CityWatch, June 10, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 46
RETHINKING LA - Mayor Villaraigosa has responded to the recent spate of controversy at the Department of Transportation by moving his Deputy Mayor of Transportation, Jaime de la Vega, over to the General Manager’s position. Villaraigosa touts de la Vega’s experience as a public policy leader and as a manager with extensive experience working in city government. This begs the question, “Where has de la Vega been for the last six years?”
De la Vega has served the Mayor as the Deputy Mayor of Transportation since 1995, a period of time that has seen the LADOT helmed by a series of short-timers that includes Wayne Tanda, Frances Banerjee, Gloria Jeff, Rita Robinson, and Amir Sedadi.
At each turn of the revolving door, Villaraigosa has had the opportunity to draw on his worldwide contacts and to call up a serious world class change agent capable of taking on the mean streets of Los Angeles and its meaner halls of bureaucracy.
Villaraigosa’s decision to move de la Vega over to the GM’s position calls into question the Mayor’s ability to attract world class transportation experts such as Janette Sadik-Khan and Gil Peñalosa. Either he lacks the contacts or he lacks the commitment to change that they would require. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
Granted, de la Vega has been a loyal Deputy to the Mayor who has a vested interest in avoiding risk and in staying away from controversy. Most of all Villaraigosa needs to keep the spotlight on America Fast Forward, his last real opportunity to exit office with an accomplishment under his belt.
De la Vega has his work cut out for him, even if his mandate is to quell the audit drama and to keep the LADOT humming quietly with no more trouble.
Even such a low standard for success will prove to be a challenge for three reasons, the politics of transportation in Los Angeles, the culture of contempt within the LADOT, and the antiquated strategies for transportation that contradict LA’s claim as a world class city.
LADOT’s politics would challenge Solomon and transportation improvements make the case. Funding gets cut 15 ways so that every Council District gets its fair share of traffic signals, stop lights, speed humps, Safe Routes to School projects, crosswalks and other traffic improvements. This may seem fair but it prevents fast and innovative work from taking place, and it prevents focused implementation which is more effective.
The fact that King Solomon never split the baby is lost on the LADOT which errs in favor of 15-way diplomacy over inspired funding and implementation. This has resulted in LA accepting third world engineering and traffic control while surrounding cities perform better in funding competition and in implementation.
LADOT’s culture of contempt is palpable, witnessed by a recent email when a local transportation engineer responded to a constituent request by emailing instructions to “Contact the Mayor's office and Council office. This is due to the budget that has been adopted by them. You can let them know that it is an essential city service.”
From top to bottom, the “anywhere but here” response is common, including the following exchange from an Assistant General Manager in response to a California Public Records Act CPRA request: “The process for requesting LADOT documents is shown on our website...go to Contact Us then Documents Request to place your order and submit your payment.”
One would think that a 35-year veteran of public service would be aware of the legal requirement to respond to formal CPRA requests but not at the LADOT.
Truth be told, the LADOT doesn’t play well with the Feds nor the State, resulting in the City of LA having their Safe Routes to School funding “red-flagged” or frozen for failure to perform.
The LADOT doesn’t play well with surrounding cities, actually demanding that the neighbors “dumb down” their traffic control communications to match LA’s antiquated technology.
The LADOT doesn’t even play well within the city family, competing with other departments while surrounding cities outperform at the funding pool.
In fact, the LADOT doesn’t even play well with itself, resulting in a silo environment that saw Operations installing bike lanes on Wilbur Avenue without informing the LADOT’s Bikeways Division, a demonstration of disconnect that comes with a hefty price tag.
LADOT’s culture of caution has resulted in a city that errs in favor of avoidance rather than innovation.
When transportation professionals from around the country gathered in Chicago for a conference last year, they acknowledged that America was a full generation behind in traffic engineering and innovations.
Against that backdrop, a slide was projected that displayed one of LA’s most recent implementations of traffic control and it drew groans and a robust discussion of the ability of local transportation authorities like Los Angeles to misinterpret and misapply simple roadway improvements.
LADOT’s current management argue for the status quo as if LA’s streets and traffic were enviable. They’re not. They’re third world and they’re dangerous.
Jaime de la Vega has the loyalty of the Mayor because of the success of Measure R and the 30/10 plan, now rebranded as America Fast Forward. The Mayor’s exit strategy at this point seems to consist of working to get $40 billion in anticipated tax revenue fronted by the Feds so that 30 years of mass transit projects can be completed in 10 years.
Bold, audacious and a great Swan Song for Mayor Villaraigosa.
If only the LADOT can avoid getting busted for double-dipping on federal funding, if only the LADOT can avoid getting busted for moving Measure R funds from projects to staffing, if only the LADOT can avoid getting kicked out of any more funding pools, if only the LADOT can avoid breaking any more State Laws.
So, it falls on Jaime de la Vega to bring the LADOT in line, an odd assignment since he’s been in charge all along and should be as culpable for the misdeeds of the LADOT over the past 6 years.
Perhaps the Mayor recognizes this and de la Vega’s tour of duty as the GM of the LADOT is his punishment.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)