Hahn Urged to Focus on MTA Role

Times Staff Writers

Preoccupied during his first year and a half in office with finding a new police chief and defeating secessionist movements, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn has paid less attention to his goal of easing the nation's worst traffic.

Now, with those preoccupations behind him, there is more focus on Hahn's role at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where he has struggled despite rules setting him up as the most powerful member of the 13-member board.

Since joining the MTA, the agency responsible for improving Los Angeles County's traffic, Hahn has failed to develop or promote a clear transit vision, according to some transit experts and observers of the agency.

What's more, even as the MTA grapples with a state budget crunch and other pressing issues, Hahn has not been much of a presence there, a fact noted by a growing body of critics. During his tenure, the mayor has appeared infrequently at board meetings, turned down an opportunity to assume the chairmanship and occasionally appeared disorganized or poorly prepared during debates. He also has ended up losing several key votes.

In a recent interview, Hahn defended his transportation record and noted that it has been difficult to give his full attention to the MTA because his main task has been fighting secession and rising crime.

Asked to list his transit accomplishments, the mayor said he has worked to improve traffic flow at intersections and to add left-turn lanes on city streets.

Speaking of more ambitious goals, he said he has introduced an amendment to speed route expansion for the MTA's popular Rapid Bus. Hahn also cited his efforts to draw up plans for a reshaped Los Angeles International Airport and for getting regional airports to serve more people, actions he says could ease freeway congestion.

Finally, the mayor said he wants to build a rail line or busway on Crenshaw Boulevard and ensure the building of a rail link from downtown to Santa Monica. Both projects have long been championed by other officials in the county.

"We've got to get the city moving," said Hahn, who declared that, while his ideas may not be flashy or new, they would be effective.

"It's about results," he said. "Coming up with a totally new project" is not that important.

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Long-Term Effects

Hahn's involvement in transit matters could have long-term ramifications for Southern California.

Just to stabilize traffic as the region brings in millions more residents over the next two decades, the MTA wants to build several new rail lines, busways and freeway carpool lanes. If the MTA cannot reel in the hundreds of millions of dollars it needs from state and federal sources, projects such as a Santa Monica-to-downtown Los Angeles light rail line stand to be seriously delayed and may never get off the ground.

A fully engaged mayor, transit experts say, could be among the MTA's most effective tools to secure outside financing.

Many observers say that, with funding from Washington and Sacramento in doubt, Hahn needs to start flexing the muscle he has by virtue of his position.

"It's very important for the mayor to step up," said James Corless, director of the California Surface Transportation Policy Project. "The area is such a conglomeration of cities and interests, and there's obviously a lot of transportation problems. The mayor is as close as you can come to being a unifier. It's an almost symbolic, figurehead role ... but as the mayor of the second-largest city in the nation, the mayor ought to be able to speak a good game and get others in his region behind him."

Despite a budget crunch, some transit advocates and officials want the mayor to come up with a grand vision for his city and the region.

A plan for a series of east-west rail lines or subways connecting with a network of north-south buses is just one of the many ideas circulated.

Some wish Hahn would use his bully pulpit to promote plans and energize the city and transit officials behind him. As models, they see the late Mayor Tom Bradley standing behind the city's first subway system, then-Mayor Richard Riordan advocating improvements in bus service and Hahn's own father, the late County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, backing the Blue Line railway.

Other observers say the mayor's more cautious, incremental approach is reasonable and appropriately pragmatic.

"He spent the last year getting his feet wet and grasping the issues," said Richard Katz, a former member of the state Assembly who sponsored legislation creating the MTA in 1993.

Katz believes that Hahn is just now coming to understand how big an issue transportation is for this region. "He has an opportunity now," Katz said.

As Los Angeles mayor, Hahn sits on the MTA's 13-member board and should wield a great deal of clout there. The charter allows the mayor to appoint three other board members, making him the only MTA official able to create his own solid voting block.

A politically savvy mayor unafraid to use his position to punish foes or grant favors should be able to get the three additional votes to pass almost any item, said William Bicker, a transportation deputy under Bradley.

"The whole structure of the MTA is set up to pivot around the mayor," Bicker said. "If he's not winning on all of the important items, something is seriously wrong."

Despite those built-in advantages, Hahn's term at the agency has been marked by several high-profile losses and curious decisions.

Shortly after taking office, Hahn lost out on a campaign promise to stop a 14-mile dedicated busway from rumbling through neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, when his last-minute counterproposal was shot down.

Hahn also was unable to get the agency to stop its court appeals of a federal consent decree it signed in 1996 promising better bus service.

In June, Hahn turned down the opportunity to serve as chairman of the MTA board. Instead, he handed the reins to Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, saying he wanted to focus on the battle against secession.

The mayor offers the same explanation for his spotty attendance at key MTA board meetings.

Records show that Hahn, who serves on the agency's executive management and audit committees as well as the full board, has attended 20 of 37 meetings.

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Missed Meetings

Last year, Hahn missed the monthly meetings of the full board in January, March, May, August and October. He arrived toward the end of April's meeting. The board didn't convene in November, but Hahn missed his subcommittee meeting that month.

The mayor often failed to make it to the MTA sessions because he was attending anti-secession rallies and meetings, his aides say. When Hahn does attend the board sessions, he sometimes comes late and often says little. Fellow board members occasionally show their impatience.

At a board meeting called to discuss details of the MTA's newly reorganized bus system. Hahn arrived more than two hours late and tried to jump into the thick of the discussion. He began summarizing one of the agenda items to be voted on, unaware that it had just been amended. He was interrupted by several board members.

The mayor then began talking about a related staff report. He was interrupted again. "It's part of your file, Mr. Mayor," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Hahn seemed confused, then began to say that he would not support the staff report's recommendation, comments that had nothing to do with what the panel was discussing. He was again cut off.

"That's not the issue," Yaroslavsky said, growing impatient. "You did walk in at the end, and there's been a lot of discussion before."

The discussion proceeded to a vote without further participation by the mayor.

In mid-November, pro-bus demonstrators piled onto the steps of City Hall in a rally targeting what they said was Hahn's ineffectiveness.

A week later, the mayor missed a chance to lead a major transportation summit because of a conflict with a trip to Asia meant to improve business ties with the city. Many at the summit griped that, given Los Angeles' transportation problems, Hahn should have postponed the trip.

Though many elected officials and outside advisors to Hahn are highly critical of the mayor's efforts thus far, most are wary of his clout and have been unwilling to go on record with their frustrations. Grass-roots organizers have been much more forthright.

"The mayor has been absent on transportation. When people ask me what he feels, I tell them, 'I don't know,' " said Dana Gabbard, co-chairman of Southern California Transit Advocates. "His silence has been glaring."

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