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MTA Valley Chief Has a Tough Road Ahead

Transit: David Armijo faces a challenge to modernize a bus fleet, revamp service and prevent a breakaway.

July 29, 2002|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When David Armijo toured two buses recently, one made him marvel, the other made him cringe.

Stepping into a gleaming, plush Simi Valley Transit coach, the new chief of the MTA's San Fernando Valley sector saw that the natural-gas-powered vehicle was equipped with the latest technology--a debit-card fare machine for riders, a digital radio for drivers and a global positioning system to help the nine-bus network run more efficiently.

Later, at the same Chatsworth stop, Armijo boarded a second bus--a battered diesel vehicle with threadbare seats, scratched windows, a graffiti-splashed rear wall and an ancient analog Motorola radio. Unlike the Simi Valley coach, this bus is part of the 440-vehicle fleet that Armijo supervises.

"We're bigger, but we're not necessarily better," Armijo said. "We're working at it."

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun buying newer coaches, Armijo said it could take three years to replace this particular bus. Modernizing the fleet is just one of the challenges facing Armijo as the MTA decentralizes into five smaller operating units--including the 1,300-employee Valley sector--in an effort to better serve bus riders.

As the Valley sector chief, Armijo controls a $110-million budget and has the authority to hire and fire staff members and to modify bus schedules and routes. He can add or delete routes if he holds a public hearing and obtains approval from the MTA board.

Part of his $168,000 annual salary is tied to how much he improves on-time performance and reduces complaints from customers.

Rider advocates say bus routes and schedules in the Valley are in serious need of an overhaul.

In the last four years, Valley bus passenger boardings--the measure of how much buses are used--grew by 66%, from 41.1 million in 1998 to 68.4 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, according to MTA estimates. The increase is in part the result of the 2000 opening of the Metro Red Line subway in the Valley and the creation of a rapid bus line on Ventura Boulevard.

But the local bus lines, in the meantime, have languished.

The Valley sector serves a politically charged region where, until recently, a group of local officials and community leaders agitated to break off from the MTA to form a separate transit zone.

Arguing that the MTA was too big, inefficient and out of touch with the needs of the Valley, zone proponents favored an independent, locally controlled bus district to provide better service.

Late last year, top MTA executives countered with a sector plan that promised the same results through decentralization. Sectors for the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys began operations this month, while others in the South Bay, Westside/Central and Gateway Cities regions are scheduled to start in September.

Armijo was the first sector general manager to be recruited.

"All the eyes are on him. He's the lead in this experiment," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a Sylmar-based nonprofit advocacy group. "If he stumbles or fails, this won't bode well for the MTA."

For now, zone proponents say they are waiting to see how well the Valley sector works. If it doesn't lead to better service and more response to local needs, they threaten to file papers for an immediate divorce from the MTA.

"That's Armijo's challenge--make the zone application go away," said Kymberleigh Richards, spokeswoman for Southern California Transit Advocates, an organization of riders.

Those who know Armijo believe he's up to the task.

John Catoe, MTA deputy chief executive, is so impressed with Armijo that he likes to joke he hired Armijo twice. The first time was in 1995, when Catoe recommended Armijo to become director of operations for Orange County Transportation Authority. Then, a few months ago, Catoe plucked Armijo out of Orange County for the Valley position.

"He's politically smart," Catoe said of Armijo, a 43-year-old transit veteran, who also has worked in Texas and New Mexico. "I felt he fit perfectly in the Valley."

In Orange County, Armijo supervised the restructuring of bus routes, cutting duplicate service and expansion of other lines. Some changes, which required riders to make more transfers, were strongly criticized at first. But a recent survey by the Orange County transit agency showed that its riders are happier now with their bus system than they were before the restructuring. Ridership grew more last year in the county than in any other major metropolitan area in the country.

Armijo also introduced shorter, 25-passenger buses to the Orange County fleet--something he said he hopes to repeat in the Valley. The smaller buses could serve some Valley neighborhoods that need bus service but don't have enough passengers to justify new lines with standard 40- or 43-passenger coaches, he said.

His other plans include having some buses skip stops so they can go faster, and improving rail-to-bus connections.

Armijo is planning the changes with his schedulers, meeting with community groups and seeking ideas from riders and drivers.

"That's good. He gets to see what we see. We are the eyes and ears out there," said Darryl Richardson, as he steered his diesel coach down Topanga Canyon Boulevard just after telling Armijo about the need for newer buses that run on clean fuels.

Richardson, a driver for 20 years, said MTA management never paid much attention to what drivers had to say, but changes seem to be in the air.

"It's getting better now, in terms of communications, between us and management," he said.

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