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by Angela Cotey, associate editor
Art Leahy remembers when passenger-rail service didn't exist in Los Angeles County, when L.A.'s Union Station was all but abandoned and downtown emptied out at 5 p.m. It was the early 1970s, and Leahy was a bus driver for the Southern California Rapid Transit District, a predecessor to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA).
But during the past 30 years, and especially the past 15, downtown L.A. has undergone a major revival. New and renovated high-rise buildings now are filled with apartments, condos and lofts. A slew of new restaurants and bars, as well as movie theaters and performing arts centers, keep the city active well into the night, says Leahy, who now serves as LACMTA's chief executive officer.
"It's become a mature, urbanized area," he says.
L.A.'s transit system has matured right along with it. In 1990, LACMTA opened its first rail line — the Blue Line, a light-rail corridor running between 7th Street in downtown L.A. and a Transit Mall station. The agency since has expanded its network of light-rail and subway lines to total 79 miles. The most recent addition? The six-mile Metro Gold Line Eastside extension, which opened Nov. 15, 2009. The line connects downtown L.A. with Pasadena, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.
"There's been a major sea change in the urban form here," says Leahy. "Today, Union Station is a bustling place — it reminds me of stations in Chicago and Philadelphia. That reflects the hub we're becoming and the growing importance of rail service to Southern California and Los Angeles."
The importance will continue to grow. During the next 30 years, L.A. County's population — which already stands at 10 million — is expected to increase by another 3 million people.
That's why LACMTA is launching a program to double the size of its rail system during the next three decades. The agency has proposed rail lines to L.A. International Airport, Santa Monica and South Bay, as well as a connector line linking downtown rail corridors. To be funded through a sales tax measure approved by voters in November 2008, the expansion will improve mobility and, hopefully, transform the attitudes of residents — notorious for their love of the automobile — about how they get from A to B.
"What we will achieve is a network of services — rail and bus with dedicated rights of way — all over L.A. County so that you can live and work and play in a way that's only possible now in some of the East Coast cities," says Leahy. "We are really revolutionizing Los Angeles."
And Leahy will be the one to lead the charge, or at least the early stages of it.
Although he just took the reins at LACMTA nine months ago, Leahy's not new to the L.A.-area transportation scene. His connection with the agency began even before he was born — Leahy's parents met while working for the L.A. Railway.
"My dad was a streetcar operator and joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor," says Leahy. "During World War II, the railway was hiring women, so after my dad came back from the war, my mom was working here."
In the 1960s, the streetcar system fell victim to the automobile era and L.A. Railway ceased operations. Leahy's dad began teaching streetcar operators how to drive buses. Leahy joined the L.A. transit agency in 1971, when he became a bus operator himself while in college.
"I wasn't worried about getting in trouble so much as irritating my father," Leahy jokes.
After graduating college in 1974, Leahy spent the next 14 years rising through the agency's ranks, working in the community relations, government relations, grants, budgets, schedules and transportation departments. In 1988, he was named chief operating officer, a position he held for the next eight years. During that time, Leahy oversaw the opening of the authority's first rail line.
"Things kind of came full circle," he says.
The 1990s were a tumultuous time for MTA. In 1993, the Southern California Rapid Transit District and Los Angeles County Transportation commission merged to form LACMTA. A difference in management philosophies led to Leahy's departure from the agency in 1996.
He then accepted a position to head Metro Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul. In early 2001, he moved back closer to home when he took over the CEO post for the Orange County Transportation Authority.
Leahy was happy at OCTA, but when former LACMTA CEO Roger Snoble announced his retirement in December 2008, Leahy knew he needed to take a shot at running the agency where he had started his career.
"I was born and raised in L.A., and I love it here," he says. "I decided I couldn't live with myself if I turned down an opportunity to impact one of the most important urban areas on the planet."
Since taking the reins last year, Leahy has been working to ensure LACMTA runs a top-quality, efficient, cost-effective operation while also gearing up for the agency's massive expansion effort.
In October, LACMTA's board approved a long-range transportation plan designed to guide transportation development through 2040. That plan includes a significant transit-rail component. During the next 30 years, LACMTA plans to build 76 additional miles of passenger-rail lines.
The first of many rail extensions is already under way. In October 2006, LACMTA launched construction on the 8.6-mile Exposition light-rail line. Scheduled to open in summer 2010, the line will run between L.A. and Culver City, and include nine stations.
The agency also is planning an extension to the Expo line, which would run about seven miles from Culver City to Santa Monica. LACMTA currently is conducting environmental planning work for the extension and expects to complete it by early 2010.
Also on the drawing board: the Crenshaw/LAX corridor, an 8.5-mile light-rail line that will run from the Metro Green Line Aviation Station to the Expo Line, with a connection to the airport; Harbor Subdivision Transit Corridor, which would extend the Metro Green Line to the South Bay area, either on a new 4.6-mile light-rail alignment or along 8.7 miles of existing freight tracks; Westside Subway extension, which calls for expanding the Metro Purple Line subway to Westwood and, eventually, to Santa Monica and Pacific Ocean beaches; Eastside Transit Corridor Phase 2 project, which would extend the recently opened Metro Gold Line Eastside line farther east; and a Regional Connector Transit Corridor, which would provide a two-mile transit link between the Gold and Blue lines in downtown L.A., and link up with the Eastside and Expo lines, as well as other future light-rail corridors.
As the rail expansions are completed, LACMTA will "begin to achieve some connectivity," says Leahy. "We're beginning to develop a network of rail lines that people can really use to get to their destinations."
The rail program will be funded in part through Measure R, a half-cent sales tax measure approved by L.A. County voters in November 2008. The tax is expected to generate about
$40 billion for LACMTA during the next 30 years to fund transit and highway projects, and support county transit operations.
"Measure R becomes a stimulus for L.A. County," says Leahy. "We would say there's not a national recovery without a California recovery, and there's no California recovery without a Los Angeles recovery."
And because the agency has those tax dollars flowing in, it's in a good position to match any federal funds that might be available, especially once Congress approves a new surface transportation authorization bill.
Not that LACMTA isn't facing its share of challenges. In late December, Leahy lost two of his top executives. Chief Operating Officer Carolyn Flowers took a position as CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System and Chief Planning Officer Carol Inge retired.
As LACMTA seeks to fill the two key posts, it's also conducting an organizational readiness review.
"We want to make sure we have the internal capacity to take on all these projects," says Leahy. "We're looking at our management capacity, skill sets, what's coming down the pipeline."
Leahy & Co. also have to keep interested parties apprised of their game plan, especially now that LACMTA is collecting billions more from taxpayers. It's a large undertaking — L.A. County includes 88 cities, 10 million residents, 150 chambers of commerce and 20 members of Congress.
To develop a "line of support," Leahy is working to create a coalition of congressional members that can lobby for federal dollars for LACMTA, as well as "create a sense of collaboration and partnership" with the agency's 13-member board.
Leahy, who describes himself as a demanding manager, also is asking that his 9,000 employees do their part to advance the agency's expansion plans while maintaining top-notch service.
"We should show taxpayers we're breaking a sweat," he says. "I ask that my co-workers exert themselves to be creative — find new ways of solving problems while maintaining old values of cleanliness and quality service."
It's the same approach Leahy himself has employed during his nearly 40-year transit career. And now that he's taken the top post at the agency where he once served as a bus operator, Leahy believes his experiences will enable him to make a mark on the city he loves.
"I think Los Angeles is the best place on the planet, but there are problems here with congestion and air quality," he says. "I have an opportunity to make a contribution."