Highlights From Metro CEO Phil Washington Speaking At Zócalo

Metro CEO Phil Washington speaking in May 2015. Photo: Joe Linton, Streetsblog L.A.
Metro CEO Phil Washington speaking in May 2015. Photo: Joe Linton, Streetsblog L.A.

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.

  • Dennis,

    Zev worked with the locals to stop rail, then made sure there would be no tunneling anywhere, so the Red Line could not even get out of the ground to get to an elevated. That killed extending the Red/Purple Line to East L.A. as had been planned, so Molina had to settle for the two underground Gold Line Stations on the Roybal extension.

    Buses are cheaper. But as we see with the Orange Line, the facility is already at capacity.

  • Dennis_Hindman


    Unlike you, Zev understood that the MTA does not print money in a back room. There were massive cost overruns building the subway that Zev believed could have bankrupted the MTA.

    Gloria Molina wanted the entire Gold Line to east LA underground. That would have brought the cost of building it way over budget. But again, to you, there’s nothing wrong with that because the MTA can just print some more money.

    There are several operational changes that could be made to the BRT Orange Line to increase capacity. I’ve suggested several to management. It has not reached its maximum capability yet using 60-ft buses.

    Your fixated on a technology rather than how to get people from point A to point B with a given amount of money. Its as if you believe there is only one tool that can do the job. Your standing there with a hammer looking for nails to hit to build a house. I have little doubt that you believe that it needs to be rail any and everywhere that its possible to put it, regardless of how much it cost. Build a tunnel, or elevated trains? Sure, why not. Afterall, there is a endless stream of money available since the MTA prints it in a backroom somewhere.

    One of the alternative transit upgrades that is under consideration for the 9.2 mile East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor Project under Measure R is light-rail. This would require tunneling in the Panorama City area and is projected to cost $2.67-$2.79 billion. At least $290 million a mile. Metro only has $170 set-aside for this project. The federal government has flatly told them that they are not interested in giving them the amount of money needed to do light-rail. The study group working on it knows that this can’t be light-rail with the amount of money available. Its just unrealistic.

    But to you, it would undoubtedly be a travesty, an enormously bungled opportunity to install another light-rail line. Why those incompetent people at the MTA, don’t they understand that all they need to do is print some more money in that back room?

    A streetcar running down the middle of the street is also one of the alternatives listed. It would cost $1.3 billion. That would probably be the outer limit of how much the MTA could possibly raise under Measure R. But to you that would probably be a half-assed alternative from those idiotic people at the MTA. Don’t they realize that all these projects should be light-rail or heavy rail regardless of how much money it cost? All they have to do is start that printing machine in that back room again.

    The most realistic alternatives that can be built with the money available is a curbside BRT or possibly a center running BRT. Not at all exciting to you, but it would be a step forward in getting more people from point A to point B. Meanwhile, your standing there with a hammer in your hand looking for more nails to hit as that is the only tool needed to build a house.

  • Dennis,

    Becasue one project is having difficulties, you don’t put the kibosh on the method county-wide. Buses have a limit to capacity as we see daily on the Orange Line and on Wilshire Boulevard where 60-foot buses have indeed reached capacity and operate dangerously and illegally overloaded. Models predicted this, but Zev’s anti-transit racism (which continued throughout his term in office, see the Wilshire Bus Lanes in Westwood) set Los Angeles back 30 years and meant local taxpayers have to pay for these needed projects (via a regressive sales tax) instead of getting 80-plus percent from the Feds as they would have back then.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    It was Los Angeles city councilmember Paul Koretz who killed bus only lanes along Wilshire Blvd in the Westwood area. He authored a motion that passed before the full city council to exclude that area of Wilshire Blvd for bus only lanes. Wilshire Blvd in that area is owned by the city of Los Angeles. Its not owned by Metro or the county. Zev Yaroslavsky did not have final say on whether bus only lanes could be installed there. It was the LA city council that had the final say on whether bus only lanes could be installed along that section of Wilshire Blvd. If Zev was for or against bus only lanes along that section of Wilshire Blvd made no difference. The constituents of councilmember Paul Koretz convinced him to oppose bus only lanes along Wilshire Blvd in that area. There was also a motion to exclude bus only lanes on Wilshire Blvd west of the 405 introduced by the councilmember for that area. That did not get enough votes.

    If rail projects are having large cost overruns that are soaking up more and more of the revenues of the MTA, then it would be wise to kill the project(s) or else the MTA could go bankrupt as Zev Yaroslavsky had stated about the subway.

    Loading a bus with passengers does not make the buses operate dangerously. The axle load limits are to keep the pavement from deteriorating excessively.

    Sales tax is often described as regressive. In Los Angeles county sales tax excludes uncooked food, housing or transit. These items take up most of the income of lower income people. A half-cent sales tax is five dollars in taxes for every thousand dollars in taxable purchases. That’s a bargain for lower income people for what they are getting in return. Which is better transit service. Its higher income people who get taxed much more than lower income people with sales taxes. They tend to eat precooked food more often and make much more purchases that are taxable.

    Any of the transit projects would have to be at least partially paid by taxpayers in the areas where they are to be built. Most of the years for the opportunity to have the federal government pay 80% of a transit projects cost was turned down by voters in the 1970’s when three ballot measures for transit failed to win voter approval. Does that therefore mean that these voters who voted no were racist to you? The bus riders union fought the installation of rail on the basis of racism in that it poured money into building light-rail for higher income white riders along the initial Gold Line to Pasadena at the expense of lower income bus riders.

    I’m still not buying into the notion that the Orange Line BRT is at maximum capacity.

    Nor do I believe that rail projects should be installed in lower population density areas first instead of higher population density or traffic congested areas where it would be most useful. There is not going to be enough money to put rail everywhere. Choices have to be made on where the limited money for transit improvements will be spent for rail projects. Getting additional rail lines in the San Fernando Valley should be low on the list unless that is whats needed to get an additional sales tax ballot measure passed.

    If the Orange Line was already rail, then installing rail along that corridor would be eliminated as a reason to vote for an additional sales tax measure as it would already have been installed. Having a project on a upcoming ballot measure that would go across the San Fernando Valley could be what’s needed to get an additional sales tax ballot measure passed. If that’s not on the ballot, then you could end up ranting and raving about how the voters in the San Fernando Valley are racist for turning down an additional sales tax measure for more rail projects. Or you could mention how horrible and regressive the sales tax measures are. Maybe there shouldn’t be sales tax measures to install more rail. Afterall, sales taxes are supposed to be so regressive. Then its hurting poor people to install rail projects with sales taxes rather than creating a faster and more convenient way to get to jobs.

  • Jerard Wright

    The only reason they enforce on the Red/Purple and Gold Lines is because there is coffee next to the stations for the Sheriff and Fare Inspectors can pick up. Where are the coffee spots along the Blue and Green Lines?

  • Fabs Elie

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  • jimisroomtv

    Now you are speaking sense!!! Ask Jesse Garays mother. Her son was stabbed to death on a Red Line train in 2011, and there was absolutely NO law enforcement around anywhere to be seen until five minutes after it arrived at the vine station. Then helicopters were hovering for the next five hours. Several of LASD has been quite courteous, but several more are very intimidating and its getting very old. If they want to increase its ridership of “white collar” people, they can’t treat them like they are in prison once they get on the train! Every advanced city in the world with a train system USUALLY has a more foolproof way of getting fares and avoiding farejumpers…THEY BUILD TURNSTILES and GATES. It appears the MTA still thinks this is something far, far away in the ethers that is just not possible. Then how on earth can they afford so many people in uniform to chase down TAP cards? Which ultimately costs more? It makes no sense.


    They feel they have to yell? This is not a military formation, and its not prison. No “white collar” rider wants to be treated this way..

    I tapped my card at a turnstile, was let in, and then five feet away a cop needs to scan it AGAIN???? WHY? This is humiliating? Are they forging TAP cards now?

    Im lodging a complaint to the MTA very soon. I’m very tired of being treated like a criminal every time I get near that train.

  • jimisroomtv

    No… I ride MTA three times a week and this happens to me about 98% of the time…and MOST of the time RIGHT after Ive scanned my card RIGHT in front of the cop!!! If it were just spot checks, that would be one thing. That is not the case. Just go to any station where the neighborhood is relatively lower income, and there are at least 10 to 15 sheriffs around. Ive seen it over and over again. The train shouldnt be another system for “hunting” for cash…another form of asset forfeiture. There are better ways to do this.

  • jimisroomtv

    They DO profile. Otherwise you wouldn’t see triple the amount of uniforms at the Rosa Parks Station, would you?

    I’ve been literally chased by these guys…. They seemed to be hoping I didn’t have the proper fare. The guy today must have stared at his scanner for five seconds after he scanned my card a second time out of the turnstile a few feet away from him. What was he looking for, and how do I know these turnstiles and posts are going to work properly all the time?

    To hear they are leasing these systems out for that much a month is infuriating. They make poor decisions and the riders get harassed. Wonderful

  • jimisroomtv

    Union Station from Red to Gold is getting to be a nightmare.

    Please, if you guys are going to scan TAP cards, please STEP BACK from the top of the stairs and give us room!d It only takes one person stumbling while funneling up those stairs only to be in a bottleneck of people, sheriffs and tap cards flying. Its dangerous.

    There are four to six posts there at the bottom of the stairs of the platform..and last week I saw five or six on the ground level and another four on the platform. The officer was right by the post on the ground level, so I presented my card to him and he told me to tap it. Wait…but I tap it, then you need to scan it again. I was told last time it was because the post was broken. So I tap, then up the stairs…just to be asked to scan again with another officer.

    I don’t get this. Nine officers and two scans in about twenty feet. Seems an awful waste of money to me…especially when once again, they seem to never be around when they are needed to actually keep people safe. A clear case of looking at that fence, and beginning to wonder if the barbed wire is pointed outward or in… We can do better than this.

  • jimisroomtv

    Ive seen one of Metros reports covering the stats of farejumping. Its obviously going to happen in lower income areas…and wala…that is where you will find the MOST uniforms.


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