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MTA trots out its new CEO

March 5, 2009 | 12:18 pm

The MTA board unanimously approved Art Leahy as its new CEO in a closed session this morning in Los Angeles. Here's a link to a longer story about Leahy, who is currently the CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

After the vote, the board held a brief news conference to introduce Leahy, who arrived on an MTA bus to provide visuals for the media. I did get a chance to ask Leahy what he thought about this "nonsense" (yes, that's the word that I used) from the MTA staff about it taking 23 years to build the subway extension to Westwood and if that was acceptable to him.

His answer:

"Understand that I'm not here yet. I'm still working at the O.C.T.A in Orange County and I've got my hands full down there right now. I look forward to coming here and reviewing all of our organization plans and the assumptions that led to those projections.

"I will say as a general rule people will find me impatient. And I'm demanding. I want to make sure we're doing the very best that we can for the taxpayers."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is also chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, then stepped in and added that the timelines for all the projects that were supposed to receive money from Measure R (the half-cent sales tax approved by county voters in November) assumed no federal or state matching dollars. Villaraigosa said he intended to garner money from both, given that L.A. County voters had approved three half-cent tax increases to fund the MTA in recent years (1980, 1990 and 2008, for those keeping score at home). "My hope is that we will be rewarded for that," the mayor said.

I also had the chance in recent days to talk to several people steeped in local transportation issues and ask them both what they thought of Leahy and the challenges ahead. Not everything made it into the story I wrote about Leahy, but I thought some readers might be interested in what they had to say.

Martin Wachs, the director of transportation, space and technology at Rand Corp., pointed to the politics that have long been challenging to those running the MTA.

"They have this problem in which those who are appointed to the board want to bring money and projects back to their districts to show constituents they're getting a return on their investment," Wachs said. "At the same time there's a need to build a region-wide system and you want something that's integrated fully.... So there are inherent contradictions. There are pulls between ... doing something beneficial to the whole region and responding to the more parochial views of the board members on the other. The fact that they operate the largest transit system [in the county] and that they also distribute funds to the other municipal [transit agencies] also puts them in a position of inherently in a conflict of interest."

Wachs also said he believed that it would be very difficult to build all the Measure R projects. "I think maintaining operations and not decreasing service substantially is going to make it harder to realize all the capital investments that all the political leaders have as gleams in their eyes. Every transit operator has that problem."

Ed McSpedon, a senior vice president at the engineering firm HNTB, said that it was imperative that the MTA secure a lot of federal money for the Measure R projects.

"I'd say something else -- the MTA has the potential to assume a stronger leadership role in the region on transportation issues," he said. "It has certain things within its charge that are significant and it's just transit. They are involved in 405 carpool lane [addition], congestion pricing studies. They've got a highway component in there, they finance and touch a lot of the reigon. I think the MTA becuase of their governance, because they've got the five county supervisors and the mayor and representatives from other cities [on the board], I think they could play a significant role in bringing all the key stakeholders together. By that I mean bring the ports, airports and the cities and Caltrans and the commuter rail agencies and to be the catalyst to get them talking."

David Grannis, the CEO of Planning Company Associates, a Pasadena-based firm, agreed with other sources that Leahy was a good choice for the job because he's a native and has worked 30-plus years in the area.

"I think he will thrive -- he’s been around the block and he’s done a good job in Orange County," Grannis said. "The challenge is that the state is imploding ... the biggest challenge these transit agencies are going to have is the fact that the state can’t maintain its existing highway and transit systems."

Leahy is set to begin his new job April 6. The man he is succeeding, Roger Snoble, said that he would stay until April 8 to ease the transition. Here's a link to the MTA news release about Leahy getting the job and the OCTA release on his departure.

-- Steve Hymon

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