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Turning Wheels Into the Future : Nascent Advanced Transit Industry Is Starting to Generate Jobs and Profits


While economists brew prophecies of the jobs that could be created by an advanced transportation industry in California, Ralph C. Valdez already has one.

Valdez, one of the tens of thousands of economic casualties of the Cold War's end, spent more than 14 years hand-forming aircraft parts at McDonnell Douglas before he was laid off more than a year ago.

Now he reports each morning to a freshly painted workshop on Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles where he fashions parts for buses, trucks and cars as they are converted from gasoline or diesel fuel to natural gas.

"Coming from a Fortune 500 company, I wanted to hook up with a company like this that's going to be on the rise," Valdez, 45, says of NGV Ecotrans, his new employer. "I can't wait for it to go public so I can buy stock."

The new company--a joint venture of NGV Systems Inc., a Long Beach-based natural gas technologies developer, and Ecotrans Aftermarket Corp., a subsidiary of Southern California Gas Co.--just opened for full production, with contracts to convert more than 900 vehicles this year.

The 30 jobs it has created--and the 70 others likely to be added over the next three years--don't by themselves do much to replace the 200,000 California jobs estimated to have been lost in the defense downturn.

Yet NGV Ecotrans is but the latest in a quiet wave of companies that are finding profit--and jobs--in the expansion of mass transportation and in state and federal mandates for cleaner vehicles.

At the moment, the jobs are being added in dribs and drabs, and the wages rarely match those in the lost aerospace positions, many of which were union.

But skilled jobs like those at NGV Ecotrans are what economists dream of when they talk about establishing new manufacturing industries in beleaguered Southern California. And transportation technology companies are starting to add workers.

Calstart--the public-private consortium attempting to foster an advanced transportation industry in the state--recently polled 33 member companies, about a third of its membership. The companies reported investing $229 million and creating 1,041 new jobs in advanced transportation projects, mostly in electric vehicle technologies. They expect to create 8,917 new jobs by 1998.

"This is going to be the new economic base for the region," says Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG).

AlliedSignal Inc.'s Torrance facility, for example, is developing a civilian version of what's called a turbogenerator--a simple, highly efficient turbine that has only one moving part and uses no polluting lubricants because it rotates on air bearings.

Developed to run the lights, computers and other auxiliary systems on military tanks, it can generate electricity for electric vehicles from compressed natural gas, liquid natural gas, diesel, reformulated gasoline or methanol--"basically about any fuel you can think of," says Mary Gerstner, the program manager.

While only 30 AlliedSignal employees are now working on turbogenerators, the company expects the project to add 1,000 jobs by 2005, with more potential growth beyond that. The same facility has five engineers working on fuel cells, another technology in which AlliedSignal sees great potential.

At the Torrance plant of Hughes Power Control Systems, more than 200 engineering and manufacturing employees are at work on electric vehicle components--from drive systems to the electronics for special power-steering and air-conditioning units.

"There are a whole slew of components that change when you go to an electric vehicle, because you lose your fan belt," says Fred Silver, marketing manager for the facility.

Another 100 engineering employees at other GM Hughes Electronics subsidiaries in Southern California are developing systems that provide vehicles with sunlight-bright light at night or put printed information on the windshield so drivers don't have to look down to consult maps. And Hughes researchers in Malibu are doing longer-range work on other aspects of transportation technology.

Meanwhile, the prognosticators continue to expect a rosy future for new transportation businesses in California.

By 2000, California could generate 10,000 jobs from electric vehicles and 225,000 in advanced transportation as a whole, according to Project California, Gov. Pete Wilson's blue-ribbon committee to encourage advanced transportation and telecommunications industries. The group projects the total rising to 409,000 jobs by 2010.

Calstart, meanwhile, says that if California can corral a third of the worldwide electric vehicle component industry, that would create 55,000 jobs by 2000.

And the latest estimates available--in a draft report by SCAG's advanced transportation technology task force--show equal if not greater promise.

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