Transit boss’ SUV is too big to ignore

Questions about the Hummer would be off-limits. That's what the mayor's press secretary told me as we headed to a City Hall meeting with transportation chief Jaime de la Vega, whose vehicle of choice seems odd for a man in his position.

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Published January 21, 2007 by LA Times 
By Steve Lopez :: Points West 

Los Angeles – Questions about the Hummer would be off-limits. That's what the mayor's press secretary told me as we headed to a City Hall meeting with transportation chief Jaime de la Vega, whose vehicle of choice seems odd for a man in his position.

No way, I told Matt Szabo. How can I not ask about it?

What de la Vega drives is a private matter, argued Szabo.

No it isn't, I told him. It's now a public matter, and I don't know how Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa can have any faith in a transit chief who drives a 2-ton monster in a city with notorious traffic and smog.

It's like having a surgeon general who smokes unfiltered Camels while snacking on Cheetos.

I felt a little sorry for Szabo, a decent enough chap who had arranged the meeting after I complained that de la Vega didn't answer my call.

But not sorry enough to pull punches. What's with the Hummer? I asked as soon as we were seated in de la Vega's office.

De la Vega gave me a cold stare, his lips sealed. Then he looked at Szabo, who said we were there to talk transportation.

I asked about de la Vega's background and he dropped the mummy act, telling me he'd gotten a master's in urban planning from UCLA. He was also Mayor Dick Riordan's traffic chief and a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

So you'd think he'd know better.

I just can't get past it, I told de la Vega. A Hummer?

And then I noticed a quote on his wall from Rosa Parks.

"Every person must live their lives as a model for others."

I read the quote to de la Vega, who clammed up again.

"Should we all drive Hummers?" I asked.

Silence.

Szabo, meanwhile, looked like he might have some kind of a breakdown. He argued that de la Vega's vehicle is not the largest in the Hummer line.

"It's smaller than a Yukon," he said.

Wonderful. So is the Queen Mary.

The polar caps are melting, we are at war in the oil fields and Mr. Transit is driving a hog that says who cares?

But for Szabo's sake, I changed the subject, asking de la Vega if he'd checked out all the great ideas on my Bottleneck Blog (latimes.com/bottleneck), where people are posting solutions to our traffic mess.

He said he hadn't looked at it, which is his loss.

De la Vega said he's looking at everything from charging people to drive in congested areas to creating one-way thoroughfares to synchronizing every light in the city.

But the larger plan is to "maintain a first-class bus system" and get the Exposition light-rail line going, extend the Gold Line to the San Gabriel Valley and the Eastside, take the Green Line to the airport and the Red Line to the sea.

Sounds lovely, except that the city doesn't have $27 billion sitting around, and even if it did, the mayor hasn't sold me on whether rail would be the best use of that money in a city where people go in a million different directions to get here and there. Even at that, it would take years to get any of those lines in place, and we've got a crisis now.

De la Vega said the city is looking at twisting the governor's arm and turning up the heat on Washington as well as considering a sales tax or a bond.

"There is no magic wand," he said.

Yeah, no kidding. There's not even a formal transit plan for the city to begin debating.

It would help, I told de la Vega and Szabo, if the mayor and other public officials stopped taking huge campaign checks from developers and rubber-stamping their projects until we get some of the transit in place.

Villaraigosa, if you ask me, is now testing the limits of big ambition. How much more might he have accomplished by now if he hadn't devoted so much time to a school takeover bid that so far has been a disaster? We didn't elect him to run the school district, and he already has a full plate with homelessness, housing and public safety.

Before he takes on the schools, too, he should use his popularity and gift of gab to step up on traffic, which affects millions of people every day and is redefining our lives, wasting time, money and productivity. An uninspired City Council is asleep at the wheel on this issue, by the way, offering the mayor little or no help.

But it's Villaraigosa who should use his million-dollar smile to charm people out of their vehicles at least one day a week, encouraging them to use transit, bicycles, carpools and flexible work schedules. And given the depth of its problems, Los Angeles and the surrounding region ought to have the smartest and most enviro-friendly innovations in the world rather than having to read about what works in London or Bangkok, Argentina or Brazil.

I don't want to hear that it can't be done, and I can't think of a better way for City Hall to show it's serious than to have Villaraigosa take de la Vega's Hummer and ship it to the troops in Iraq, where it might come in handy.

Or he could trade it to the governor for a bigger chunk of state transit funding. I told him if they can't work a deal, I'll be happy to drive his tank back to the dealer and trade it in on a nice Honda or something.

De la Vega didn't respond, but I could tell he was beginning to see the wisdom of unloading this thing.

All right, I told him. We'll trade vehicles for a week. He can gradually warm to the idea of a car that's smaller than Half Dome, and I'll be high enough off the ground to get a better look at just how awful the traffic has become.