Ron Kaye: The most ruthless game

Here's a challenge for all you NIMBYers, naysayers, malcontents, apathetics and ignoramuses to contemplate: Put yourself in the shoes of an elected official trying to do what's best when the power brokers have given you the choice of getting nothing for your community or going along for the ride and maybe getting something.

The easy response is that you would tell the crooks and liars, the special interests and the greed merchants, to go to hell. I know I would, but who would vote for me?

It ain't that easy in the real world.

Just ask Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian, a veteran on the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metrolink, and chairman of the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments — roles that make him the guardian of the transportation interests of the region's 2 million people.

Najarian faced a dilemma last month when the downtown L.A. power brokers were steamrolling all opposition to get the MTA board to put on the November ballot an extension of the 2008 Measure R 0.5% sales tax for another 30 years so all the prospective revenue through 2069 can be borrowed against and spent now.

The problem is that this region from Glendale through the San Fernando Valley to Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley — with nearly 20% of the county's population — will get just 5% of the more than $80 billion that Measure R and Son of Measure R will generate.

For Burbank and Glendale, in particular, it means all that money will provide little more than some long-needed fixes to the Golden State (5) Freeway.

“It's clear the valley was not getting its ‘fair share,' that we're putting in a lot more than we're getting back, compared to other regions like the Westside and downtown,” Najarian said last week after moderating a forum that brought warring county Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich together to debate the pros and cons of the transportation tax proposal.

“I faced making a decision: ‘Do you want to support an extension on this tax that will make commuting in the county better, but that will not give you in your region — the tri-cities and the valley — much to show?' It was a tough call.”

What Najarian did was to cut what he thought was the best deal possible, getting a commitment from the valley council of governments and most MTA board members to support a rapid transit bus that would connect the Orange Line busway in North Hollywood to Burbank, Glendale and the Gold Line light rail in Pasadena — the “missing link,” as it has been called — as soon as money becomes available.

His decision to join in an 8-3 vote in support of extending Measure R did not sit well with Antonovich, who took over as MTA board chairman last week and exercised his authority to boot Najarian off the board of Metrolink, the only public transit system that links Burbank and Glendale to the world beyond.

“It was a strong blow and I didn't think I deserved it,” Najarian said. “The egos on that board are incredible. The power plays — it is theater. I'm just a little guy from Glendale trying to get the best deal I can for the region.”

Transportation is as ruthless a game as there is in L.A. politics because of the money. Billions are at stake on who wins and who loses, who decides the contracts, who gets the benefits — contractors, unions, engineers, lobbyists, consultants of every type and variety, and most of all, the career politicians who live very well on the generosity of those who get rich on taxpayer money.

It's L.A. Noir — the dark side of public policy that has been sold to the public as how we're going to get out of our cars and ride trains and buses across this vast sprawling region. Yet the numbers of transit users do not rise anywhere near as fast as the costs, even as bus services are cut year after year and barely 25% of MTA's operating revenue comes from the fare box.

After all the billions that have been spent, and will be spent in the next dozen years, to build the subway-halfway-to-the-sea, the Expo Line to Santa Monica and extend the Gold Line to Azusa, the MTA system still will lack the connectivity and frequency of service that makes public transit successful.

“Putting aside the parochial concerns of Glendale and looking at the big picture, we don't have the same traffic nightmares as the Westside, so I'm happy if we get more service that connects Glendale to downtown on Metrolink and the [bus rapid transit] bus line from the Orange Line to the Gold Line,” Najarian said.

“We developed our own ‘missing link' plan four years ago and the only glitch now isn't the capital, but how we hit Bob Hope Airport and downtown Burbank. Do we want a separate line from the Media District, or do want a single line that makes an “S” curve to hit both of those locations?

“What's important to me is the connectivity of the BRT. It makes the entire region better. It's a start, at least. It's doable economically and can be built quickly and efficiently,” he added.

So we are back where we began: What would you do, take it or leave it?

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World