In the climactic scene of director Ivan Reitman's 1993 political satire “Dave,” President Mitchell (Kevin Kline) tells a joint session of Congress he lost his way, forgot his job was to make people's “lives a little better…care more about you than I do about me...care more about what's right than I do about what's popular...”
The occasion for my viewing “Dave” recently was Warner Bros. executive Jeff Brown's quarterly movie event for staff and guests on the Burbank lot where he brings together filmmakers to talk about what they created in advance of screening their movie — directors, producers, editors, writers and actors.
It was fascinating to hear how a movie got born, but it was Reitman's comments about how the political culture he made fun of 20 years ago seems like child's play to what we see today.
I was getting “Dave” flashbacks Thursday morning as I watched the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board members squirm over whether to give the bus-train advertising contract to CBS or Titan — firms that are spending fortunes on dozens of lobbyists to get a $22-million to $23-million-a-year contract.
The meeting started nearly an hour late with only seven of the 13 members present and went downhill from there, to the point they couldn't even muster a quorum for a while to approve a long list of non-controversial measures because of conflicts of interest.
Then chairman Mike Antonovich announced that in discussions with the California Department of Transportation, several of the “alternative concepts” for extending the Long Beach (710) Freeway to Pasadena along Avenue 64 and through the San Rafael neighborhood were “off the table” from consideration as staff had recommended because of “low-performance characteristics.”
The five alternatives to be advanced, to actually be studied in depth, range from doing nothing at all to tunneling from the Interstate 10 under Eastside L.A. communities, South Pasadena past Huntington Memorial Hospital to the 710 Freeway stub at the Foothill (210) Freeway junction.
Antonovich's kicker was this prepared statement: “Metro and Caltrans concur that the low performance and most environmentally damaging alternatives merit no study. These nonsensical options have been the result of Congressman Schiff's demand that the review process be route-neutral which led to a study of options all over the place…”
It's Rep. Adam Schiff's fault. Really? Because he questioned why the MTA was rushing to build a tunnel without looking at alternatives or even determining if it achieved anything other than to send more polluting diesel trucks through residential neighborhoods? And then last week sabotaged their plans by sending a four-page letter urging the authority to abandon the tunnel madness in the face of community opposition, the “prohibitive” cost and the failure to show significant benefits?
From a highly respected congressman like Schiff, that amounts to a threat to block federal funding of a lot of the questionable schemes the MTA has in mind to reward lobbyists, consultants, contractors and construction unions, even if the projects don't make our lives better.
The truth is the 710 Freeway tunnel was put in jeopardy by the San Rafael Neighborhood in West Pasadena, led by Dr. Ron Paler and attorney John Shaffer and his wife Monica, who responded to the threat to the quality of their lives the same way discontented people in Tunisia and Egypt did: They used the tools of the Internet to inform and organize their community. And then they reached out to communities nearby and linked up into a movement that threatens the whole 710 expansion and extension project from Long Beach to Pasadena.
It is an inspiring example of what people can do to bring government to heel. They might even kill Measure J on the November ballot, which would give the MTA something like $100 billion from 60 years of sales-tax revenue to spend in 20 years — one of the greatest boondoggles anyone has ever seen.
Before the MTA board meeting on Thursday, about 75 “No on 710” activists joined by the mayors of Pasadena, Glendale, La Cañada-Flintridge and South Pasadena held a press conference at the MTA along with Glendale City Councilman and MTA board member Ara Najarian, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who spoke about the need for environmental and social justice for the lower-income residents of El Sereno where the 710 Freeway now abruptly ends.
That is the same theme raised by Physicians for Social Responsibility who are leading the fight against expansion to 14 lanes of the 710 Freeway out of the ports through neighborhoods that endure the region's worst pollution.
Like everyone along the 710 corridor, they want health, quality of life and sustainability to take precedence over building more freeway parking lots.
It is the same point made by BNSF Railway in releasing its Draft EIR on Thursday, committing to invest $500 million in the 156-acre Southern California International Gateway project in Wilmington a few miles from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Trucks would carry cargo containers to the facility where they would be loaded on electrified rail for hauling out of the region.
Make no mistake: the whole 710 issue is about the viability of the ports in the face of Panama Canal expansion and increasing competition from other ports. The cry from every part of the region is trains are cheaper and better in terms of environmental damage and freeway congestion.
That shouldn't be too hard for officials in charge of the MTA to understand.
Maybe they should take a lesson from “Dave” and do what's right for the people, not themselves and the special interests who fund their careers. Maybe they should live up to their part of the bargain by making the lives of ordinary people better, not worse.
RON KAYE can be reached at email@example.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.