Alongside LaHood in L.A., Boxer Talks Timing for the Next Transport Bill

2_19_10_boxer_lahood.jpgSenate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), at podium, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at her right, joined Metro bus repair staff and transit officials on Friday. (Photo: LA Streetsblog via Flickr)
Friday was billed as a day to discuss the next long-term federal transportation legislation, but the day turned in to a stirring defense of the Obama administration's economic stimulus law and ended with a commitment from Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to do all she could to help turn Los Angeles into a transit town within the next 10 years.

Following a morning press conference by local transportation reformers, labor leaders and environmental advocates, Boxer and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held their own event, flanked by Metro mechanics and board members at downtown L.A.'s 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 law, recent high-speed rail grants received by California, and last 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 local Gold Line Eastside Extension transit project received nearly $67 million in stimulus funds, while the massive widening of the I-405, the largest highway project funded by stimulus dollars, got 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 Boxer-Lahood press conference and a later town hall -- probably because Los Angeles County did not receive any TIGER funding.

Most of the day's news was made back at Metro headquarters during the town hall meeting. Boxer outlined a timeline for the next six-year federal transport bill -- which the White House has sought to delay until spring 2011 -- and vowed to do all she could to accelerate transit projects in L.A. County to "vindicate the will of the people," in the words of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"I hear you. I get it. I'm all over it." With those ten words, Boxer embraced local efforts to complete all Measure R transit projects within the next 10 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 and promoting L.A.'s "30 in 10" plan, most recently at Friday's first press event. Boxer noted that there are some local laws already on the books that could help move projects faster than Measure R's current 30-year timetable, and that if other laws need to be changed, she would do all she could to help make those changes.

As for federal legislation, Boxer signaled her intent to pass her version of the next transport bill, dubbed "MAP 21," by the end of the year. However, she had no answers to questions about extra funding for the nation's highway trust fund to supplement dwindling gas tax revenues, nor would she commit to any new funding formula, such as a guaranteed set-aside for transit. 

She also avoided discussing the legislation already offered by House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), suggesting that a bicameral plan for reauthorizing federal programs hasn't been created yet.

She did, however, push the audience to call Congress, especially Republicans, to support the Senate jobs bill that will be voted on this Monday. Part of that legislation would extend the 2005 federal transportation law 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." 

By 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 Boxer and Keith Millhouse, the chairman of the Metrolink board of directors. Referencing the $50 million that the federal government allocated for safety systems known as positive train control 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 line up funding for every rail system to have positive train control systems, 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 positive train control funding.

The next audience member to speak was Paul Dyson, the president of the Rail Passengers Association of California and Nevada. Dyson stood up for Millhouse, claiming that he knew of 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 proposed 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 too large 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 heard someone say they didn’t want $2.25 billion after working on high-speed rail for 10 years ... Your argument is ridiculous. The reason that we gave that money to California is because you’ve done a good job. If you think it’s being mismanaged, come forward and tell us about it. We don’t find that to be the case.

LaHood's was 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. (The California High Speed Rail Blog had a different take on LaHood's claim that criticism of the state's high-speed rail award is a novel sight.)

When 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.

Finally, Boxer had a strong message of support for transit advocates on federal operating aid. 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. LaHood had pointed out earlier in the day that both the administration and Boxer support legislation that would make it easier for big-city transit agencies to spend federal dollars on operations.

For more on Friday's events, The Source has two stories: one on LaHood and Boxer's press conference and one on the invitation-only town hall meeting.