WASHINGTON — As cities struggle to secure increasingly scarce federal funds for projects such as the Los Angeles Metro Rail subway, one of their major obstacles is Ralph Stanley.
The Reagan Administration opposes new transit projects, and the President's conservative young head of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration has been adept at bureaucratic maneuvering to stall construction of those that have won congressional support.
"Congress gives and Stanley takes away," said one congressional source who specializes in transportation.
The 34-year-old Princeton-educated attorney is the man Southern California Rapid Transit District officials now face at the negotiating table as they try to secure a federal funding contract to begin the $3.3-billion downtown-to-North Hollywood Metro Rail subway.
The President has personally attacked the project as an example of the "ton of fat" in the federal budget, and Stanley has made exhaustive use of administrative delaying tactics to hold up the release of funds, including some appropriated by Congress more than two years ago.
Under a legal mandate from Congress, Stanley is now reluctantly negotiating an agreement to provide the $429 million in federal funds needed to begin the first 4.4-mile segment of the Los Angeles project. Nonetheless, he has managed to slow the process by demanding that Mayor Tom Bradley and Los Angeles County officials sign agreements to pay for potentially large cost overruns, and to cover any shortfalls that might occur in federal appropriations for construction.
Given the delicate stage of Metro Rail negotiations, RTD officials are guarded in their comments about the UMTA administrator. "Politically, he's smart," said RTD President Nikolas Patsaouras, who sits opposite Stanley at the negotiating table. "He represents the mandates and the philosophy of (the President), but stays within the bounds of the law. He's working a fine line."
The foot-dragging on the Los Angeles project is part of Stanley's larger effort to implement a controversial new vision of urban transit--one stressing the elimination of most federal support and a greatly increased role for private industry.
Calling press conferences in such cities as Detroit and New York to blast cost overruns, warning of huge operating deficits on Washington's subway, stalling projects from Seattle to Miami, challenging powerful congressional leaders and criticizing many of the programs he oversees, Stanley is seen as a hatchet man by the nation's transportation establishment.
"He's someone who, frankly, has been a disappointment to the transit industry," said Jack Gilstrap, executive vice president of the American Public Transit Assn., a national lobbying group for local transit systems. "We would like to think that the agency that is responsible for our functions would be more of an advocate for us.
"But here we have an Administration that wants to get rid of public transit, and Ralph's job is to do everything he can to accomplish it. . . . That means going to cities planning new systems and telling them it won't work or it's too expensive."
Even Stanley's harshest critics describe him as personable, bright and clever. And many acknowledge that through skillful use of his executive powers, he has been at least partially successful in accomplishing administratively what the President has failed to get legislatively.
"Stanley is effective," said one aide to a California Democratic congressman who has been active in the fight for Metro Rail funds. "Stanley causes real pain. . . . (He knows) how to work the system."
Others say Stanley gets too much credit. "He's more of a nuisance than a threat," said Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.), the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
Even though Stanley's bureaucratic maneuvering has slowed distribution of funds, the Administration's legislative proposals for mass transit, which Stanley has helped develop, have not advanced very far in Congress.
Generally, they call for huge reductions in federal support, including elimination of day-to-day operating subsidies that account for about 10% of the typical big city transit system's budget. Stanley also has been one of the Administration's leading advocates of "privatization"--a controversial concept that attempts to reduce costs by hiring private firms to provide services traditionally performed by government workers.
This year, Stanley is trying to condense transit and highway construction funds into new "urban mobility" bloc grants--essentially giving local governments far less money, but more flexibility in spending it.