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Public Private Partnerships, Public Transportation and Jobs for LA

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With the financial markets gyrating and Tim Geithner talking again about the need for more economic stimulus, I'm finding it hard not to holler, "It's about investing in public transportation and other needed infrastructure stupid!" Why is it taking Treasury and much of the rest of Washington so long to see the elegance of LA's 30/10 Initiative? This, after all, is a largely local taxpayer paid for means of accelerating construction on 12 critically needed public transportation projects. Even the late to the table LA Times now appears to have embraced it, enlisting Harold Meyerson to write an op ed supportive of 30/10.

What if President Obama's take away from the traffic jams he caused all over LA this week was to greenlight 30/10? Go on Barry, greenlight 30/10 and all is forgiven.

Jobs, fast public transportation, cleaner air, reduced vehicle miles traveled, and a smarter, more transit-oriented LA. That's what it's about. And that's why Senator Barbara Boxer was at last week's 30/10 rally at LA City Hall and why AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka is making 30/10 a focus of organized labor's national legislative agenda.

But as good as 30/10 will be for LA and the nation, the reality is, there are other things Metro and LA can be doing now to create jobs immediately rather than once 30/10 wins over the hearts and minds of a divided Washington. And for the unemployed, that creative thinking can't come too soon.

Aside from the PR black eye it's just received due to the fact that few of its employees ride its trains and buses, Metro is on the right track. A new CEO is shaking things up and asking the right questions of its talent, and of a group of experienced and knowledgeable consultants Metro has hired to think through the many public private partnership (P3) opportunities that abound. Mea culpa on this point for those who read through my last post and noticed that I seemed to be saying none of this was currently going on.

One such firm, InfraConsult, under contract to Metro to do just that, has decades of experience helping public transportation agencies and other clients around the world plan, finance, design, and oversee construction. Without question, there are P3 and other opportunities here to more cost-effectively build, operate and maintain Metro's planned public transportation, and freeway, investment.

Which is all good, but let's get back to those Angelenos who need a job today or soon, not just when the P3 studies are done and 30/10 has arrived.

Last week, along with Move LA Executive Director Denny Zane, I spent a couple of hours with another consultant to Metro who is focused on identifying the lower-hanging fruit that can create jobs now and reduce or help Metro pay the cost of operating the lines it will be building. Maybe they're not perfect but here are some of the ideas I shared with him:

1) Don't wait until Expo is finished to Culver City to open the line. The stations east of Farmdale are close to ready, or at least seem to be. Assuming it's feasible, double the size of the construction crews stringing overhear wire, laying the track and finishing the stations and open those stations sooner, giving LA and the nation a taste of what is coming all the way to Santa Monica. Accelerating construction in a down economy, or so we're told, will mean lower labor, materials and borrowing costs. And, the transit fares collected sooner can be put to good use paying for operations and the construction work that remains to be done.

2) If there are uncontested stretches of Expo Phase II that can be completed now rather than later, let's put people to work building them. Grading and laying track just west of Culver City for example might be accelerated, rather than waiting until Phase I is completed. I and II can be connected once the Culver City station is built.

3) The Wilshire bus rapid transit (BRT) plan is a nice start but there are so many other lower-cost-to-construct BRT lines we should start construction on concurrently. My preference would be for something on wide Venice and Ventura Blvds, and perhaps Olympic. And, before I die of old age, how about a line along the 405 from the San Fernando Valley, over the Sepulveda Pass all the way to LAX or beyond.

Angelenos can't wait any longer for a tunnel through the hill that will connect up with the hopefully soon-to-be-built Wilshire subway. As much as I dream of it, the subway to the sea is still years away, while a BRT on the 405 or Sepulveda could happen genuinely soon if we only had the political will and the cohones to play hardball with Caltrans and those who foolishly think bigger freeways are our traffic salvation. Building a 405 BRT doesn't hinder the eventual construction of a north-south rail link. Rather its ridership will generate fare revenue while confirming the need, and desire, of Angelenos to ride Metro between the Valley and the Westside and South Bay.

4) Don't just create transit corridors that develop the adjacent land and make smart transit-oriented developers rich. Metro should consider building itself or partnering to build on the ample land it owns at planned stations and along the right of way. And, as Denny Zane suggests (and is proposed for funding LA's downtown streetcar), create an assessment district around stations such that property owners who benefit from the arrival of Metro, pay something for the appreciated value of their property. Zane also brought up the idea of requiring transit-oriented developers to purchase transit passes for residents, rather than create additional parking. This would mean a continuous revenue stream for Metro.

5) Operations: For starters, collect fares on Metro rail by putting some bigger teeth in the honor system with more enforcement. The excuse that the investment in true turnstiles and enforcement would exceed the gain realized doesn't hold water. If necessary, cut a deal with a turnstile manufacturer willing to provide a solution in exchange for a cut of the fares collected. What's better than a deal that is no money up front? Sure, we'll lose some riders but they were not paying anyhow.

6) Beef up Metro's ad sales and business partnership team and sell naming or ad rights to stations, train cars, buses, and even individual bricks in the stations if possible. In this media-soaked town, Metro has to be able to find more ad buyers than currently display their wares and services on its bus and subways. If the City of Lights can sell advertisers on oversized ads in its Metro stations then the City of Supergraphics' transportation agency can raise revenue for operations by doing the same.

We talked about a lot more but this is a taste of what I hope the consultant will take back to Metro about operations and job creation. With LA still plagued by double digit unemployment and in desperate need of an expanded public transportation system, getting there on Metro is the way to go.