County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says his Proposition A will take a “two-by-four” to the Metropolitan Transit Authority's dysfunctional rail culture. Subway supporters warn it could be the final chapter in the long, tragicomic history of L.A.'s $4.5 billion, 17.4-mile underground system.
But even as the Yaroslavsky-financed county ballot measure heads for a quiet victory next week, it is drawing new scrutiny. Though it's being sold as an MTA-reform measure, the initiative does nothing to rein in the agency's runaway spending or control rail profiteering. Federal cutbacks already have put new subway projects on ice. And while the measure may stop construction to the Eastside and Wilshire corridors, tunneling will continue to North Hollywood, smack in Yaroslavsky's district.
“All the measure does is say to all those folks who don't like MTA, 'I'm a hero, I cut off the subway,'” said lawyer Marvin Holen, a 19-year transit-board appointee of former supervisor Ed Edelman. “Had Zev not been the sponsor, he could well have been one of the people writing in opposition to it.”
“No one is defending the MTA, but to say we can never have a subway is myopic,” said Monsignor John Moretta, who with Mothers of East L.A. has organized several noisy anti-Proposition A protests.
Proposition A would bar the MTA from using the county's cent-on-the-dollar transit sales tax for future subway construction. The measure also institutes independent audits and sets up a citizens' oversight committee to monitor compliance. Yaroslavsky, who is also an MTA board member, is bankrolling the issue in part with campaign funds.
The underground Metro has long been plagued by low ridership, questionable route and contracting decisions, and shoddy construction. The problems found a perfect metaphor in the 1994 subway sinkhole on Hollywood Boulevard. Federal transportation authorities have since scaled back MTA subsidies, and now it's a financial sinkhole that threatens the MTA, including at least $6 billion in debt and interest.
Subway advocates say the Yaroslavsky measure comes just as enough track has been laid to give riders somewhere to go. He responds that the subway is too expensive and that more people can be carried more cheaply with alternatives such as light rail, trolleys and busways.
“The only thing worse than what has been done so far is throwing good money after bad,” Yaroslavsky said during a recent sit-down interview at his office. “Both the staff and the board have been unwilling to cut the subway project off. This takes the transportation planning out of the backrooms of the MTA boardroom.”
But subway construction to the Eastside and midcity area already is suspended indefinitely. And Yaroslavsky has not distinguished himself as a friend to bus and light rail. Bus riders had to get a federal court decree to force concessions out of Zev and the other MTA board members. And rather than help restart the stalled Blue Line light rail to Pasadena, the supervisor has derided the project, advocates say.
“Zev has been very unfriendly; 'Pasadena uber alles' was one of his comments,” said one staffer who has worked on the Blue Line.
While forcing the MTA out of its subterranean tunnels is a great symbolic gesture, it is no guarantee of inexpensive transit. The per-mile dollar figure for light rail is better than the subway's, whose $300-million-a-mile rate is one of Proposition A's best arguments. But subways carry more people more quickly. And the MTA's light-rail projects have proved to be as much of a boondoggle as the subway, sometimes worse.
The L.A.-to-Long Beach Blue Line – with a 50,000 daily riders, the current darling of the mass-transit crowd – started out in the 1980s as a $150 million to $200 million project. By 1990, the MTA acknowledged start-up costs of $877 million. (Tom Rubin, former chief financial officer for the Southern California Rapid Transit District, said the actual price tag is closer to $1 billion.) The L.A.-to-Redondo Beach Green Line did not fare much better, going from $133 million to $712 million in a similar period. (MTA spokesman Ed Scannell notes that both systems are longer and better than first planned.)
“We paid engineering fees three and four times more than the industry pays,” said longtime transit appointee Nick Patsaouras. “When you translate that into a multibillion-dollar project, you end up with a few hundred million more.”
Some opponents question whether the measure will even stop the subway. There's nothing to prevent MTA officials from juggling accounts, as they did when they turned to fare-box receipts to back their lavish $148 million headquarters downtown.
Yaroslavsky, of all people, should understand the complexities of transit reform. Behind his populist rhetoric, he is the consummate MTA insider. A longtime subway supporter, he spent six years on the transit board, joining in decisions that made the MTA the agency we love to hate today.
“Zev is a master at attacking his own record,” said MTA activist John Walsh.
Yaroslavsky was first appointed to the board in 1993 as Mayor Riordan's alternate. After his 1994 election to the county board, he took his own MTA seat and began to speak out against suspect contracts and wild spending. But even before that, he took part in the blizzard of borrowing that took the MTA to the cleaners, board watchers say. He also voted for change orders to send the subway over the Hollywood Hills into the San Fernando Valley, they add.
While he opposed the ouster of reform-minded MTA chief Franklin White Jr., he took little action himself to curb MTA abuses. One political staffer said he once asked a Yaroslavsky aide why the boss didn't push for more controls. “That's not the way we do things,” the aide responded. Former allies also wonder why he waited until the money was gone to kill the subway.
“He could have pushed for policies at the MTA that we are going to put so much money into this and that's it,” said Patsaouras, who served with Yaroslavsky on the MTA board. “He was articulating that. But I saw him, sometimes he would feel frustrated and give up.”
Yaroslavsky said he didn't have the board votes to drive reform.
“I'll stand on my record at the MTA,” Yaroslavsky said. “I was a voice in the wilderness against sleazy contracts to build tunnels and grossly optimistic financial projections.”
Unlike some board members, Yaroslavsky showed no obvious allegiance to particular contractors. But he took their money. From 1987 to 1993, Yaroslavsky collected $44,000 in donations from rail-linked firms, the L.A. Times reported. He was the biggest single recipient of donations from Mannatt, Phelps & Phillips, a downtown law firm that counseled rail companies, and one of the Top 10 rail donors of that period. His wife, Barbara Yaroslavsky, returned an excess donation from a rail contractor after her unsuccessful 1995 City Council bid.
Yaroslavsky said the donations never influenced his rail policies. “MTA contractors have not been a fund-raising base for me,” the well-heeled supervisor pointed out.
Still, considering Proposition A's limited scope and Yaroslavsky's own record, the measure makes more sense as a political maneuver than serious rail policy. To longtime City Hall watchers, the measure is vintage Zev: a big, splashy proposal that talks tough but is unlikely to upset the status quo.
“Zev waits until the bandwagon arrives at the party and then jumps on,” said Walsh.
“It's like Vietnam: Declare victory, cite the will of the people, and get out,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.
In 1986, Yaroslavsky used a similar ballot ploy to launch an electoral challenge to Mayor Tom Bradley. Proposition U called for citywide reductions in building density. The catch was that the measure exempted existing development hot spots, such as the Westside Pavilion, where Zev had backed controversial expansion.
Proposition U went on to victory, but Yaroslavsky was not so lucky. Two internal political memos were leaked to the press. The memos, written by consultants Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino, whose firm went by the name BAD, questioned Bradley's intelligence and urged Yaroslavsky to fund his campaign through a “united Jewish appeal.” In the ensuing uproar, Yaroslavsky pulled out of the race.
In subsequent years, the once-ambitious Yaroslavsky seemed to be avoiding the spotlight, but with his 1994 election to the county board, he appears to be on the rebound. The next mayor's race will be the first time Yaroslavsky can run without risking his own seat. Some analysts see Proposition A as the supervisor's opening salvo.
But others say Yaroslavsky could be testing the waters for higher office, or as one wag suggested, merely shoring up his image as “the grand pooh-bah of fiscal watchdogs.” Disappointed rail supporters ask: Is this any way to kill a subway?
“He's against the MTA, but he's part of the MTA,” Eastside subway advocate Joe Coria said bitterly at a recent demonstration. “Now he steps back and throws rocks.”
“It's like we only built the Metro as a movie set,” said Frank Villalobos of Barrio Planners, who also attended the protest. “We're being used as pawns in a big political game.”