Reorganization or Shakeup? Change in Metro Staff Has Some Wondering About Highway Projects

Failing, pre-beard, speaks at a safety press event. Image: ## Study San Rafael Neighborhoods##
Metro recently released executive director of higway programs Doug Failing, shown here speaking at a safety press event. Caltrans photo by Thomas Ritter

“It’s a bloodletting.”

While Metro’s public relations team is portraying the departure of several high-profile senior staff as nothing more than the by-product of a reorganization, some in Metro’s personnel believe the staff shakeup is being pushed by CEO Art Leahy to best prepare the agency for the massive construction projects that are coming online.

As one Metro spokesperson, who was speaking on background as he is not authorized to speak about personnel matters noted, Metro has historically only worked on one rail transit project at a time. It is currently building three, with two more projects about to come online. A major change in the type of projects Metro is overseeing construction of naturally leads to a change in the structure of the agencies project delivery departments.

But that can only explain so much of the “bloodletting.”

A second explanation is offered in the Pasadena Star-News. Following a motion by Glendale City Councilmember and Metro Board Member Ara Najarian, Metro hired professional consultants to examine the agency. Their report showed an agency that is overstaffed leading to Leahy’s effort to streamiline the agency.

“It’s an attempt to streamline the upper management of Metro and to make sure we are operating as efficiently as possible,” Najarian said. “We felt that it was getting a little too bureaucratic and at least at the top level we were losing sight of our core mission and our core direction and too much involved in the day-to-day management of departments and divisions of departments.”

Michelle Lopes Caldwell, Metro’s chief administrative services officer, Roger Moliere, Metro’s executive director in charge of real estate, and Doug Failing, Metro’s executive director of highway programs, have all left the company in recent weeks. Two different sources, and the Los Angeles Times are saying that Terry Matsumoto, the agency’s chief financial officer is next. The departures are happening so quickly, that Metro’s online “management staff directory” has the wrong people listed as the heads of at least four departments.

The biggest departure is Doug Failing, who previously served 29 years at Caltrans including running the District 7 Office in Downtown Los Angeles. While Metro staff assured me on Thursday that the long-time transportation executive was just the victim of a reorganization.  Both Failing and Bryan Pennington were candidates for the new position heading the construction department that will include highway and rail construction. When Pennington was offered the position, Failing chose to retire.

At least that’s the quasi-official story. While Failing hasn’t publicly commented on his departure, friends noted his LinkedIn account now features a sarcastic comment about being laid off and unemployed. Former colleagues, again speaking on anonymity, referred to Failing’s departure as a “firing.”

Pennington was a manager in the rail delivery program, but not the head of that division in Metro so his new position is a double-promotion of sorts. He went from “upper-middle-management” to reporting directly to the CEO heading a department double the size of the one he worked in previously.

Pennington reported to K.N. Murthy, the former director of rail delivery, who will stay on at the agency in a new role.

Despite Failing being the head of a department that pushed some of Streetsblog readers least popular Metro programs, the High Desert Corridor, the I-710 Big Dig and Carmageddon to name a few, there was little doubt that he was well liked even among his detractors.

“The relentless pursuit of the 710 freeway projects is probably Metro’s most misguided, mismanaged and fiscally disastrous undertakings and Doug was probably ported over from Caltrans to further their infernal highway pursuits,” writes Judy Bergestresser with the NO-710 Coalition. “…but he’s so darn likeable it’s hard to hold him responsible.”

Questions about the future of the controversial 710 expansion project, which Metro refers to as the “710 Gap Closure” project and Streetsblog the “710 Big Dig”, has dominated the discussion of the shakeup. Three of the key figures in pushing the highway expansion project project despite its questionable value and political controversy, were among those let go: Failing, Moliere, and Metro Public Affairs Director Lynda Bybee.

Opponents of the 710 also note that it had been a dead project for decades before it was revived by then Metro CEO Roger Snoble, Art Leahy’s predecessor. Snoble’s been gone for half-a-decade, and the former bus-driver that runs Metro might not be as excited by mammoth highway projects..especially as the Sepulveda Pass Widening Project (the origin of which preceded both Leahy and Failing) continues to be an ongoing embarrassment: over budget, over promised, late and of such questionable merit that even the Metro Board Members who represent the area impacted by the project concede it was a mistake.

Partial funding for the 710 Big Dig is set aside in Measure R, but nowhere near enough to begin construction, even if the project had received environmental review which it has not. Funding for construction does not come online until the end of the 30-year transit funding measure. Of course, timelines can change.

Whether it’s a bloodletting or a needed restructuring, Metro is losing a lot of experience and brain-power. Whether or not that will lead to a more open and efficient agency remains to be seen. With so much turnover at the top, either the credit or the blame for the fallout from this shakeup can only stop at the very top.

  • J. SooHoo

    Apart from his lack of experience with transit projects, Mr. Failing has had some moments in recent months that could make his superiors concerned. Here are a few.

    1. He was on the CTC agenda for its Dec. 11 meeting in Riverside.
    He and Carrie Bowen (Caltrans Dist. 7 Director) were to give an
    update on the SR-710 project. He began by telling the Commissioners
    that his presentation would be very brief because he didn’t have
    anything new to report. You could have heard a pin drop when he
    said this. One of the commissioners noted that it had been more
    than a year since he’d been before the Commission. He went on to
    give a 5 minute cruise through only a few slides, each of which
    represented one of the five alternatives Metro is studying. There
    was nothing that was in his presentation that could not have been
    presented well over a year ago.

    2. After Anthony Portantino, Richard Schneider, Don Voss and others
    in the group of 14 opponents who spoke at the CTC meeting, made
    statements to the Commission about the lack of an MOU between
    Caltrans and Metro and also about the lack of a cost-benefit
    analysis, the commissioners asked Failing and Bowen if this was
    true. They then pressed the duo quite hard on why no cost-benefit
    had been done and when a cost-benefit analysis would be completed
    and made available. It was clear that the commission was not happy
    about this, especially with the release of the DEIR only a few
    months away and over $40 million of the Measure R $780 million having been spent on consultants.

    3. Failing and Metro Chair Diane DuBois appeared on a Santa Monica cable
    channel show Oct. 17, 2013. Viewers were able to call in and ask
    questions of them. I called in and asked him how Metro’s
    estimate for the SR-710 tunnels could be just $5 Billion when its
    estimate for the same diameter, 9-mile Sepulveda Pass Corridor tunnel is twice that — $10 Billion — even though their documents and reports state that
    they used the per mile cost of the Seattle tunnel as a base. Failing
    tried to justify it by stating that Sepulveda was 9 miles and SR-710
    was only 4.5 miles, so “The numbers work out”. When I pointed out
    that Metro’s published plan calls for 2, 4.5-mile tunnels for a total of 9 miles,
    comparable to Sepulveda Pass, he began to backpedal and things went
    downhill from there. I was stunned by his responses and couldn’t
    really discern if he was lying, just woefully uninformed about the
    details of the projects, or ????? There is video of the broadcast at:
    4. Obviously, the 405 is an important freeway and resolving some of
    the congestion is a priority for Metro. The Sepulveda Pass
    Corridor project is high profile for them, perhaps even more high
    profile than the SR-710 project. They really, really want it done.
    I believe that Failing is viewed as responsible for the controversy over the
    SR-710 project and I think Metro does not want to take a chance on
    similar issues and controversy arising over the Sepulveda Pass
    project. They just didn’t trust that he could get the job done.

  • LetsGoLA

    How is he responsible for the controversy over the 710? That goes back 50 years and basically comes down to there being a couple cities that really want it built and couple cities that really don’t want it built. Of the options currently on the table, the transit options are pointless and the freeway options are too expensive. The only thing that makes sense from where they are right now is to do nothing, an answer practically no one wants to hear.

  • Salts

    Agree with transit being useless as a replacement for car trips currently being made but I wouldn’t discount it altogether. The transit option could develop into something that makes sense and is capable of replacing car trips (like if it links up to actual places and doesn’t just traverse the gap. But who knows, maybe South Pasadena residents would use a light rail along Fair Oaks Blvd to avoid traffic during rush hour? I am intrigued by the idea of having transit slowly replace the need for the 710 (Maybe would warrant narrowing the 710 or doing away with more of it in the future?)

  • antiqueshopper

    The extension of the SR 710 has been on the Caltrans books for decades. Failing pushed the project along while at Caltrans and joined former CEO Snoble and former SCAG head Pisano in 2003 to revive it as toll tunnels, because the surface was dead, and continue to push for it when he moved to Metro being the only one of the trio left that could do anything about it.

    BTW, when they pulled it off the shelf and lied about the cost of the bored tunnels, only $1 billion, it set the stage for millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on an alternative that can never be built. (SCAG’s estimate in 2007 was $11.8 billion) The three cities that the toll tunnels goes through and under…LA (latino El Sereno), South Pasadena, and the mayor and half of the city council of Pasadena…are against the tunnel proposal. They would never sign an agreement for construction in their cities. (note, Alhambra is not listed as a city that the tunnels go through, because it does not go through that city since it is in LA near the Alhambra border.)

    Failing was always a gentleman.

  • Such extreme turn-over is disconcerting. Should be interesting whether this is raised during the public portion of the Board meeting Thursday or done in closed session because it pertains to personnel matters.

  • LetsGoLA

    Yes – the problem w the transit alternatives is that they only traverse the gap in the 710, while any reasonable transit project would have to go further to be worthwhile. Like many projects, one suspects that they were only included to satisfy the legal requirements of CEQA.

  • The consultant painted this as not leading to a shakeup. Obviously something has moved since the change was announced in October.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The discussion of the Pacific Electric right-of-way into Orange County seems like one that really ought to be connected to this 710 replacement transit project. I suppose I can see why Orange County residents might like that line to go straight to Union Station, but connecting up to both ends of the current Gold Line means that it will still offer plenty of good routes into downtown.

  • calwatch

    Dana did an article about this several months ago. If you look carefully at the org chart on the first page you do notice the marked removal in positions that directly report to the CEO. The issue is, when this was presented to the Board, that no layoffs were contemplated. If Doug Failing is claiming he was laid off rather than being allowed to continue that is concerning, but maybe he didn’t want a pay cut and having to report under someone previously below him. He certainly has enough years in service to get a very generous retirement, calculated at his LACMTA salary rather than his Caltrans one.

    The previous org chart is in the budget:

    Note the number of boxes dangling to the left which is quite ridiculous for any organization.

    Also, it should be noted that Art Leahy was hired in 2009. As a management practice, generally you don’t want CEOs to be at a job for more than five years. It creates stagnation. Leahy is probably using the five year anniversary as a means to reboot the management so that he can hang on for another five years. Unlike most public agencies, civil service has never applied to Metro managers above level “O” or those earning six figures. Bybee, Failing, Caldwell, and Matsumoto will do fine and collect sufficient pensions should they choose. Jane Matsumoto was run out after botching the TAP rollout and so Terry’s departure was inevitable given how badly that was screwed up.

    Long time MTA watchers will remember Lilith Terry’s old MTA Gossip web page, with information about the shenanigans of management. Like the sewer overflow at One Gateway which needs to be fixed, so too does Metro management.

  • Alex Brideau III

    True. The transit options by themselves may initially be of limited use for bridging the gap, but could form the foundation of a future north/south Metro line east of DTLA.

  • J. SooHoo

    Failing is not responsible for the controversy. As you noted, the controversy predates him. His handling of the current study and the public outreach is what I was referring to. His inconsistent answers to the public’s concerns and questions did nothing to build a bridge between that opposition and Metro.


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