Santa Monica City Councilwoman Pam O’Connor was named the new chair of the board of directors of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro or MTA) on July 1st. She is replacing County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and her term is for one year. She has served on the board since 2001.
O’Connor is also a member of the Joint Powers Authority for the Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Project, known popularly as the Expo Line.
One of her primary focuses will be continuing the transportation agency’s efforts to make its transit operations more environmentally friendly.
“When it comes to sustainability and green initiatives, (Metro) has a good base,” the councilwoman told The Argonaut in an interview recently. “But we can always do more, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
A planning consultant who specializes in historic preservation, the new Metro board chair feels that her background as a Santa Monica councilwoman and in planning can be an asset as she takes on her new responsibility on the transportation panel.
“A lot of what goes into being the chair of a board is process and procedure,” she explained. “When you’ve had the experience of being a member of a council, I think that that background can help a little more.”
Another goal during her tenure as chair will be assisting the agency in setting a baseline for greenhouse gas guidelines, keeping with her focus on reducing transit induced-pollution.
Ken Alpern, co-chair of the Friends of the Green Line, a Westside transit advocacy group, believes that having O’Connor as the chair of the transportation agency will be a benefit to the Metro board and to the Westside.
“I see Pam as a big friend to Expo,” said Alpern, an Orange County dermatologist and a Mar Vista homeowner. He pointed out that the Santa Monica councilwoman made an amendment to the Expo Line legislation in 2001 that the light rail extend from Culver City to the beach.
Alpern agrees with O’Connor’s agenda of furthering green initiatives for mass transit.
“One way to make light rail more attractive to people is to have more greenbelts along the right-of-ways, so that the trip is more esthetically pleasing,” he suggested.
“In the coming year, Los Angeles County faces many challenges as we strive to improve mobility for the region through implementation of various transportation improvement programs,” said O’Connor. “I look forward to leading Metro on a course that encourages people to ride share with carpools and vanpools or take public transit whenever possible.”
An important aspect of leading the board is identifying projects that are crucial to the bus and rail network and financing long-range transit initiatives.
“Right now, there are more projects being proposed than we have funding for,” the agency chair said.
One of those proposed projects is an extension to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) from the Green Line, which runs from Norwalk to Aviation Boulevard near the airport, then continues south to Redondo Beach.
Proponents of this project, which include Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, feel that an alignment from the Green Line Aviation Boulevard station to the airport would be a boon for com- muters and would greatly assist in reducing traffic and pollution.
O’Connor agrees, but she points out that the Green Line extension, unlike the Expo Line, is not a priority of the Metro board at the moment.
“It’s not in (Metro’s) immediate plans,” she acknowledged. “While there are many advocates for the Green Line extension to the airport, the funding isn’t there. We need to work to get other projects funded and prioritize which projects we want to go forward with in the future.”
Finding the necessary money to build the capital projects that Metro has planned is another challenge that the Metro board will face as it seeks to reduce a large deficit accumulated over ten years when it could not raise fares due to a consent decree. Even the July 1st hikes in transit and rail fares will not close the gap entirely, and that could delay some of the initiatives that Metro has in its pipeline.
“We’re at a stage where we need to continue working on ways to get funding,” O’Connor said. “We need to continue working with the federal government and looking to other sources to find the money for the projects that we have prioritized.
“There’s a lot that has to be done,” she continued. “There are a lot of challenges that we are facing, and we’re well aware of them.”
Darryl Clark, co-chair of Friends 4 Expo, a transit group that advocates for Westside light rail, also feels that O’Connor can make a crucial difference in the future development of Westside light rail and transit in general.
“Within the next year, the MTA board will be working on its long-range transportation plan, where it will prioritize projects that will be green-lighted and funded in the next three years or so,” said Clark.
The Friends 4 Expo co-chair believes that having O’Connor in the center seat at board meetings will be very good for the Expo Line.
“Pam has supported the project before she was appointed to the MTA board, so she has always been a strong supporter of Westside light rail,” he noted.
Creating new ways to ease traffic congestion is another area that O’Connor would like to explore during her term as board chair.
“Toll roads, similar to those in Orange County, have been discussed, and that’s one possibility that we are looking into,” she said. “We have to begin to think of new ways of managing our roads in a more efficient manner.”
Another new method that the board is considering is called “congestion pricing,” which would allow, for example, solo motorists to use carpool lanes on freeways or pay a fee to travel in heavily traveled areas.
A recent study conducted by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) suggests that unless transit officials require vehicles with at least three passengers to travel in carpool lanes, adding toll drivers might reduce some gridlock but leave the rest of the freeway congested.
One of O’Connor’s colleagues on the board, David Fleming, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, said the study did not consider the impact of allowing drivers who would pay a fee for riding in the lanes.
In addition to focusing on light rail initiatives, the new board chair wants to encourage riding the bus as an option whenever possible.
“We have the Rapid Bus and the Big Blue Bus that travels all over the Westside, and express buses that go downtown or connect with other bus lines,” said O’Connor. “There are many transit options that people can try, where you don’t have to be concerned about parking and congestion.”
“The time couldn’t be better for a Westsider, especially someone from Santa Monica, to be the MTA chair,” Friends of the Green Line’s Alpern said.
“Any time that you have an opportunity to make a difference, you always want to take advantage of the moment,” O’Connor concluded. “I want to take the opportunity to spotlight transit, and how it can improve our lives.”