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At the Wheel
Art Leahy, boss of the MTA, says getting around should be no problem: Just leave your car at home
Photograph by Gregg Segal
When he was a bus driver, all Art Leahy wanted was a paycheck to get through college. Now that he runs the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the view through his windshield is far broader. His goal is to make car-obsessed Angelenos as passionate about public transit as they are about their automobiles. Leahy, who is 61, has been chief executive officer of the MTA for a year and three months. Whether he can entice more people to stop driving and start riding will depend on his ability to expand public transportation options for everyone. As a transit-dependent rider, I’d be happy if the MTA could make ordinary middle-class life possible without a car. So far it has not been able to, and deep cuts in state and federal funding are going to complicate Leahy’s job. Still, he is optimistic. He likes to ride buses and trains, introduce himself to the people who operate them, and chat up the riders he meets as he commutes to his office overlooking Union Station. I interviewed him at his desk (strewn with mementos from USC, where those early paychecks went) and while riding the Gold Line.
How do you get more riders on buses and trains?
We need to offer on-time service, reliable service, with the best frequency of buses we can. Critical to that is integrating the bus network with the rail network. They are not separate systems. We have to integrate with other municipal carriers—for example, Long Beach and Santa Monica—and with Metrolink, Amtrak, and the high-speed rail service being planned from Orange County to Los Angeles. When all that happens, you will begin to see ridership growth. In particular, what you are going to see is increasing sensitivity to higher gasoline prices based on increasing worldwide demand. There’s only so much oil in the ground.
What about cost? You’re balancing the budget by cutting staff, reducing bus service, and raising regular fares. Why?
If we compare our fares to other big cities’, our fares are lower. It’s not unreasonable that passengers here should pay a share of the cost that is more similar to other cities’. I don’t think that’s a retreat for the transit system. I think that’s just a basic requirement. Even in the event that we have to do some downsizing, we’re still going to have an outstanding transit system.
We face some very serious budget problems, which are worsened by the state’s action to defund transit operations. At the same time, because people are out of work, ridership is soft. Moreover, the state has linked greenhouse gas reduction to transit and to development approval. So while the state reduces transit funds, it is asking us for growth. It’s real tough. We need to continue to fund transit to provide service, increase the frequency of service, and get rail lines built. That’s really an economic engine for Los Angeles County.
You could say that public transit is in your DNA.
Sure. My father was first a streetcar operator, then a bus operator and instructor. In fact, when I became a bus operator, he was one of the guys who trained me. My mother was a streetcar operator in World War II. They met in Division 3 in Cypress Park, near Highland Park. And when I was 22, I became a bus operator and worked at the same division. I really did not intend to make this a career. I was a college student. I needed some money, and I thought I would try it for a few months. My first check was for eight hours, and I cleared $18. I thought that was pretty good. What happened to me in the process of becoming an operator and driving all over L.A. is that I became an adult. It’s a tough, tough job driving a bus. That really became the crystallizing moment in my life that caused me to grow up.
Do you see public transit differently because you were a bus operator?
Absolutely. What’s really important about the MTA are the employees who operate the equipment—the bus and train operators—and the maintenance personnel, the bus cleaners, and the MTA staff. It’s useful to think of the MTA as three different organizations. We have bus operations and rail operations, which need to be predictable. We publish a timetable that says a bus is leaving Wilshire and Vermont at 4:42. We want the bus to leave at 4:42. That requires a great deal of focus. Second, we have planners who think about the next century and the future of Los Angeles. They have to be creative. The third MTA is the guys who build the rail lines and the bus facilities and make freeway improvements. That’s why it’s so much fun here. We do “business stuff”—with customers who pay to ride. At the same time we do “government stuff”—we have to think about larger goals for the city and the county.
Can you get projects built faster on Mayor Villaraigosa’s 10-year plan rather than the 30-year plan projected by the MTA?
Absolutely. By accelerating Measure R sales tax-funded transit and highway projects, we have the opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of jobs to build our way out of the recession while sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions and easing traffic. At the same time we’d cut construction costs by beating inflation and securing more competitive bids in today’s soft construction market. Los Angeles could be a model for the nation if Congress lets us leverage local transportation sales taxes with zero- or low-interest federal loans and guarantees so we could get the construction money up front. The MTA board of directors supports the 30-10 initiative, which is gaining traction in Congress and the administration.
There are a lot of competitors for public right-of-way: motorists, truckers, transit, bicyclists, even pedestrians. Is the MTA balancing all those claims?
I think we are. We are working on widening freeways. We are working on possible truck lane projects. We work on bike paths. Certainly on buses. Getting dedicated bus lanes on city streets is awfully tough because, in those cases, motorists would lose the lanes. I don’t know that we’ll see a lot of that in the future. We’re also the major funding partner for Metrolink and the high-speed rail project from Orange County to Los Angeles. This is why I agreed to come to the MTA. We are in a position to revolutionize Los Angeles and to make a contribution to the long-term health and vitality of this county. It’s a challenge that was irresistible.
“Revolutionize” Los Angeles? In what way?
If you go back over the last 10 or 20 years, you see some fairly stunning changes in the shape of the city. You see intense downtown residential development. Along the rail lines you see transit-oriented development in Pasadena and even now in Orange County. In response to congestion and fuel prices and other things, we see people much more willing to live in a truly urban environment than we saw 30 or 40 years ago. I think we’ll see people making decisions about where they live relative to where they work based on using the transit system. We do the same thing with a car, but it’s a little more subtle. Some people tolerate long periods in their cars. Others don’t like it, so they live in closer. People who take buses and trains do the same thing. The fact that we’re building residential and business centers around train stations will create the kind of dynamic capacity to allow the system to grow and change Los Angeles.
But that seems to be driving us toward a denser Los Angeles.
I think our job is to provide mobility. There are good economic and environmental reasons for doing it. Moreover, the changes in density you reference have been occurring for years. The amazing amount of downtown residential development would have been unimaginable 15 years ago. The high-rise developments being planned around some Metro rail stations were inconceivable. What’s happening is that the combination of congestion, fuel prices, and convenience is causing the urban form to evolve. The MTA isn’t causing this change. We’re enabling it to the degree that we help you get around L.A. County without a car.
Cities, counties, and regional agencies must respond to regulation of greenhouse gases under a new state law, SB 375, which will lead to a cascade of changes in neighborhood density and the use of transit. Does the MTA have a way to accommodate these changes?
SB 375 is new and revolutionary, and so I’ve recommended that we be willing to be a little experimental and see how things work. For many of the subregions of Los Angeles County, the ability to develop a strategic plan [for greenhouse gas reduction] will be dependent on the MTA’s transit projects. It’s very important that we comply with what the state has mandated or there are likely to be some unhappy consequences. It will be a challenge because of the funding problem. But let’s see what happens. What will the price of gasoline be in five years? How will people get around? Will they ride the subway? I think they will. When I was a kid, my father would say that we should hope L.A. never gets like New York. Well, it hasn’t. But it’s a lot more like New York than we ever would have imagined.
Both of us ride the MTA. I even ride it for fun. Do you have a favorite excursion on the system that nonriders might enjoy as a first experience?
Well, taking the Gold Line to Pasadena to walk around Old Town is a lot of fun. I did that a few Saturdays ago. Or go west to Hollywood on the Red Line, and then you can take the bus on Hollywood Boulevard. That’s kind of a neat place to see how the systems work together. We’re running a service to Dodger Stadium this year: the Dodger Stadium Express. Bus and rail lines go to Union Station. The Dodger Stadium Express goes from Union Station to the ballpark. The funding comes from AQMD’s [Air Quality Management District] clean air projects.
We’re a big city, but do we have a big-city transportation system?
I think we’re getting there. I joke around that when the Expo Line opens out to Exposition Park, you’ll be able to take the Gold Line to Pasadena to see SC beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and then take the Expo Line to see SC beat UCLA at the Coliseum.
Metro on the Go
MTA plans and projects to make your commute faster and easier
» Construction of the Expo Line (above) from downtown to Culver City is almost done. When the next phase—from Culver City to Santa Monica—is finished, this will be the first lightrail to reach Santa Monica since the Red Car.
» Extending lightrail from Pasadena to the borders of Azusa is supported by the suburbs it will serve. If completed, the Gold Line would reach Montclair, and at 43.7 miles it would be one of the nation’s longest lightrail lines.
» The connector will tie together the Blue Line, the Gold Line, and the Exposition Line beneath downtown. Riders will enjoy a more coherent rail transit system.
I-405 through the Sepulveda Pass
» This “hell on wheels” for commuters is supposed to become less tormenting when a car pool lane is added to the freeway (above), among other improvements. But with the frequent ramp and bridge closures, the 405 is still Dante territory.
I-5 in south L.A. County
» The building project will add lanes to 6.7 miles of heavily traveled freeway through the suburban cities of Cerritos, La Mirada, Santa Fe Springs, and Norwalk.
I-10 in the San Gabriel Valley
» Construction projects at interchanges and other improvements along the 10 are intended to make some of the cranky bits of this crowded freeway work better.
D.J. Waldie is a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine. He blogs at kcet.org/local.