Review of Mobility 21 Conference

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(Editor’s note: One of the drawbacks of the timing of things is I have been unable to add anything to the coverage of the Mobility 21 conference that occurred earlier this week.  Leaders from the freight industry, ports, car-lobby and government leaders held a summit on Monday to get together and talk about what they think needs to be done to fix our transportation system.  Fortunately, there was a lot of coverage in the media, Steve Hymon served as the conference’s official blogger/twitterer and So.CA.TA.’s  Dana Gabbard wrote a lengthy review, which you can find below.)

Sept. 21st I attended the 8th annual Mobility 21 Transportation Summit.
I’ve been to every summit since the event was conceived by then Metro
CEO Roger Snoble and the late Rusty Hammer who at the time headed the
L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

In my reading during the 90s I
would often run across mentions of similar summits held in other parts
of the country, and often wondered why we didn’t have a similar event
here. Of course it took bigshots like Snoble and Hammer, partnering
with the Auto Club, SCAG etc., to get the ball rolling.

And
after initially being a L.A. County centered event in 2007
Mobility expanded to encompass the adjacent counties of Ventura,
Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Yes, the summit
is a showy event to facilitate press coverage pushing the message of
regional solidarity and political will to advocate for transportation
funding at the state and federal levels. All sorts of electeds making
speeches and such like. Yet even just for the sake of symbolism to
force our wonderfully fractious political elite to smile for the
cameras etc. matters. Also Mobility throughout the year acts to
coordinate advocacy and organizes delegation visits which send the
message to D.C. and 95814 that our region is no longer the disorganized
in-fighting mob that we often had a reputation of being in the past.

So
there I was, using a precious vacation day to attend this year’s summit
held in downtown Los Angeles at the Westin Bonaventure (for the transit
curious — I got there via Metro line 20 and a short hop on DASH route
A). After being checked in I put on my name badge and snagged the usual
continental breakfast fare these events all seem to start with
— fruit, fruit juices, croissants/pastries and coffee (the latter was
welcome to help me stay awake) and found a seat at an empty table in
the main hall. I know I should use this time to schmooze but I have
never been that good at buttonholing folks, standing around and
chatting, etc. I own up it is a defect in my character for being an
effective advocate, but it just seems to be who I am. Certainly after
all the years of being involved with these issues I have a lot of
people who recognize me and say hi while walking by and that at times
evolves into a conversation–sometimes I see someone I recognize
and will bestir myself to say hello and talk with them if something of
importance occurs to me to discuss. Had a chance to thank Josh Shaw,
Executive Director of the California Transit Association, for his
efforts to fight funding cuts by by the state. The room started to fill
and several people sat at my table, with the usual vague nods of hello.
I also used this time to look through the event bag I had been given
when I registered, which had lots of literature and some small swag
including a nifty water bottle.

Soon the event started and fairly followed the Program that I had been perusing a few minutes before.
http://www.mobility21coalition.com/pdf/2009SponsorsProgram.pdf

We
had a media personality as the emcee who only in a general way was
familiar with the topic, but I guess that matters less than having down
pat the upbeat cheery persona part of the role and knowing which way
to face to be on screen.

Metro’s new CEO Art Leahy gave some
introductory remarks then we launched into the first panel on funding
issues. The moderator was an academic but the panelists included one
heavyhitter — Dale Bonner Secretary of the Business, Transportation
& Housing Agency for the state. There was a lot of talk about
public-private partnerships and at least some admissions about the
shortcomings and limitations of same. John R. Schmidt from Chicago
touted those recent deals that resulted in billions by leasing mid-west
tollways. He mentioned plans to lease Chicago Midway Airport and
speculated what a similar deal for LAX might yield. But he did admit he
isn’t familiar with the political landscape here — which is obvious
as he seemed unaware such a LAX deal or even the mere concept would
produce a political firestorm (I bet even airport critics would hate
the idea). So lots of pie in the sky speculation but nothing overly
grounded in the here and now.

Then we had a welcome speech by
L.A. Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa. Which unfortunately was his
standard issue stump speech on transportation, basically touting
Measure R passage and that more hard work lies ahead for L.A. County.
For a large room filled with folks from all over the region this
generated a polite but unenthused response. The only issue he raised
the resonated was support for the statewide High Speed Rail system, and
then he only spent a minute of so on it amid his lengthy remarks. Maybe
in the future AV will take more care to shape the message to fit the
interests of the room.

After a brief break which allowed me a
first look-see at the exhibitors in the event’s expo (mostly agencies
and transportation firms of various sorts), it was time to pick which
breakout session to attend. These included the topics of multimodalism,
goods movement, safety and land use planning — all of some interest.
But I picked the panel of high speed rail since it is something I have
been following since the mid-90s and with the passage of the bonds last
year and the new federal climate of support seems to now be more than
just an interesting idea. 

The moderator was Will Kempton, new
CEO of OCTA and until recently head of Caltrans. Carrie Pourvahidy of
the High Speed Rail Authority gave an overview of where the project
stands. David Valenstein of the Federal Railroad Administration made
general remarks about the new high speed rail funding program the feds
are rolling out. Man, was he dry and rather bureaucratic in his
demeanor! In contrast Peter Luchetti of the San Francisco-based private
equity firm Table Rock Capital was quite animated and outlined what
conditions needed to be met for a bullet train funding plan to draw
private financing as a component of the funding pie. Art Leahy as the
final speaker noted many challenges still exist including overcoming
resident worries in areas adjacent to the project. Then Mr. Kempton
read some questions submitted by the audience, including mine
asking how can buy-in among stakeholders in our area be built "Now that
SCAGLEV is dead". The response was the usual vague prescription of
networking etc. But at least I had the guilty pleasure of tweaking the
demise of the idiot maglev project that had for too long infatuated
many local politicos.

I did some more scouting of the expo
area after the panel broke up than went in for lunch–which turned out
to be a large salad with chopped turkey etc. along with rolls/butter,
water and coffee plus a mini chocolate dessert.

While the
morning session had mostly been realpolitik, the mood altered at this
point as the keynote speaker brought starry eyed idealism to the fore.
This was Christopher Steiner, author of the new book $20 per Gallon.
Frankly he gave a very self indulgent and rather smug talk.
Steiner came off an enormously taken with himself for his insight of
oil depletition being inevitable as if that alone makes him a great
genius and by hearing him we too are now ahead of our sadly uninformed
fellow humans who don’t know about… Well, Steiner really never made
it all that clear what the coming of peak oil etc. really meant beyond
that high gas prices would have some kind of dire consequences. But
what these social and economic impacts might be was something he
provided not even a hint about. Maybe his book has the answers, but
based on his talk I was not all that interested in buying it. It was
really one long narcissistic monologue, and not even all that
interesting of one. Again the audience was polite but unenthused.

By
now we were leaking attendees–agency staffers and electeds trying to
beat traffic or going back to the office to do some work after spending
so much time away.

Three awards we given out — to the Mayor of
the city of Orange Carolyn V. Cavecche, to the non-profit Inland Action
and to summit founder/recently retired Metro CEO Roger Snoble. All this
involved testimonials, award ceremonies and obligatory photo taking
with the recipients (except Snoble who was on vacation in Hawaii and
gave a pre-taped thanks).

After a final break (from which only
about a third of the attendees returned) the recommendations of the
breakout sessions were read. This to me has always seemed like a waste
of time, as no one pays any attention to these and they end up being
lengthy laundry lists of needs and concerns and ideas that gather dust
on a shelf languishing in obscurity. I guess it is an obligatory part
of such gatherings.

The final panel would probably have been of
interest to many readers of this blog, as it dealt with sustainability
and innovation in transportation (continuing the more visionary mood
that dominated the afternoon portion of the event). Ride sharing
and alternative fuels and vehicles consumed the over 90 minute program.
It was hard to get a sense what the audience’s reaction to all this was
(especially as no time was left for q&a as the panelists all had
lengthy presentations). At least it may have been a useful exercise to
expose this group of folks to ideas and possibilities they probably
don’t generally give much thought to. Or am I selling them short? Maybe.

Darren
Kettle, Executive Director of the Ventura County Transportation
Commission, then essentially said thanks for coming and invited us
upstairs to the post event reception. It drew about 50 of the most
die-hard agency staff, etc. eating nibble food items and sipping wine
while chatting about what we had seen that day, catching up with
colleagues, etc. I spent my time chatting with a local consultant I
have run into at past events of this kind — we compared notes and
talked about various aspects of transportation in the region.

And then I went downstairs and caught a bus to make my way home.

I
concede it was a dog and pony show. But this is how the process works.
All part of the dance. You shake your head at times, but in the end
muscle forward and keep at it. Not a magic bullet but a long overdue
antidote to the parochialism of the Southern California political
culture. It probably should be evaluated over a time span of more than
a few years to measure what it has achieved and what its value is.
Change and improvement take time and effort.

  • Erik G.

    Been to many of these. But not this year, no time.

    Ever notice how there is NEVER ANY inclusion of the bicycle in this forum?

    Never, never, never.

    Fools.

  • Thanks, Dana, you write so vividly it’s as if I had been there!

  • limit

    David Valenstein is a great guy!

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