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Thursday, Sep 21, 2023


By HOWARD FINE Staff Reporter Nearly a year after being tapped to lead the troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority, ex-corporate turnaround specialist Julian Burke is getting high marks for putting the agency’s finances in order. But fulfilling his other major mandate restoring public confidence may take longer to do. The 13-member MTA board remains as divided as ever over the future of mass transit. And the public is about to join the debate: On the Nov. 3 ballot, voters will be asked to approve a measure that would finish the subway to North Hollywood, but cancel extensions to the Eastside, the Mid-City area and Pasadena. Meanwhile, the agency is still in violation of a federal court order to relieve overcrowding on its buses, and the Bus Riders’ Union has launched a protest against the agency, asking people who are forced to stand on buses not to pay the $1.35 fare. Looking back on his first year and the challenges that lie ahead, Burke told the Business Journal last week that his first order of business has been getting the MTA’s vast internal empire in order. “When I came on board, I got the sense that the agency had not been carefully managed in a long time,” Burke said. “The culture had run amok. So one of the first things I set out to do was to focus on managing the organization, to get it to work. And I believe I have brought some management to it.” Burke said he has relied on a small cadre of top advisers to try to restore order to the MTA. The 71-year-old Chicago native has repeatedly used a similar approach to turn around struggling organizations, including the Penn Central Railroad and Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. of New Jersey. But Burke said that trying to change the MTA has been his most difficult assignment yet. “It is a lot more difficult to change things in this organization because it is a government entity. I’m an impatient person when it comes to implementing change, but I quickly recognized that there are realities here that are slow to change,” he said. The MTA was created by the 1993 merger of the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, and some observers say the staffs of the two agencies never meshed. Moreover, the rocky tenures of former CEOs Franklin White and Joseph Drew did not speed the integration of the two agencies, according to Burke. Nonetheless, Burke said he has tried to focus the board’s attention on the agency’s $7 billion debt and force the board to confront the difficult choices on which future projects to drop. “Early on, I was told that the board would never be comfortable with suspending construction of the Red Line (to East Los Angeles) and the Blue Line, (to Pasadena),” he said. “But the board has indeed changed its focus in the last year, and I believe I have had some role in that,” he said. Riordan, who in his role as MTA board chairman appointed him to the post on an interim basis a year ago and pushed for that appointment to become permanent, said Burke has been able to turn around the agency. “In 12 months, Julian has engineered a tremendous turnaround for this organization,” Riordan said at a press conference last week to unveil plans to buy more buses. “He has put the MTA’s fiscal house in order, restored the confidence of our funding partners in Sacramento and Washington D.C. and has undertaken the monumental task of refocusing the agency’s emphasis back on buses where it belongs.” County Supervisor and fellow MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky has expressed general satisfaction with Burke’s performance, even though Yaroslavsky is spearheading the initiative that would ban future rail projects. Burke opposes the initiative, saying it would place too much of a constraint on future plans. Yaroslavsky was vacationing in Europe last week, but his press deputy Joel Bellman said Burke is “the first CEO to fully grasp the financial peril the MTA is in. “He has moved forthrightly on the need to make tough decisions and convinced the board members to go along,” Bellman said. “That is quite an accomplishment considering the degree of political pressure on that position.” State Sen. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, also gave Burke high marks, even though Schiff opposed Burke’s recommendation to put plans for the Blue Line to Pasadena on hold. “He’s probably the best to occupy that seat for a very long time,” Schiff said. “He’s looking at the big picture. He is trying to restore confidence in the MTA. And he is trying to keep board members on the same page. So far, he has been more successful at this than his predecessors.” But Burke has not won everybody over. His efforts to convince the board to drop future subway plans have generated bitter opposition from a number of legislators on the Eastside, who believe that the MTA is writing off the mostly poor and minority neighborhoods from its mass-transit plans. Shelving the Eastside rail lines also puts in limbo a major public works program, one that would help generate jobs and consulting contracts for Eastside workers and contractors which could, in turn, generate political campaign contributions to lawmakers. Miguel Santana, an aide to L.A. County Supervisor and MTA board member Gloria Molina (also on vacation last week), complained that Burke didn’t move quickly enough to develop options for Eastside rail lines. “Because Julian Burke failed to do this, it soured the relationship between the staff and the board,” Santana said. Burke said the study examining the options for mass transit on the Eastside is due to be completed in October. He has also earned low marks from bus riders for moving too slowly to add buses and improve the service on the current fleet. “He has been very good in talking about a moratorium on rail construction, but he has done very little for bus riders,” said Rita Burgos, one of the lead organizers with the Bus Riders’ Union, and the co-coordinator of the “No seat, no fare,” campaign launched last week. “Granted, he is not the only one making the decisions that’s shared with the board,” she said. “But he is continuing to implement the board’s policies, which are in direct violation of the federal consent decree to reduce overcrowding on buses. For that, I’d give him a ‘D.’ ” The federal consent decree, approved two years ago by U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter in response to a civil rights lawsuit filed against the MTA in 1994, requires that no more than 15 passengers stand on a bus at any time. The deadline for compliance was Dec. 31 of last year; both the MTA and the Bus Riders’ Union are now presenting their cases to a special court master appointed by Hatter to handle the case. Last week, Burke unveiled plans to purchase more than 1,300 buses, at a cost of $500 million over the next five years. Burke said he is taking other steps in the short term that he hopes will alleviate the situation. With hundreds of methanol-powered buses constantly in the shop for maintenance, he has decided to switch many of the methanol-fueled buses back to diesel, which he hopes will need less maintenance.

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