Metro’s new CEO Phil Washington just started work this past Monday May 11. Below is a recent Phil Washington interview conducted by Gloria Ohland, who serves as Policy and Communications Director for Move L.A.
Metro CEO Phil Washington. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
At Move L.A.’s 7th Annual Transportation Conversation L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti talked at some length about L.A.’s transformation into an example of what a new American city looks like — that we are building the “first truly modern city in the world” — and that the build-out of L.A.’s transit system has been a powerful lever for making people think differently about L.A. New Metro CEO Phillip Washington, who assumed his post Monday, says the same thing about Denver, the metro region he hails from, which like Los Angeles passed a sales tax measure that is paying for the build-out of their transit system.
The 8-county Denver metro region passed the FasTracks sales tax initiative with 58 percent of the vote in 2004, and there are now six rail lines under construction. L.A. County voters passed Measure R in 2008 with 67.22 percent of the vote (a two-thirds super-majority vote is required for local funding measures in California) and we have five lines, including two subways, under construction.
Washington credits Denver’s FasTracks initiative as catalyzing “all the growth that is occurring in Denver,” which is often cited as one of the top draws for millennials, one of the hottest real estate markets in the U.S., and a place that, in the words of a recent Denver Post story: “Is a far cry from the Denver of the 1980s, when the city was choking on a brown cloud of pollution and struggling with a decaying downtown and a sputtering economy.”
Mayor Garcetti lobbied Phil Washington to come to Metro because there’s probably no one else who could be so well-suited in terms of his job experience: Denver is the only other metropolitan region that has been able to largely self-finance the construction of so much transportation infrastructure: 100+ miles of light rail, bus rapid transit, and 57 stations in Denver, compared to 100+ miles of light rail, subway, and bus rapid transit and almost 100 stations in Los Angeles. Washington is someone who understands the importance of using local money to leverage federal funding, and the importance of pressing Congress for new federal financing tools — low-interest loan and bond programs — that provide more opportunities for leveraging.
Washington grew up using transit in the Altgeld Gardens housing project on the South Side of Chicago. He joined the Army at 18 and stayed there for 24 years to become a Command Sergeant Major, the highest non-commissioned officer rank. He left the Army for the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) in 2000 and became the agency’s general manager 10 years later. That’s when he earned national attention for essentially saving the agency from near-disaster when the cost of construction materials for the transit build-out skyrocketed due to global demand in the mid-2000s and then the 2008 financial crisis caused FasTracks sales tax revenues to drop off sharply.
He helped make the decision not to put another tax increase on the 2010 or 2012 ballot in Denver, instead using alternative funding and financing sources and launching the first “P3” in this country in modern times to help get the agency back on track. The P3 is a public private partnership to build/operate/finance/operate/maintain four rail lines as well as a big maintenance facility. Under his leadership RTD is also credited with the celebrated re-development of Denver’s Union Station, built in 1881 and reopened last year as a multi-modal transit center that accommodates local and regional rail and bus, shuttles, taxis — a total of 16 different modes of transit. There are restaurants, retail, bars and a hotel in the station, which is located in the thriving LoDo (Lower Downtown) neighborhood at one end of the celebrated 16th Street Transit Mall. Union Station is surrounded by 3,500 new residential units and 1.5 million square feet of office.
Washington is also credited with creating the Community Workforce Initiative Now (WIN) program to train and employ thousands of people who live in communities affected by major infrastructure projects — for which he was honored as a “Champion of Change” by the White House. The WIN program is similar to L.A. Metro’s Construction Careers Program and Project Labor Agreements, which ensure that 40 percent of those hired to build L.A.’s transportation projects are people who live in low-income communities and that another 10 percent of all those hired are considered as “disadvantaged” because they have been chronically unemployed, for example, or are veterans of the Iraq war.
Washington seems well-liked all-around: by RTD staff, labor, the engineering and construction companies, developers, the smart growth crowd and the general public. I talked with him prior to his departure from Denver’s RTD.
As you know we are in the midst of discussions about whether to put another sales tax measure on the ballot next year, and a recent Metro poll suggests very strong public support. What’s your opinion?
One of my first orders of business is to sit down with each board member to understand their objectives and priorities and to develop a tactical plan based on what I hear. If the board supports the idea of a new sales tax measure, I know how to do it.
We did it in Denver in 2004 and our success was largely due to our ability to bring people together. One of the truly great things that happened is that the Metro Mayors Caucus — a nonpartisan group of 40 mayors who voluntarily come together to address complex regional issues like air pollution — unanimously supported the measure. The transit build-out has been a Metro Mayors Caucus priority since the very beginning, and they also worked with the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority on issuing bonds to finance affordable multi-family housing at stations along the rail lines.
What are some of the key lessons learned about winning the ballot measure in Denver?
I believe the specificity of the plan was key — not just with the mayors but also the general public. A very detailed plan is a must. We tried going to the ballot in 1997 and failed partly because we weren’t specific about how the money would be spent, and it took us 7 years to get back to the ballot. Read more…