms of how many times you're not making 100%.

A: Well, I understand their frustration.

Q: I thought this was a temporary job for you.

A: I did, too.

Q: You've dealt with a bunch of troubled entities, the Teamster Fund, for example. Where would you place this job in terms of difficulty?

A: Well, I think this job is the most difficult job I have ever had. It is the most difficult, because, basically, it all rises out of the fact this is a public agency, and it's a public agency of great importance on a subject that is of great importance to people who are relying on this operation. . . . I'm enjoying it in the sense that it seems so worthwhile to me to do, and I think we're making progress.

Q: On what?

A: Well, I certainly have gone a long way in helping the [MTA] board understand what the resources are and what the limitations of their resources are. That it really is not a desirable thing for this agency, or for this board, to get its public promises out ahead of its reasonable expectations on resources. . . . I think the projections turned out to be much too aggressive as the world actually unfolded, and I think that I am inclined to be a much more conservative projector of resources. . . . I don't think it's intentional. I think it's unfortunate, and I think that we've made a lot of headway controlling it, to the point that we have gained a reasonable amount of credibility with our funding partners.*

"Our train system, in particular the Blue Line, is getting increasingly crowded, more crowded, on average, than buses. There is only so much money."

"This county is not only in a bad situation with respect to overall transportation issues, but it's going to get worse as the county grows."

"We have an accelerated bus-procurement program. . .We are receiving buses, new buses, every day and we are in training every day."

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