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LaHood Talks TIGERS and Stimulus, While Boxer Pledges Support for “30 in 10”

2_19_10_boxer_lahood.jpgBarbara Boxer, flanked by Metro bus repair staff, Ray LaHood and Metro Board Chair Ara Najarian, promotes the Stimulus earlier today. Photo: LA Streetsblog/Flickr

It was billed as a day to discuss the reauthorization of the Federal Transportation Trust Fund, it turned in to a stirring defense of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and ended with a commitment from a United States Senator to do all she could to help turn Los Angeles into a transit town within the next ten years.

Following this morning's press conference by local transportation reformers, labor leaders and environmental advocates; Senator Barbara Boxer, the Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood held their own press conference.  Flanked by metro mechanics and Board Members at the downtown bus refurbishment center.  While the advocates were focused on the future, Boxer and LaHood spent much of their time talking about the past, most notably the year-old Stimulus legislation, recent High Speed Rail grants received by California, and this week's TIGER Grants.

"Stimulus funds are hard at work everywhere you look, from the 405 and on L.A.'s light rail system!"  LaHood exclaimed.  The Gold Line Eastside Extension received nearly $67 million in Stimulus funds, while the massive widening of the I-405, the largest highway project funded by Stimulus dollars, received just under $190 million.

LaHood also seemed particularly pleased about the TIGER Grants, pointing out how well Boxer had lobbied on the state's behalf.  He returned to this theme repeatedly, which drew a tepid response from his audiences in the town hall and the press conference, probably because Los Angeles County hadn't received any TIGER funding.

However, most of the news was made not at the press conference, but back at Metro headquarters for the Town Hall meeting.  Boxer outlined a timeline for the reathorization of the Federal Transportation Trust Fund and vowed to do all she could to accelerate transit projects in L.A. County to, in the words of Mayor Villaraigosa, "vindicate the will of the people."

"I hear you. I get it. I'm all over it."  With those ten words U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer embraced local efforts to complete all Measure R transit projects within the next ten years and turned Denny Zane and the Move L.A. Coalition into the most influential transit group in Southern California.  Zane was the central figure in creating the "30 in 10" plan and promoting it, most recently at a press event this morning.  Boxer noted that there are some laws already on the books that could help move projects faster than Measure R's current thirty year timetable, and that if other laws need to be changed, she would do all she could to help make those changes.

As for reauthorization, Boxer signaled her intent to pass her MAP 21 legislation, which would replace SAFETEA-LU, by the end of the year.  However, Boxer had no answers to questions about funding the new transportation trust fund, nor would she commit to any funding formula such as a guaranteed set-aside for transit.  She also avoided discussing the legislation being offered by the House Transportation Committee Chair, Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar; suggesting that a bicameral plan to support reauthorization hasn't been created yet.

She did, however, push the audience to call Congress, especially Republicans, to support the "Jobs Bill" that will be voted on this Monday.  Part of the legislation would extend funding of the current transportation trust fund until December 31, under the current funding scheme.

LaHood also signaled support for "30 in 10" in the afternoon, so he must have had a major change of heart from the morning.  At the morning press conference, he brushed off a question by The Source's Steve Hymon on future federal spending on the Subway to the Sea and Downtown Connector with a terse, "I'm not going to evaluate projects in front of you."  In the afternoon, he was saying that after speaking with Villaraigosa he would do what he could to help the city reach its transit dreams.  "We'll work to leverage the Measure R funds."

In addition to the three major topics, there were three other interesting asides during the question and answer portion of the discussion.  The first was a terse exchange between Senator Boxer and Keith Millhouse, the Chair of the Metrolink Board of Directors.  Referencing the $50 million the federal government allocated for safety systems known as positive train control systems following the September 2008 Chatsworth Crash, Millhouse tried to put the two on the spot to guarantee Metrolink the rest of the funding.

Boxer roared back that while the federal government is working to make certain that funding for every rail system to have positive train control systems will be in place; it's up to Metrolink to do everything it can to keep their trains safe in the short term.  The two continued a back and forth over whether Metrolink should have two engineers at the front of each train as well as a camera.  Millhouse wouldn't commit to that, while Boxer wouldn't commit to a timeline to get Metrolink its PTS funding.

The next audience member to speak was Paul Dyson, the president of the Rail Passengers Association of California and Nevada.  Dyson took up for Millhouse, claiming there were many examples of crashes being caused by a pair of engineers distracting each other.  Boxer asked Dyson to send along those instances, but seemed doubtful they existed.

Having riled Boxer, Dyson turned to LaHood and questioned the $2.25 billion High Speed Rail Grant given to California.  Dyson pointed to the huge cost of the project to connect Anaheim to the Bay Area, nearly $40 billion and commented that the grant was too small to be useful in construction and to high to not be wasted by bureaucrats.   For the second time that day, LaHood lost his cool and fired back:

This is the first time I’ve ever heardsomeone say they didn’t want $2.25 billion after working on high-speedrail for 10 years...Your argument is ridiculous. The reasonthat we gave that money to California is because you’ve done a good job. If you think it’s being mismanaged, come forwardand tell us about it. We don’t find that to be the case.

This is a somewhat amazing claim, as there has been plenty of criticism of the High Speed Rail Authority in California covered in such small local papers as the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times.  While LaHood dismissed  Dyson with a joke about sending those complaints along with his proof that engineers can distract each other along to Boxer; he managed to get a laugh and show a disconnect with the local debate all at the same time.

Last, the Senator had a strong message of support for transit advocates on operations.  Responding to a question from Esperanza Martinez of the Bus Riders Union; Boxer pointed out that it doesn't make a lot of sense to build a world class transit system if you can't afford to operate it.  Earlier, LaHood had pointed out that both the administration and Boxer had supported legislation that would make it easier for transit agencies to spend federal dollars on operations.

For more on today's events, The Source has two stories on today's events.  One on LaHood and Boxer's press conference and one on the invitation-only Town Hall meeting.

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