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PERSPECTIVE ON THE MTA : Put New Wheels Under the MTA : Restructure the board without politician members and put separate subsidiaries in charge of bus and rail.

August 20, 1995|RICHARD J. RIORDAN | Richard J. Riordan is mayor of Los Angeles.

Sinkholes, cost overruns and overcrowded buses--why are we surprised? Forgotten in today's headlines are the fiscal and political conditions that propelled the forced union of two agencies into what today is known as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Although the MTA is a justifiable target of criticism, we must place the situation in perspective.

The Legislature created this transportation super-agency in 1993, forcing an ill-planned merger of the former Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. At the time, Angelenos were promised that the MTA would create "a transportation system that works for the public and commissioners who use judgment instead of blank checks." There was also the promise of accountability and ethical operations.

This was an attractive proposition, since the RTD was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, with a 1992 operating deficit of more than $125 million. On a separate but equally perilous track, the LACTC was adopting a $183-billion, 30-year transportation plan that offered everything for everybody. The plan was based on the premise that the robust economy of the 1980s would last forever. The plan was adopted by politicians who couldn't say no.

Fast forward to 1995 and we see a familiar finger in the MTA pie--the Legislature. Under the guise of reform and facing the impact of term limits on their legislative careers, Democratic leaders are lobbying for MTA governance by an elected board of directors. In essence, this tactic would escalate the politicization of the MTA board.

We must move in the opposite direction. We must take the politics out of the MTA.

I will seek legislation in Sacramento calling for the replacement of the current MTA board--of which I am a member--with a nine-member appointed board. There would be no elected officials on the board and no alternates. The new MTA board would consist of three members appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, three members nominated by the mayor of Los Angeles and confirmed by the City Council and three members appointed by the California League of Cities. An ex-officio member would be appointed by the governor.

An appointed board structure builds on a review of the best practices of other transportation agencies around the country. An appointed board would be liberated from the inherent conflicts experienced by politicians as they juggle the interests of multiple constituencies. By taking politics out of the MTA, my proposal will allow us to move forward with a common vision.

Our priorities must be to improve bus services for transit-dependent residents and to reform the MTA's troubled rail construction program. To that end, I will also seek legislation to give the new MTA board the flexibility to respond to the need for focus, leadership and accountability in all its activities.

For example, the MTA is responsible for overseeing the largest public works project in the country, operating the largest bus fleet west of the Mississippi and creating an innovative transportation policy that meets the needs of the people of Los Angeles. The current MTA structure blurs these activities, so that the agency is unable to meet its responsibilities effectively.

We must implement a new structure that provides strong fiscal, administrative and construction oversight. The board must have the flexibility to create and manage subsidiary business units that oversee bus operations and rail construction, so that the board can focus on policy, planning and programming.

The shotgun union between the RTD and the LACTC has not delivered on its promises. Change requires courage and commitment. We must act now or we may never emerge from the sinkhole of controversy and all Angelenos, particularly the transit-dependent, will pay the price.

We can create a transportation system that works for everyone. Together, we can begin to make the MTA the finest transportation agency in the country.

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