Bill Boyarsky
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Recovery buck stops with the mayor

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will have much of the responsibility for carrying out President-elect Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan in Los Angeles and even beyond the city limits.

To make this happen, Villaraigosa will have to hammer the bureaucracy, keeping his focus on fast tracking projects that will put people to work quickly. The buck stops with him. He can’t be distracted by fools’ errands, such as when his mouthpiece of a school board president recently dashed down a Union Station platform on a failed mission to pull a board member off the San Diego train for a vote against the school superintendent. A great scene for an old movie but not for the mayor of a city in trouble.

The aid funds will be funneled through state houses, county buildings and city halls around the country. Congress will appropriate the money. But the actual spending will be in the hands of local politicians. Villaraigosa is the most powerful and the best-known local pol around here, not only in the city of Los Angeles but in the region. For example, he sits on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and appoints four of its members. The MTA will be a prime spender of Obama recovery funds for projects such as the Wilshire Subway, the Gold Line and the Exposition Line.

This week, Villaraigosa was in Washington where, according to the Wall Street Journal, he would ask that aid funds be distributed directly to the cities, rather than going through state governments.

Last week, I went to city hall to talk to two people who will have much to say about spending money for transit, local highways and streets. One was Jaime de la Vega, the deputy mayor for transportation. The other was Richard Katz, a transportation consultant and veteran politician who is advising the mayor.

They said a lot of street and highway projects were ready to go, putting people to work as soon as the money arrives. But I could see that Villaraigosa’s biggest job will be to speed up local bureaucrats who favor a safe, go slow approach to big public works, following the tried and true rule of city hall—that saying no never gets you in trouble.

For example, the MTA said it will take 18 to 24 months to do an environmental impact report before digging the subway to Westwood. I was amazed. Developers can get an EIR done overnight if money is on the line. It wouldn’t take Çasden 24 months. Katz and de la Vega indicated the new money would be put on a fast track, “We’re trying to create an attitude shift in the MTA,” Katz said. The mayor is the only one with enough clout to do that.

There’s also a job here for the news media, monitoring all the contracts, digging up slowdowns, rip offs and screw-ups. That will take a few reporters. Too bad this comes as Sam Zell was taking the Times and the rest of the Tribune company into bankruptcy court.

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