Metro holds Industry Forum to tell private sector the agency is seeking new ideas

Finding new solutions to old transportation problems. That, in a nutshell, was the idea behind the “Transformation through Transportation” event held by Metro today in downtown Los Angeles.

The invitation-only “Industry Forum” was a chance for Metro officials to introduce the agency and its various programs to business and industry leaders. The hope is the private sector will pony up some of those new solutions, whether it comes to financing projects or offering technology to keep Metro’s transit system safer.

As would be expected, the potential ballot measure for this November that Metro is considering was talked about quite a bit. A few points of interestingness from the event:

•Metro Board Chair and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas hit on a factoid that I think is always worth remembering: “Twenty five years ago we had zero miles of rail,” he said. “This county is some 4,000 square miles and we had zero miles of rail and in just a few months we will move from that number all the way past 100 miles.” 

The current Metro Rail system has 87 miles of tracks. The Gold Line extension to Azusa that is opening on March adds another 11.5 miles. The Expo Line extension to Santa Monica — opening this spring — adds 6.6 miles.

•Hitting the nail directly on the head, Jim Frazier — the Chair of the California Assembly Transportation Committee — said “transportation funding solutions remain elusive.” As he pointed out, even with Gov. Jerry Brown focusing attention on the issue, the Legislature in 2015 still couldn’t come up with a good package to address the state’s transpo needs.

•Which brings me to the point hammered by Los Angeles Mayor and Metro Board Member Eric Garcetti: “In Los Angeles County, people do want to invest in infrastructure,” he said, citing the passage of Measure R in 2008 (with 67.9 percent of the vote) and the near passage of Measure J in 2012 (with 66.1 percent of the vote).

Garcetti then pivoted to an issue that always looms over transportation planning and funding in L.A. County: parochialism. “The city of Los Angeles used to focus on our own work. But no more,” he said. “No one out there in the real world cares about borders and boundaries. We need to start thinking that way. [Southern California] is one place. As such we need …leaders and institutions to start thinking that way.” 

•Metro CEO Phil Washington had lots to say on a number of fronts. For example, he talked up Metro’s new unsolicited bid policy, that allows businesses to offer products and services to Metro without first having to wait for an official bid to be issued. He acknowledged that the Metro Board may not always be interested. “[A proposal] might be rejected but it’s my job to bring it forward,” he said. 

He also brought an intriguing point — something I hadn’t considered. What if a business brings an unsolicited proposal that would help build a project — but build it years before was planned. The challenge there is that Metro has a long-range plan that includes a sequence of when projects get built. The sequence and location of those projects is — how shall I say this — Very Politically Sensitive.

As Washington pointed out, the market may like a project that is still many years away. “It’s my job to bring that to the Board and they will make the decision. “But I’m bringing it.”

•On infrastructure, Washington put it bluntly: “We have been in this country on an infrastructure vacation for the last 30 years. Our infrastructure forefathers are turning over in their graves right now.” He added that he doesn’t believe old infrastructure has been taken care of, nor does he think the nation has built really substantial infrastructure in many years. 

He wants to turn that around in Los Angeles County. “We’re looking at becoming the infrastructure capitol of the world,” he said. 

•As for the potential ballot measure, Washington said that he views the Measure R sales tax increase as the first part of the infrastructure program that L.A. County needs. He said the potential ballot measure would extend Measure R for 22 years (past its expiration date in 2039) and add a new half-cent sales tax increase for at least 30 years. “So think augment and extend or extend and augment. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s a big deal,” he said. 

The draft spending plan for the potential ballot measure is due to be released in March with a public and stakeholder comment period to follow. The Board is scheduled to decide in June whether to put the ballot measure before voters.

•Finally, Metro Chief Innovation Officer Joshua Schank said that one of his major goals is to find a public-private partnership [known as PPP] for Metro. In short, PPPs are a way for private money to be used to finance, build or operate public infrastructure. Which project? We’ll see. I recently recorded a podcast with Joshua. Listen here 

8 replies

  1. The more public-private partnerships the better, but I agree that this should not be held as an invitation only invent to just a select group of industry insiders. The greatest thing about America is that brilliant and talented minds can think up of new ideas right from their own home garage and the product can become so successful that it’s company becomes more valuable than Exxon Mobil.

    How can Metro be sure that the answers to their problems may not come from some big name multi-billion dollar corporation, but rather, it comes from an brilliant undergrad at UCLA or USC? How can Metro be sure that the answers may not come from corporations in China or Europe, but instead, it comes from a backyard shed of a Sunday home builder?

    If LA wants to show itself that it’s open to new ideas and seeking private partnership, it can’t pick and choose the select few businesses they are used to dealing with, it should be open to everyone, from a security guard going through night school drawing something on a piece of paper napkins to the high school student who maybe doing it as a part of his school project.

    Put it this way: if IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Sony, Motorola, and Nokia were so smart, why didn’t they invent the personal computer, Mac, iPod, ipad, and iPhone first? All the expensive high priced executives of these companies didn’t even come close to the genius mind of one single man who didn’t even graduate from college.

    • No policy decisions were made. Nor was there a quorum of Board Members present.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  2. “No one out there in the real world cares about borders and boundaries. We need to start thinking that way. [Southern California] is one place. As such we need …leaders and institutions to start thinking that way.”

    This is very true. When I look at the transit map of Greater Los Angeles one thing that really strikes me is how many different transit agencies there are. Metro, Long Beach Transit, Montebello, Big Blue Bus, Culver City Bus, DASH, Gardena, Foothill, Cerritos on Wheels, OCTA, RTA, Omnitrans, Metrolink etc. The fact that there are so many agencies in and of itself makes the transit system harder to use. I may be familiar with the few of them that I use most often, but what if my trip involves trying out a new system? How are the fares, how is the frequency, do they take TAP cards, is the service reliable? Having fewer agencies, at least within LA County would mean not having to worry about that stuff so much. Some of the agencies also stick close to their home city, making their service not that useful for longer trips. The service frequency may not be that great to begin with, and then you’re looking at the need for extra transfers.

    I would also suggest that it may not be just about “finding new solutions to old transportation problems.” I think a lot of it is deploying OLD solutions to old transportation problems. America used to build dense, mixed-use, walkable communities with minimal parking, which facilitated the use of public transit. That’s an OLD solution that we’ve just abandoned for most of the second half of the 20th Century. Coordinating with cities to share the cost of bus shelters and not moving bus lines so often so that the stops can be developed with better amenities is essentially just a form of communication and compromise, both OLD solutions. Taxing ourselves to pay for the things we want (instead of assuming the money will just magically appear from somewhere else) and riding the system more (personal responsibility) are also OLD solutions. Metro has done some good things with modern tech like Nextrip and prepaid fare cards, and I support that, but don’t fall into the very American trap of thinking that some magical technology will just sweep in and solve all your problems (sometimes tech creates more problems than it solves!). So much of making transit better involves tapping the good ideas of the past, which are just gathering dust on the shelf, as we adapt to the technology of the future.

  3. To find new solutions to transit problems, Metro and our Mayor invited the selection of voices that they wanted to hear from. This is an excellent, if altogether routine example of how agencies close themselves off from new talent. How many new ideas can we wrest from the Mayor and a small group of invitees?

    The private sector will advocate aggressively for financing methods and proprietary technologies that are the most profitable for themselves. How can the public vet these ideas if they are not proposed in a public forum?

    • Excellent points!
      BTW the Chief Innovation Officer should have the IT folks create an online forum for more coherent, ‘structured’ discussions.
      Blog and drive-by FB & Twitter postings are not discussions!!