YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Nikolas Patsaouras

On Restoring Los Angeles Through Public Transit

September 21, 1997|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is vice president and director of the Hajjar and Partners New Media Lab. He spoke with Nikolas Patsaouras over dinner at a Westside restaurant

Historian Kevin Starr calls him "the most influential transportation activist of this generation." He made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1993. He has built a highly successful electrical engineering firm, spent long hours promoting civic projects and created strong ties to powerful political figures. Yet, few Angelenos would recognize Nikolas Patsaouras, or even know his name.

Unless, perhaps, they are among the tens of thousands of commuters who pass each day through the Patsaouras Transit Center adjacent to Union Station. Part of the $300-million, federally funded Gateway project, it has been lambasted by some for its opulence. Yet, it has won several design awards, is popular with commuters and is seen as a cornerstone for future development in the area north of downtown. It is also the most visible achievement in Patsaouras' dream of restoring Los Angeles by reforming its transportation system.

A Greek immigrant who came to this country as a foreign student, Patsaouras earned an engineering degree and built a profitable business designing electrical systems for large building projects. He had an engineer's optimism and an appetite for civic affairs that he inherited from his father. His work introduced him to major developers and to elected officials. In 1981, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to the board of the RTA. That agency was eventually merged with the Metropolitan Transit Assn. (MTA) and Patsaouras remains an alternate member on the board, with support from such powerful members as L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and L.A. City Council member Richard Alatorre.

A vocal proponent of a mixed transportation system, which melds buses, light rail, subways and even bike paths, Patsaouras combines persistence, vision and personal relationships with powerful politicians and developers to advance his cause. He sees the Gateway project as the sort of public building that helps shape a sense of identity and community in a city sadly lacking in both. Possessing classic Greek features and silver hair, Patsaouras, 53, tempers his passion for city building with a family man's concerns. His wife, Sylvia, is an urban planner; he loves to talk about his daughter, just back from a stint in the Peace Corps, and his son, now studying law at Yale University.

Patsaouras worries that he has been falsely portrayed as an advocate of rail over buses, when, in fact, he sees a role for both in solving the city's transportation problems. In a conversation over dinner, he talked about leadership, civic responsibility and his belief that tackling tough transportation problems is the key to creating a functional and vibrant Los Angeles of the future.


Question: How have your feelings about Los Angeles evolved since you first came here in the early 1960s?

Answer: As an engineer, I've always thought that transportation, energy and land use were the keys to rebuilding Los Angeles. But looking back now, to when I was younger, I started with a very technical outlook. My attitude has matured, and now I think about city-building. Take, for instance, the current debate about transportation in this city. It's degenerating into an argument between bus and rail. In fact, the debate should be about what sort of city we want to build, and how transportation should be organized to help us meet our vision.

Buses are a popular solution. But they are limited in right of way and get caught in traffic jams. They're labor intensive--one driver drives one bus, while a single rail driver can drive a whole train. They have been the backbone of our transportation system, but buses alone will not solve the problem.

Now the mayor is proposing busways. This is a great idea. If you reserve a right of way, whether it's a bus with rubber tires or a train with wheels of steel, it's pretty much the same thing.

In 1991, I proposed that the Exposition rail line right of way--from USC to Santa Monica--be converted into a busway. The cost was $250 million, and it could be built in three years. Everybody yawned. In 1994, after the earthquake, when the Santa Monica Freeway was closed, I proposed it again. For about a week, people were interested, then [Gov. Pete] Wilson said, "We're going to rebuild the freeway in six months," and everybody yawned again. Now that the MTA is out of money, and the Valley is not going to get their subway, people are saying, "Wow, we should have a busway."

Los Angeles Times Articles