Bill Boyarsky
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A mayor, a train car and jobs

A dispute over light rail cars is testing whether Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is up to the job of shepherding the federal recession relief coming this way.

I know that it is widely believed that the mayor doesn’t have power, except to show up at events and smile. But he has plenty of power especially when it comes to distributing the money from Washington, and he should be held accountable for the way he does it.

As reported by the Times' Steve Hymon in the L.A. Now blog Feb. 10, a light rail manufacturing firm, AnsaldoBreda, has offered to move manufacturing facilities here from Pittsburg, Calif. and Italy if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority buys 300 rail cars at a cost of more than $300 million. The company said the plant and company headquarters would “generate approximately 5,000 jobs.”

Sounds like a good deal in an area where unemployment is rising above 10 per cent. But here comes the MTA bureaucracy. The MTA has reopened bidding on the cars rather than giving AnsaldoBreda the go ahead. The MTA staff said the AnsaldoBreda cars didn’t meet specifications, and the company was late in delivering a previous order of cars due by May 2007. Mike Cannell, MTA general manager for rail, said train doors opened too soon. Others complained the seats are too narrow.

Fabio Ficano, AnsaldoBreda’s director of government affairs, told the New York Times that Cannell’s attitude was influenced by the fact that his son works for Siemens, which is competing for the car contract. Nonsense, replied Cannell, who said his son works for a Siemens Energy, unconnected to the light rail car division.

The mayor is head of the MTA board and appoints a few other members. He’ll have a lot of clout when it comes to deciding which company wins, and he knows there are a lot of jobs at stake. Richard Katz, a Villaraigosa appointee to the MTA board, told me the mayor’s office is now trying to determine whether “the (car manufacturing) jobs are real or permanent and can the company fulfill its obligations.”

A total of $8.5 billion in the recovery bill has been allocated to mass transit around the country and a good-sized portion should be coming here. Combined with funds from the passage of the half-cent sales tax increase last year, mass transit should be getting a boost for improving service and creating jobs.

This is Villaraigosa’s first big chance to show whether he’s tough and skillful enough to cut through the bureaucracy and put the recovery money to work quickly on the light rail cars and the many other projects to come.

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