Boxer and LaHood not shy about tackling transpo questions at town hall meeting

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speaks to the town hall meeting on Friday morning along with Sen. Barbara Boxer and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Photos: Gary Leonard

The town hall meeting at Metro headquarters with Sen. Barbara Boxer and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrapped up a little while ago. The topic: what should be in the massive federal transportation bill that Congress will soon begin debating.

The 90-minute meeting featured short introductory remarks from Boxer and LaHood, followed by a short speech by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then questions from the crowd of invited guests. Here are a few highlights:

•Villaraigosa said that he’s putting the finishing touches on his “30/10 plan” to build 12 Measure R projects that are scheduled to be constructed over the next 30 years in the next decade. Villaraigosa said that two of the major selling points are the fact that Metro ranks third overall in terms of ridership among transit agencies in the country and the fact that voters in the county have voted to tax themselves one-and-a-half cents on the dollar to pay for transportation improvements.

•The mayor also said that he wants the next transportation bill to include money for the Westside Subway Extension and the Downtown Regional Connector because the Metro Board of Directors unanimously agreed they should receive federal funding and that both projects will be among the most heavily used transit lines in the country.

Metrolink Board of Director Chair Keith Millhouse told Boxer and LaHood that he wants the transportation bill to include money for positive train control systems that can stop trains from colliding — as they did in Chatsworth in Sept. 2008. Millhouse added that he was disappointed that neither the stimulus bill or grants announced by LaHood this month provided money for PTC.

In response, LaHood said that he’s seeking to have the U.S.D.O.T be given more authority over safety issues and to get funding for PTC while also bringing more attention to the dangers of texting while driving vehicles, etc. Boxer said “We’ll push for this, but there are interim steps you can do” — specifically put cameras in the cabs of trains and put two engineers in each train.

Metrolink did put the cameras in trains last year, but there was a slightly testy exchange between Boxer and Millhouse over the issue of having two engineers in the cabs. Millhouse said that some safety experts say that could actually create more distractions while Boxer said that she has yet to see evidence that having two sets of eyes wouldn’t help — and that she’s disappointed that Metrolink hasn’t yet acted on this.

•Paul Dyson, the president of the Rail Passenger Assn. of California and Nevada, told LaHood that he didn’t believe the $2.25 billion recently awarded to California for high-speed rail was enough money. Dyson said that he believed the money would only go to more studies and consultants without anything actually getting built on the project, which is estimated to cost $43 billion to connect San Francisco and Anaheim.

LaHood strongly disagreed. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard someone say they didn’t want $2.25 billion after working on high-speed rail for 10 years,” he said. “Your argument is ridiculous. The reason that we gave that money to California is because you’ve [the state] have done a good job. If you think it’s being mismanaged, come forward and tell us about it. We don’t find that to be the case.”

•Maria Elena Durazo, the secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said that the county badly needed more jobs and that the federal government should help with the 30/10 plan because residents have shown the willingness to tax themselves. She asked for a commitment to get the transit projects built as quickly as possible.

Boxer replied that she believes under current funding laws, the federal government could accelerate some of the Measure R projects but that more would have to be done. “We’ll fight for the ability of the federal government to stand behind you,” Boxer said. “We will come up with a way to accelerate these projects.”

•Denny Zane, the executive director of Move LA, said that he would like to see a national loan program created to help regions build mass transit — and that money saved by building projects more quickly could be used to shore up shaky operations funding. “We had a meeting with the mayor [Villaraigosa] and we’ll figure out a way to leverage the [Measure R] money,” LaHood said.

•A member of the Bus Riders Union asked how cash-strapped agencies such as Metro are going to pay for operating costs if they keep expanding. Boxer said that some rules have been changed to allow for some stimulus funds to be used for operating costs. “Your point is very well taken,” Boxer said. “It doesn’t help to have top-of-the-line systems if we can’t run them.”

2 replies

  1. […] Finally, Boxer had a strong message of support for transit advocates on federal operating aid. Responding to a question from Esperanza Martinez of the Bus Riders Union, Boxer pointed out that it doesn't make a lot of sense to build a world class transit system if you can't afford to operate it. LaHood had pointed out earlier in the day that both the administration and Boxer support legislation that would make it easier for big-city transit agencies to spend federal dollars on operations. For more on Friday's events, The Source has two stories: one on LaHood and Boxer's press conference and one on the invitation-only town hall meeting. […]