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Riordan Fights the Battle of Transportation Funding : Pitching critical L.A. projects to a dubious Congress

March 06, 1997

Mayor Richard Riordan has gone to Washington to deliver some crucial congressional testimony today. The subject: the region's long-term funding needs in transportation. It's a necessary but risky step for a mayor who seems clearly to prefer to operate behind the scenes. It also commits Riordan to the difficult and very public task of restoring confidence and mending fences with a Congress that has long been suspicious of local transportation spending.

This was clearly a trip the mayor did not have to take. He'll be carrying the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's water today in terms of federal funding requests. That task could have been left to MTA administrators, but the mayor has fortunately taken the initiative.

This is a critical time for the MTA and its much maligned subway plans. It's also the time in which the Congress and the president are considering a multi-billion-dollar transportation funding package that will, in part, carry Los Angeles into the next century and beyond.

Since the MTA is the local conduit for these funds, it's a horrible time for it to lack a strong and reassuring CEO. That was painfully obvious Tuesday when the California Transportation Commission grilled MTA officials on the transit authority's plans. More than $1.1 billion in state funds have been committed to the MTA, and commission members fear that the MTA is promising far more than it can deliver. Similar skepticism reigns in Washington, even among traditional friends.

Specifically, Riordan is arguing for the Los Angeles area's fair share of money from the next incarnation of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA. It's one of the federal government's largest programs, and the task now is to decide how to divide $175 billion or more among the 50 states over the next six years.

Other localities have similar needs, such as Orange County's for a credit guarantee for its toll roads, $3 million for a transitway and $1.5 million for the Los Angeles-to-San Diego commuter rail project.

Much of the mayor's pitch makes sense, such as $250 million for cleaner-fuel buses and $20 million for a reconfiguration of Santa Monica Boulevard to improve traffic flow. One part clearly does not: a request for $58 million in design money for a extension of the Red Line deeper into the Valley. Why, at a time when more developed Red Line projects to the Eastside and to Mid-City might not be completed because of a vast structural deficit in the MTA's long-range budget?

Today the mayor will try to persuade not only Congress, but the California congressional delegation as well. With so much money on the line, the delegation must present a united front, and that is currently in doubt.

It would also make sense for the mayor to take some time today to shore up support, or gain it, among other key members of Congress, such as the frequently critical Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and longtime transportation allies such as Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles). This is an uphill battle, but the mayor of the nation's second largest city can carry enough weight to make a difference.

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