Southern California Transportation Projects Need More Local, State, Federal Dollars

Roger Snoble

The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has the daunting challenge of providing public transportation solutions for a region obsessed with the automobile. Added to the issues bred by such a stubborn cultural milieu are regional challenges such as the largest port complex in the country, poor air quality, and oscillating state funding for new projects. To make an account of Metro’s victories—numerous in their own right—VerdeXchange News presents the following interview with Metro CEO Roger Snoble.

In a speech to the Mobility 21 Conference earlier this week, you stated that truck traffic to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will double by 2025, surpassing 120,000 daily truck trips. How central is the impact of goods movement in and around the ports to the congestion and environmental mitigation efforts of Southern California?

Goods movement is a huge issue for our region, and it’s something that Metro is deeply involved in because of its effects on our regular traffic— goods movement and people traffic. It’s something that we feel we have to mitigate, but at the same time, the movement of those goods is vital to the economy. Ensuring that economic vitality flows but that it doesn’t kill more people requires a delicate balancing act. So we’re spending a lot of time and energy on this issue. Right now, the big issues involve the bond funding for goods movement, which is totally inadequate for the job. We’re fighting to get an adequate share from the statewide funds because we’re the most impacted by the movement of these goods.

Comment on metropolitan L.A’s regional effort to speak with one voice about the resources needed for goods movement. Does the region expect significant local, state, and federal money to tackle the challenges being clearly articulated by you and other concerned civic leaders?

The five counties—Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside—have come to realize over recent years that the goods movement issues are something that no one county can solve by itself. In fact, even all five counties can’t solve them by themselves. In order to solve these issues, we have to work closely together to make the state and the federal governments realize that these goods affect the state and the federal government in huge ways and get them to work with us to solve the problem. So we ’ve come together. We have a five-county coalition that includes the transportation authorities in each of the counties, plus the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the Alameda Corridor, the Alameda Corridor East, Caltrans, SCAG, and anybody else who can come together, work hard, and see if we can solve the problem. Our current efforts are to secure the bond funding that’s necessary to improve goods movement in Southern California. We’ve been spending a lot of time making sure that we have a really good story to tell—that we present good projects to the state so we will receive a fair share of the funding.

Roger Snoble Article photo

Climate change and sustainability have fully captured the public attention—globally, nationally, and locally. California’s 2006 infrastructure bonds included funds for environmental mitigation, and local agencies have been working hard to improve the air quality in the region. What is Metro doing to fulfill the responsibilities and climate change objectives that have been set out by the region’s political and civic leadership?

Roger Snoble Article Photo This is a very big, broad issue. $1 billion of the bond specifically goes to air quality. We think most of that money will go for retrofitting diesel engines to bring them up to today’s standards or to convert to alternative fuels altogether. Of course, we would prefer alternative fuels, because we have the largest alternative fuel fleet in the state and one of the largest alternative fuel fleets in the country. We think we’ve really done a lot to perfect the technology for compressed natural gas. We have the skill and the talent to do that. We have made ourselves available to Trade Tech, for example. We have some great facilities so that we can pass this knowledge on to private entities or other governmental entities that wish to begin using this type of technology, which I think is a very important part of it. We’re very happy to participate in passing along the technology, getting the necessary skill sets to make this much broader in scope so that the trucking companies and even railroads can come up with some additional improvements. We’re getting that information out to different companies, which is important. Beyond that, everything Metro does has an air quality or climate improvement quality component to it. It’s in how we build a building, like our brand new building down at the El Monte division, which is a LEED Silver building, and we’re very proud of that. Under Metro Chair Pam O’Connnor’s leadership, Metro formed a new Sustainability Committee. That focuses all of our efforts throughout the agency, both in construction and transit operations and in highway improvements, to make sure that we have coordinated, focused, high-level energy doing things that will improve our environment. Metro is really at the forefront, leading the way in every single area that we touch to make sure that we’re treating the environment properly and we’re doing the kinds of things that are going to be sustainable.

On December 10 of this year, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for their efforts to bring world attention to global warming. On that same day, on the other side of the world, the United Nations Climate Change Congress will be taking place in Bali, Indonesia. Halfway between Oslo and Bali, you, on December 10th, will be joining public and private leaders and former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mineta at the GreenXchange Global Marketplace Conference to share new technologies being employed in transportation. What technologies and fuels are you using in Metro to change the carbon emissions patterns and footprint of Los Angeles pollution?

We’re very excited about this conference and about sharing all the different kinds of things we do. I already mentioned the CNG vehicles. There are both CNG and LNG technologies out there that can be a vast improvement from the standpoint of emissions. We’re finding in our fleet rightnow that our CNG prices are less than diesel prices, so we have a cost advantage there. Plus, we think that gas engines will have a longer life than diesel engines, so we’re kind of excited about that. We’re also getting six gasoline hybrid vehicles. We’ll test them to see if they’re going to give us a good operating profile, save us money, and lower our carbon footprint. We are converting many of our big bus operating facilities to solar power. We’ve done a couple of them already and we’re about to do another one. They have provided quick paybacks—it’s just a matter of years to get the payback from the initial investment. We do groundwater reclamation from our facilities, as well—we’re looking at every single thing we can do. There’s a long list of different options out there that are available to us and to other people. We’ve always had a history of being able to go out and experiment and perfect some of these things. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we pioneered the CNG technology. It took a long time and lot of money, but we think we have a really good product now, and we’re willing to share that expertise. From our standpoint, another big way to reduce the footprint is to get people out of cars. From a pollution standpoint and from a congestion standpoint, the more good quality bus and rail service we can provide, the more attractive it will be to people. That’s a really easy way to help people reduce their individual carbon footprint. Our everyday lives cause a lot of pollution.

Metro opened the Orange Line busway in 2006, which has since been a surprising and smashing success. What does the busway model suggest in the way of future plans and priorities for Metro?

Roger Snoble Article Photo

It wasn’t surprising to me! I’ve been so excited about having an opportunity to show that a bus system can be as attractive as a rail system. It is a smashing success, I agree with that. The next step is going north on Canoga right of way. We’re working hard to get it cleared environmentally. That project is in our long-range plan, and we think we can fund it. As quickly as we can put all the pieces together on that, we’ll be doing that extension. Other opportunities include a Harbor subdivision, where we’re doing an alternatives analysis on a railroad right of way, so that may have some possibilities. The Crenshaw Corridor going into the LAX really has some possibilities for doing something similar to the Orange Line. The bigger area that we’re looking at is to have some exclusive lanes on some of the arterial streets as opposed to its own right of way. There are literally dozens of possibilities for that, so we’re working with the city of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. There will be other cities involved with that, as well. We’re really anxious to open up something like that on Wilshire.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a commitment early in his first term to get funding for a “Subway to the Sea” lined up by the end of that term, but he’s also spoken in favor of an extension of the Gold Line LA/Ontario Airport. What do the next five to ten years of planning and building look like regarding Metro’s priorities for light rail services?

Our priorities and our ability to pay for them are getting farther and farther apart. We are working mightily on moving forward with doing the alternatives analysis on extension of the Red Line or the Purple Line, so that is moving forward. The problem that we have for anything beyond Expo Phase 1 is that there just isn’t any money. Although we’ll be adding another five years onto the end of the plan, which is five years of additional revenue, the fundamental problem we’re running into in transportation is a big increase in the cost of construction. And we’ve had some really big increases in the cost of land that have really hurt us. Those cost escalations, which are due to the cost of concrete and steel and those kinds of things, are really having a huge impact on us. The other really big effect is the fact that the state’s pulling back so much money from us and diverting it to pay the state deficit. It really makes the future very bleak for having real confidence that we can go forward with building any additional projects. Unless we come up with a new revenue source, we can convince the state to give us some leeway on some of the onerous provisions that cost us a lot of money with not much benefit, or we can get the state to allow us to come up with some additional local revenue sources, our ability to do anything in the short term and even in the long term looks pretty bleak. I know there’s a huge desire out there to build new infrastructure, but the reality is that the money just isn’t going to be there without big infusions of local, state, or federal money.