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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Satisfying 2 Powerful Politicians a Tough Challenge for MTA Chief

February 23, 1996|BILL BOYARSKY

The latest chief of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is working hard to accomplish what his predecessor failed to do--satisfy the two imperious politicians powerful enough to have him fired.

Joseph E. Drew, the MTA's acting chief executive officer, told me in an interview this week that his main priority was the same as that of Mayor Richard Riordan, improving bus service, particularly in public transit-dependent working-class neighborhoods of East and South Los Angeles. Another priority is to build Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre's pet project, an extension of the light-rail Blue Line from Downtown L.A. to Pasadena. It will be done, Drew said.

Riordan and Alatorre are the most influential members of the 13-member board, which makes policy for a huge district that operates buses and commuter trains. They get mad--and get even--when they don't get their way.

Mad doesn't adequately describe their reactions when the previous chief executive officer, Franklin White, crossed them. Riordan blew up because he felt White didn't move fast enough on bus service improvement. Alatorre vowed vengeance when White tried to sidetrack the Blue Line. White said the MTA couldn't afford it.

Lobbyists representing powerful construction and engineering firms also backed the extension, which would be a bonanza to their businesses. There are 708 lobbyists registered to influence the MTA. When this huge cadre of advocates and their powerful corporate bosses joined Riordan and Alatorre in the campaign against White, the CEO was doomed.

*

When we talked in his office Wednesday evening, Drew looked remarkably calm for a man in such a perilous spot.

That may be because he's survived tougher situations. As an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he flew more than 1,000 hours of combat during the war. After he retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he went to work for Kern County, where he had grown up, moving from personnel director to airport director and finally county administrative officer.

Kern County presented dangers of another kind, a bunch of anti-government individualists. "And most of them are armed," Drew said with a laugh.

Drew reminded me of Ed Asner's tough news boss on the "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Lou Grant" shows. But he's more congenial than Grant, and more outgoing than former CEO White, who had a reserved, almost formal manner.

He wants to be named CEO, with "acting" removed from his title, and is working hard for the job. He prowls through the 26-story MTA headquarters building, talking to engineers and phone operators, and meeting with bus drivers who serve the most passenger-heavy routes. He also meets with neighborhood groups that have grievances against the MTA.

Top aide Rae James, formerly a Riordan deputy mayor, is arranging meetings with council members, state legislators and the area's congressional delegation.

Interestingly, James--and not one of her media relations staff--sat in on the interview. When she had something to say, Drew listened. With her City Hall connections, James gives Drew a direct line into Riordan country.

Clearly, Drew intends to pay more attention to mayoral direction than White did.

For example, when I asked him about Riordan and buses, he said, "If I were to say what the mayor is interested in, I would say it is improving bus service.

"His second priority is improving bus service. His third priority is improving bus service."

And what's Drew's top priority?

"It is tackling the bus service," he said. "Improving the bus service. That is the top priority."

He said he plans to shift a number of methanol-burning buses, which often break down, from South and East L.A. into areas where service demands are lighter. In addition, the MTA will buy 250 new buses, and initiate an improved system of replacing old buses.

Drew also said the Pasadena Blue Line extension will be built. He said he expected a forthcoming study to recommend construction.

"This is a project where the community has had enormous input in over four years, and where politicians, elected officials on this board and not on this board, are leading," he said.

*

Unfortunately for Drew, the MTA still faces the same problems that sank his predecessor.

To build the Pasadena line, the MTA must spend ready cash and sell bonds. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA board member, said the agency will reach its bonding limit if it tries to finish the Pasadena line by the promised date, 2001. That will leave it without funds for better bus service, he said.

"I think the MTA staff has to demonstrate to the board and the public how it can improve the bus system and exhaust its bonding capacity, as it will do with Pasadena," Yaroslavsky said. "I just don't see how you can do it."

Yaroslavsky's right. Riordan's goal takes huge amounts of money. Alatorre's will cost even more. If Joe Drew wants to become permanent CEO, he will have to satisfy these two powerful pols who won't take no for an answer.

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