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L.A. Metro’s Phil Washington stepping down; CEO expanded rail but saw bus ridership decline continue

Metro CEO Phil Washington
Phil Washington joined Metro in 2015 from Denver.
(Los Angeles Times)

The head of Los Angeles County’s transportation agency is leaving in May after a six-year tenure that helped lay the groundwork for an ambitious expansion of the local rail network.

Phil Washington told Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, in a letter Wednesday that he would not seek to extend his contract. Washington wrote that he will leave with “mixed emotions,” including pride that he is leaving the county “better than it was.”

Washington has led Metro through the planning and early construction of one of North America’s biggest rail building booms. Five projects are under construction, including two that have long been on L.A.'s transit wish list: a subway under Wilshire Boulevard and a rail connection to Los Angeles International Airport.

The expansion was financed in part by Metro’s successful campaign for Measure M, a sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that will generate an estimated $120 billion for more than a dozen rail, bus and highway projects.

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“This is a golden age of mass transit building in Los Angeles — no doubt about it,” said Coby King, cochair of the transportation committee at the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn.

Washington did not respond to a request for comment, but said in a prepared statement that working at Metro had been a “distinct pleasure and absolute honor.”

Washington recently served as the head of President Biden’s transition team for transportation. He said in his letter to Garcetti that he looks forward to “advocating and advancing the mission of Metro” in his future work.

“Measure M has given Metro the resources it needs to solve the big problems,” said Jessica Meaney, founder of Investing in Place, a nonprofit that works on transportation issues. But, she said, the agency has continued to “struggle with operations, and especially bus service.”

The pursuit, captured and livestreamed by newschopper, took so long that the officers in pursuit had to stop for gas.

Some critics have said that Washington’s focus on expanding the rail network has come at the expense of L.A.'s predominantly low-income bus riders, who for years have endured long waits in the hot sun for crowded buses.

Riders were already leaving L.A.'s bus network when Washington arrived in 2015, and the decline continued during his tenure. Trips on Metro buses fell 25% over a decade, the steepest drop of any major U.S. transit agency, and riders purchased cars in record numbers.

That precipitous decline prompted the first major overhaul of the region’s bus network in a generation. The Metro board approved a plan called NextGen, which aims to add more frequent bus service on major corridors, in October and changes will be implemented over the next year.

Those improvements will be key as Los Angeles tries to recover from the pandemic, Meaney said. Metro’s riders, most of whom are Black, Latino or Asian, need reliable transportation to get to work, get their COVID-19 vaccines and take their children to school, she said.

“The $64,000 question is fully funding NextGen, so all the wonderful ideas actually become a reality for riders,” Meaney said.

That will be a challenge with Metro’s current budget, which was ravaged by a drop in sales tax receipts during the pandemic. Deep cuts to bus and rail service have yet to be fully restored.

Metro’s next chief executive will also be tasked with keeping in check the schedules and budgets of a half dozen major rail projects.

The Crenshaw Line, which broke ground in 2013 and was once slated to open in 2019, will open more than two years late. A portion of the Wilshire Boulevard subway and a complex project to tie together three rail lines under downtown Los Angeles are facing complications too.

And then there are other looming questions: How best to handle homelessness on the transit system, how the system should approach public safety when a bundle of policing contracts expire next year; and how transit officials should prepare for the 2028 Olympics, which will be hosted in Los Angeles.

The next chief executive will also oversee the results of studies that Washington launched to examine two ambitious and politically tricky concepts: whether to eliminate fares on the transit system, and whether to charge fees to drivers in an attempt to reduce traffic jams, sometimes called congestion pricing.

Washington, a U.S. Army veteran, grew up in Chicago and previously worked as the general manager of Denver’s transportation agency.


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