Seeking to protect a multimillion-dollar federal investment, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena told Los Angeles MTA board members Monday that they must adopt a "code of conduct" to end their meddling in day-to-day operations and quickly complete a plan for building the subway.
Yet even as the unusual private meeting in Washington took place, turmoil continued at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles with the surprise resignation of the agency's construction chief. Stanley Phernambucq, who oversaw subway and light-rail construction, cited "the dysfunctional relationship that exists between and among board members and our public works program."
Phernambucq accused aides of two board members of attempting to influence contract awards and complained that the entire board had made a game of humiliating his staff in public. The resignation came two weeks after Joseph E. Drew, the MTA's chief executive officer, announced that he will leave his job in January because of similar concerns.
In Washington, Pena told the MTA board to deliver a plan to federal officials by Jan. 15 for extending the subway to the Eastside and North Hollywood as close to the current budgets and completion dates as possible, according to participants. He asked that local officials also decide how they want to proceed with the long-delayed proposed subway extension to the Mid-City area.
"We asked the board to reaffirm its commitment to the Red Line [subway] project as its first priority," Federal Transit Administrator Gordon J. Linton said in an interview after the meeting, which he attended.
MTA officials have been talking about slowing down subway construction or studying whether it would be cheaper and faster to build aboveground rail lines because of a projected $1-billion shortfall in the county's long-range transportation plan. The federal government is paying for about half of the $5.9-billion project, but Congress has slashed its appropriations for the last two years.
Linton said the MTA can consider building aboveground rail lines instead of a subway if it wishes. But he warned that the move would probably delay completion of the projects even more and increase costs.
"They're going to have some very tough decisions," Linton said about the board. "But their ability to make those tough decisions . . . will determine our ability to put forth a good face on their projects for the coming [federal] budget."
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a county supervisor and MTA board member who attended the session, said Pena stressed that the government wanted to see a return on its already substantial investment. "They feel that the project has to go forward," she said. "They said this is the largest project in the nation, and it's very important that it not have a black eye, and that we put it back on track."
Burke, MTA Board Chairman Larry Zarian and two other board members met with Pena and other federal officials in the transportation secretary's conference room, while Mayor Richard Riordan, an MTA board member, participated by speakerphone from Los Angeles. Linton described the meeting as a "frank and productive exchange."
Zarian said that the agency would comply with Pena's requests. "They just felt we're sending the wrong message to Congress," Zarian said. "We need to show a new face."
Carol Schatz, a downtown business leader who was appointed to the MTA by Riordan, said the federal officials were supportive. "They clearly want us to succeed," she said after the meeting, which she also attended.
On Wednesday, the MTA board is scheduled to consider shifting $300 million from other transit projects and cutting its budget by 5% in order to make up for the shortfall in federal funding and to help keep the tunneling on schedule.
But the agency may have to make other cuts as well, possibly shifting money from the $803-million construction of the Blue Line trolley from Los Angeles to Pasadena. That notion is strongly opposed by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member and longtime opponent of underground construction.
"If Washington is telling us to scrap the Blue Line for a failed subway, then Congress needs to educate the executive branch about the cost-effectiveness of an aboveground system," Antonovich said.
Pena would not comment, but those at the meeting said he warned the officials that they must quickly square away their plans for the subway to win support from Congress before another year's worth of funds is allocated for transit projects.
Federal officials sought five actions from board members:
* Adoption of a "code of conduct" that, according to Linton, "lays out the appropriate role and behavior of board members as they deal with their oversight responsibility." Noting that the political infighting was blamed for the resignation of the MTA's second chief executive officer in less than four years, Linton said the code should be approved quickly so the MTA can get a CEO "of the quality that they need."