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John Dyer, 66; Transit Chief Was Crucial to Building L.A. Subway

May 07, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

John A. Dyer, a major force in creating Los Angeles' subway system as general manager of the Southern California Rapid Transit District during the 1980s, has died. He was 66.

Dyer died Saturday at his Glendale home of a heart attack in his sleep. He had undergone arterial surgery earlier in the week, said a former transit official, Nick Patsaouras.

"Because of his leadership and expertise, Los Angeles now has a subway system," said Patsaouras, who was president of the RTD board during part of Dyer's tenure as general manager, from Aug. 15, 1981, to Jan. 31, 1988.

"I worked hand in hand with him in formalizing, funding and implementing the Red Line. He was a master in understanding the funding process in Washington.... He knew his way in the corridors of Congress, not only in relationships but in the legalities. He was one of a kind."

In 1984, at the height of controversy over funding and building the Metro Rail subway, Patsaouras told The Times that Dyer was "the greatest thing that's happened in Los Angeles."

Dyer was brought to Los Angeles from Miami after voters passed Proposition A in 1980, establishing a countywide rail transit system financed by a half-cent increase in sales tax in Los Angeles County.

"I want the best man in the United States. We have a sick and dying patient, namely the RTD. I want the best surgeon to save it," said Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, champion of Metro Rail and late father of current Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, shortly after passage of the proposition he drafted.

Dyer at the time was director of the Metropolitan Transit Agency of Dade County (Miami), Fla., and since 1977 had supervised creation of Miami's rapid transit system. Perhaps most important, he had also persuaded the federal government to provide $1 billion for that city's transit projects in a mere four years.

Shortly before Dyer left for Los Angeles in 1981, he demonstrated his ability to obtain federal funding by securing for Miami a stipend that Los Angeles had sought to build a downtown monorail system. The Los Angeles elevated system was never built; Miami's Downtown People Mover was.

But Dyer immediately turned his expertise to improving transit in Los Angeles, which had long resisted funding or building any subway system.

After he left Miami, officials learned of cost overruns, construction delays and other problems in the rail system Dyer oversaw -- problems that would be repeated as Los Angeles built its own controversial subway and rail lines. Dyer countered that overruns for the modern rapid transit systems built by Atlanta and Washington, D.C., far exceeded those for Miami.

Dyer sought to appease reluctant taxpayers and irate bus riders in Los Angeles by stressing a twin priority of improved bus service, even as he worked to secure federal money to engineer and build the Metro Rail Wilshire Boulevard starter subway line.

He increased daily bus ridership from 1.2 million to 1.6 million in three years, and in 1982 he coordinated the RTD's purchase of 960 buses -- the largest in district history.

He was a tough negotiator with RTD unions, which had staged four strikes in the previous decade, and he developed one of the strictest transit employee drug and alcohol abuse policies in the country.

With his efforts in planning and obtaining more than $2.5 billion in federal funds, construction on the Metro Rail subway project finally began Sept. 29, 1986; the first section opened to riders in 1993.

Dyer also oversaw the highly successful Olympics Transportation System for the 17-day period surrounding the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Among transit officials nationally, Dyer was considered the best of the best. Articulate and knowledgeable, he was a virtual encyclopedia of transit trivia, a speed-reader who reviewed every note and report at the RTD during his 20-hour workdays.

He was so adept at getting money out of Congress that a Capitol Hill insider once quipped that Dyer "would make millions if he was selling insurance."

But critics complained that Dyer, whose mind always carried the master plan for whatever transit system he was working on, "kept too much in his head," was overly optimistic in his presentations to politicians, failed to delegate and spread himself too thin.

He resigned in October 1987 -- effective the following January -- amid controversy and criticism of excessive expense account spending by RTD board members and executives, accusations of mismanagement and poor safety and employee attendance records. At that time, the Legislature was working to abolish the RTD, and many saw Dyer as a symbol of all that was wrong with the vast Los Angeles transit system.

(The RTD was replaced in 1994 by the current Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which supervises buses, the Red Line subway and Blue and Green Line light-rail systems and the Gold Line to Pasadena, scheduled to open this year.)

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