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At the Core of the MTA Problem: A Sprawling, In-Fighting Bureaucracy

October 16, 1994|Morris Newman and Jay Stark | Morris Newman, an architecture and urban planner, is the senior editor of the California Planning and Development Report. Jay Stark, an urban planner, is editor of Metro Investment Report and The Planning Report

The freezing of $1.6 billion in federal rail money because of faulty Red Line construction is terribly humiliating for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is also a caning administered to Southern California and its officials, most notably Mayor Richard Riordan, who should now realize that they can no longer ignore the enormous organizational problems that have made the MTA the least credible public agency in the region. What had been the prize of Los Angeles--the nation's largest public-works project--has turned into a public embarrassment.

While Franklin E. White, the MTA chief executive, rightly fired Edward McSpedon, head of the Rail Construction Corporation, the quasi-independent unit in charge of Metro Rail construction, neither the public nor the federal government should be satisfied with scapegoating. The latest series of construction defects are not isolated glitches, as White has suggested. When parts of Hollywood Boulevard began to sink--as a result of using plywood and plaster instead of steel and high-strength concrete in the subway construction--it seemed a perfect metaphor for the collapse of the MTA bureaucracy itself.

The obvious question is how could this mammoth public agency, with an annual budget of $3 billion and a staff of nearly 10,000 people, show such apparent negligence on its most crucial project--even after it was stung by previous press revelations of poor construction in its underground tunnels?

In the midst of all the finger-pointing and recrimination, the true villain is the bureaucratic structure of the MTA itself. The agency is simply too large, too Balkanized and its parts too isolated to yield good results. Even before the first public-relations disaster spawned by press reports, in December, 1993, of defective tunnel work, many MTA observers worried that the agency's Byzantine internal politics would be its downfall.

The agency is still reconciling the marriage of its two former constituents--the rail-oriented Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the business oriented Southern California Rapid Transit District. The new structure, with its politicized, tit-for-tat division of responsibilities among former managers of the rival agencies, has hurt morale and weakened a sense of purpose among staff. It has also fostered open power struggles within the agency, which resulted in a six-month delay on White's proposal to dissolve the quasi-independent RCC in favor of a construction committee directly accountable to top management.

To understand the MTA's organizational problems, it is instructive to examine the long chain of command from the agency's top management on down to the workers in the tunnel. At the top are White and the MTA board, who make broad decisions on policy, projects and goals. Next is the MTA staff. Then the RCC, which is a kind of "general contractor" hiring other contractors and enforcing cost controls and deadlines. To do the RCC's work, a team of outside contractors act as engineers and general-construction managers for the job. They, in turn, hire subcontractors, such as Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, the tunnel excavators now facing most of the blame for substandard work.

Accountability and quality control have clearly failed under this loose-limbed, far-flung structure. The situation recalls a story in the Talmud: A man was so rich and had so many ranks of servants that he was kidnaped and held for ransom by his own employees--because they had never seen him and didn't know who he was.

The most important new player in MTA politics is Jerry B. Baxter, a 34-year Caltrans veteran, who will likely take responsibility for the reorganization of the MTA's construction company. The latest in a long line of MTA saviors, Baxter will seek to build accountability into the construction program, to ween the agency away from outside contractors and create a direct line of command to the MTA director and board.

Restoring credibility to the MTA cannot take place behind closed doors, however. Baxter should not be encouraged to become yet another behind-the-scenes player. Instead, he must present his reorganization plan to the public, the federal government and the MTA board in a timely and open manner. His experience in managing thousands of employees on vast freeway-construction jobs augurs well for his potential to bring oversight management and quality control back within the MTA--rather than delegating those responsibilities to its contractors.

Although it may seem odd to argue for strengthening White's hand at a time when his credibility is at a low ebb, the the director should have more control over construction. In addition, bureaucratic layers should be eliminated and the chain of command shrunk. A good start would be the elimination of the RCC, as White has recommended.

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