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Hahn Cedes MTA Chair to Focus on Secession

Transit: Keeping the city intact is too important to divert time from, he says. Valley Councilman Bernson is his choice for the influential post.


In an admitted nod to the threat of secession, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn will announce today that he will turn down the opportunity to head the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

Hahn said he will nominate in his place veteran Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, a San Fernando Valley representative. Bernson, one of Hahn's three MTA appointees, declined to comment.

"My focus has got to be on keeping the city together," said Hahn, noting that the position would entail frequent travel in search of federal and state transit dollars. "I do recognize the opportunity to shape transportation policy, but I don't know when I'd have the time for my [anti-]secession efforts."

Hahn said that stopping secession is more important than chairing the MTA, because breaking up Los Angeles would dilute the city's ability to attract funds from Washington. Moves by both the Valley and Hollywood to split from Los Angeles will be decided by voters in November.

The MTA chair drives the agenda at the nation's second largest transit agency, a $2.7-billion behemoth charged with handling some of the world's worst traffic. When the mayor of Los Angeles heads the agency, his power is greatly expanded. To pass through key items, a mayor, in theory, can consolidate his vote with that of his three appointees. The four votes comprise more than half of the seven votes needed to muster a majority of the 13-member board.

The chair also decides which members of the board--a body including the county supervisors, small-city officials and the mayoral appointees--sit on the important subcommittees from which contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars flow.

Holding the chairmanship opens up more lobbying power in the corridors of Washington and Sacramento than the mayor might otherwise have, said former Mayor Richard Riordan. "That kind of access is key for the region."

Riordan served on the MTA board from 1993-99, the last three years as chairman. While Hahn has been on the board for only a year, many are already comparing his performance negatively with that of the ex-mayor.

Among many moves, Riordan brokered a federal consent decree to improve bus service and appointed a highly regarded turnaround specialist to right the MTA. He also led a difficult charge to halt subway construction the agency couldn't afford.

While Riordan declined to comment on Hahn's decision, reaction elsewhere was mixed.

MTA board member and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has clashed with Hahn on occasion, said he agreed with Hahn's move.

"It doesn't make much sense for him to take it right now," said Yaroslavsky, who noted the mayor still has significant clout by virtue of his control of four votes. "He obviously has a lot on his plate."

Disagreeing with Yaroslavsky were many who believe Hahn is passing up a timely chance to alter transit policy. USC professor and transit expert Jim Moore said the mayor could help fight secession by using the chairmanship to force the MTA's hand on issues important to the Valley, such as more funding for freeway carpool lanes.

Hahn is "giving up a huge leadership opportunity by not taking that role," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "In Los Angeles there are few issues more important to people than transportation.... My guess at this point is that in his mayorship transit has not been a top priority."

That view has been voiced by many at the MTA since Hahn took over as vice chair of the board when he became mayor last June.

While he does support an expansion of rapid buses and has shown some interest in a Crenshaw corridor rail line, Hahn has not forcefully pushed a bold, visionary project--a light rail line or a busway, for example--while on the board.

The mayor has also been largely ineffective on the few issues he has promoted. Early on, Hahn's campaign promise to block a dedicated busway down Chandler Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley was defeated after his tepid counterproposal was shot down by the board. In that case, Hahn appointee Bernson voted against him.

Later, Hahn failed to persuade the board to adopt his position to stop the MTA's continuing court appeals of the federal consent decree with the Bus Riders Union over shoddy bus service. The MTA went ahead with the appeals, increasing its legal fees to more than $4 million, before being turned away by the Supreme Court.

Bernson, after his expected approval by the board, will replace current chair John Fasana, a Duarte councilman.


Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this report.

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