Rita Robinson: L.A.

Robinson, who replaced the fired Gloria Jeff, spoke about her philosophy and goals during an interview in her office on the 10th floor of the Caltrans building downtown. Raised in South Los Angeles, Robinson lives in Inglewood, where she leaves her Honda Escape and takes the bus to work once or twice a week.

Published November 8, 2007 by LA CityBeat

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked her in September to take over the top job at the Department of Transportation, Rita Robinson reacted in her usual, straight-forward way. The 30-year veteran of city hall “spoke Rita” to him before accepting the job.

Robinson, who replaced the fired Gloria Jeff, spoke about her philosophy and goals during an interview in her office on the 10th floor of the Caltrans building downtown. Raised in South Los Angeles, Robinson lives in Inglewood, where she leaves her Honda Escape and takes the bus to work once or twice a week.

Her goal: Change the perception of her office from one where the slogan could have been “Slow, no, and no results” to one that owns the issue of transportation in Los Angeles.

–Alan Mittelstaedt

CityBeat: What are you up to over here?

Rita Robinson: I hope to open up the dialogue and discussion about traffic, both from the experts and people who aren’t experts. I was asked to move wholesale from sanitation to transportation in a heartbeat, so I’ve had to get my footing in place first. And just as we did with sanitation, my approach is, “Tell me what we can do. Not what we can’t do.”

How do you set up that dialog?

I’m beginning to get my internal team together so we can do our own huddle and say, “Let’s get out there and start talking to the people.” That means building partnerships with the experts, with the consultants, with the chamber of commerce, with the MTA, with Caltrans. Everyone needs to be in this room – not just us.

What ideas are you thinking about?

When people feel as they do about transportation and think our motto is “slow, no, and no results,” we have to start by building their confidence . The 30 left-turn signals in 30 business days played well because people saw us do something.

What would you like to accomplish with the MTA?

We need to have a transparent discussion with the MTA about how we can make regional rail and bus lines connect as a city. How do we use the funding? I’d like to demystify the funding throughout the region, not just L.A., so we can guarantee that the city is getting its fair share. It’s also important to me that we’re getting the services that interlink and make sense as we begin to leverage and build these projects. If they’re going to do a rail project, not only do I want to be in the room, I want to be an active voting participant about how that system is built. You’ve seen the discussions in the paper about the Expo Line and neighborhoods that I know well. I grew up in South Los Angeles.

Have you taken a look at the objections some in the community are raising about the Expo Line’s street-level crossing at Dorsey High?

I know the concerns about crossings. The discussion is $1 million versus $25 million. What is the safety of those students and the risk, and what does that cost us? What frustrates people the most is when they feel that they don’t have a voice. Even if they have a voice, and it’s not the direction that you go in, they feel satisfied that they’ve been in the room with some sort of impact.

You have an open, engaging approach. How do you deal with politicians and their egomania?

First of all, I know my role. It’s staff. At the end of the day, you can call me a fancy name like general manager, but I am staff to the leaders who set policy. And so my job is to continually bring the facts and the truth to the table. I’m not running for anything. I’m not lobbying for anybody. I get a paycheck to do my job and I do my job well and I will try to follow whatever policy is set by the politicians and policymakers. And I will do my best to try to guide them with regard to how the facts will impact the decision they will eventually make.

And that’s how we made it through Sunshine Canyon. There was a great deal of contention. Mayor Hahn and Mayor Villaraigosa were on one side – and probably not the right side – because we really couldn’t get out of Sunshine Canyon. There was no place to take our 3,500 tons of trash a day at that point in time. Nobody really wants our trash. It was step by step, with respect, and with facts and with truth and with persistence. That’s what I tell my staff. You can always stand firm with regards to the truth. As long as I know that I’m telling the truth to the public and to the politicians, the best decisions will be made at the end of the day. And that’s the way I’ll always be.

Do you have different personalities – the one we see in public and the one that comes out when the door closes and a politician wants the unvarnished truth about a matter?

Me, no. I will always ask if it’s all right if I speak Rita to you. Because I speak very plain. That means a few words that are not the most politically correct words.

You can tell me. Our readers are used to the adult ads in the back of the paper.

No. I will always be respectful and clear and firm and direct.

That’s what you say to them: “Can I speak Rita to you?”

You can flower it with “all due respect,” but it’s important to be able to speak plainly. And I speak the same way to my staff. I never raise my voice and I never have a level of anger because it’s not my role.

Have you looked at the DASH system? Are there some holes in it?

I’m sure there are services people would like to have. There are probably a lot of places where it could be expanded. But the problem has been money.

What’s the status of Zev Yaroslavsky’s idea for making Pico and Olympic one-way thoroughfares?

It’s currently under study. It’s a very interesting and bold idea to do something different. There are people who will say it absolutely will not happen in a million years and there are people who will say that it’s the greatest idea since sliced bread. Somewhere between those two sides is the truth that will end up becoming how.

In five to 10 years, what do you think our transportation system will look like?

When the mayor asked me, would I do this – I won’t tell you what I told him. It was non-political words that I don’t usually say out loud. But I was able to speak Rita to him. One of the things I told him is that we detach ourselves from traffic. But we are traffic. We need to look at how we’re going to take different routes, get onto public transportation or take our bikes or get on the bus. And if we are getting in our cars, how we’re going to get into cars with more than one person. Or as employers, make sure everybody doesn’t have to be at work at 8 a.m. My hope in five or 10 years, we open ourselves to what is possible. It won’t be just rail. It won’t be just buses. It’ll be a collaboration of all of these. Technology will be a part of this.

What about congestion pricing?

I know this city did not get onboard for the grant for testing this. But we can learn from those who did get it and see how it could apply to L.A. On the face of it, it does sound like a great idea, but does it really work?

How can you persuade people to get out of their cars?

We have to set an example. Even if it’s only one day a week, people learn by our leadership.

What do you drive?

A Ford Escape. It’s convenient for me to take a bus from my home in Inglewood unless I have to be in the Valley at 8 a.m. I try to take public transportation once or twice a week.

Any pet peeves or urgent messages you want to get out to the public?

We’ve got to slow down and stop texting while we drive so we can see people crossing the street. People are trying to do 25 things at the same time.