Last night, Zócalo hosted a conversation with Metro CEO Phil Washington, just over three months into his new post. Washington was interviewed by Conan Nolan of NBC television, and responded to questions from the audience. Video, audio, and a recap of the event are available at Zócalo.
Zócalo is a non-profit that focuses on the humanities and an idea exchange. Metro is a sponsor of Zócalo in Los Angeles.
Washington didn't make any major surprise announcements last night, but below are some highlights that shed light on some of the CEO's priorities:
Focus on P3: Washington consistently went to public-private partnerships (P3) as one his favorite tools for delivering projects. Washington explained Denver's successful Eagle P3 project, where Washington's RTD partnered with private sector partners to develop, operate and maintain multiple rail lines including an airport connection. Washington stated that the partnership model accelerated the project timeline, and saved $300 million in a $2.2 billion project budget.
Core Infrastructure: Washington spoke strongly on the need to remedy today's infrastructure crises, claiming that the current generation has "not taken care of our assets." He stressed the broad range of benefits for both mobility and the economy of investing in transportation expansion and maintenance.
Bucking Conventional Views: Responding to questions, Washington expressed some views that differ from prevailing views at Metro:
When questioned about fare increases, Washington responded that Metro's fares are among the cheapest in the country, but Metro's ridership are also among the highest percentage of low income transit-dependent. In contrast to his predecessor, Art Leahy, Washington's remarks did not sound like imminent fare increases were a given.
Nolan, citing turnstiles in transit stations in San Francisco and New York City, asked why Metro had not fully gated its system. Washington cited turnstile-free honor systems in Dallas, Portland, and Denver as proof that fare gates are not needed for an urban transit system. Further he said that it was important to "look at costs" before "hardening your system." Washington sounded skeptical about the benefits of further hardening at Metro, saying it would need more analysis.
Nolan questioned Washington about attracting so-called "choice riders," implying that Metro was not really successful unless it "gets cars off the road" including "white collar" drivers. Washington responded with an emphatic "no," stressing that Metro's system is already serving 1.4 million riders daily, and can build on that success by further enhancing the customer experience.
Building a Balanced System: Washington consistently emphasized the need for a "balanced transportation system" including many modes: "bus, rail, paratransit, and highways." Later, he did mention bicycles and sidewalks, but it would be more reassuring to livability advocates if his balance talking points include walking and cycling more consistently.
Washington is only three and and a half months on the job. He has been assembling his leadership team and is beginning to make his mark on the massive agency. With looming deficits and a contentious ballot measure on the horizon, he will need to show strong leadership. From his record in Denver and his statements so far, he sounds like he is ready and able to overcome these challenges.