Cunningham the Optimist on How and Why Metro Board Got the Vote RightBy Ari L. Noonan @ 2:00 PM December 04, 2007
Last Thursday’s crucial Metro Board vote, confirming an elevated light rail terminal for Culver City as well as funding for the last leg of the line into Culver City, turns out to be an exquisitely timed piece of government business.
Steve Cunningham Now 18 weeks before his eagerly anticipated retirement, Steve Cunnningham, a chronic candidate for being The Most Overlooked Person at City Hall, finally may receive his just due.
While the highest level officials in City Hall were accepting congratulations on Thursday afternoon for their splendid good fortune, uniformly they were quick to aim the arrow of major credit in the direction of Culver City’s Director of Transportation.
‘He Did It’
Elected officials and City Hall professionals alike agreed that the quiet Mr. Background, was the key link in achieving Culver City’s mountain-tall windfall of success.
Mr. Cunningham’s powers of persuasion, or to say it more rawly, his lobbying skills, were pivotal in convincing the 13 members of the Metro Board that an aerial station in Culver City was not a political decision but sheer common sense.
Until the unanimous vote five days ago, all the years of huffing and puffing by City Hall toward the transportation decision-makers in downtown Los Angeles threatened to end in emptiness.
A Time to Exhale
With the vote in the record books, the fiercest light rail advocates can smile, exhale and worry about something else, says Mr. Cunningham. The crisis is over.
Would Culver City really have to settle for a so-called “temporary” ground-level station on residential Wesley Street, which not a single person in this community wanted?
When Mr. Cunningham reflects, as he did yesterday, the ultimate denouement comes out a little differently.
On a cool, sunny — and hugely happy — morning in his airy second-story office overlooking the four-acre Transportation Complex at the intersection and Jefferson Boulevard and Duquesne, Mr. Cunningham made the outcome sound indisputably logical, even if City Hall was holding its breath going in.
When the Metro Board met a little more than a month ago, the theme of the day was that the transportation engine had run out of money to fund the still foggily planned Expo light rail line the almost 9-mile distance from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City.
Had Culver City really been banished to the sidelines or was this the kind of technical glitch that often crops up in expensive government projects?
“I can only answer the question from my perspective, not from Metro’s perspective,” said Mr. Cunningham. “I don’t know if I would characterize (the lack of funding announcement) as a crisis. It has been a challenge, clearly, from Day One. Funding is always a challenge.
“As for the construction of the project, it turns out they could not be building this at a worse time when it comes to materials. Costs are out of control. As we all know, it is out of control across the board. The fickle finger of fate put this project in a very difficult position.
A Necessary Tool
“Let me preface what I am going to say with a little personal philosophy. No.1, you cannot come to work and do my job if you are not an optimist. If you don’t believe you are going to make a difference, there is no point in even trying. Part of what I am talking about is responsibility. But it is broader than that.
“Given that transportation is very regional and large, there are so many things you cannot directly control. You can try to influence them. You can work really hard to try and get people to see things your way. You can push projects. You can have great ideas you are trying to get on paper. But one person or one small group is not going to be able to change the challenges. It takes a much broader perspective. Once you accept that you can’t do it all by yourself, then you come in with a mindset that you are going to spend a lot of time talking to a lot of other people, having conversations about the causes you believe in.
“You must have the faith and belief you can come in and have those conversations.”
“Optimism is a natural part of me,” he said. “It is the way I grew up. Whether it was the influence of my parents or all the other influences we have in life, I don’t know. It is just one of those glass half-full things I always have believed in.”
Not many weeks ago, Mr. Cunningham’s embedded optimism was tested.
“As recently as last August, Mayor (Alan) Corlin, Councilman (Scott) Malsin and I had a meeting with Roger Snoble,” the CEO of Metro. The subject was funding for an aerial light rail station at Washington and National boulevards.
“Roger was saying, ‘It’s not going to happen – We don’t have the funding — Sorry,’” Mr. Cunningham recalled. “Basically, the answer was ‘no’ just a couple of months ago. Here we are in December with a different answer.”
Q .What changed since the fiercely fought for Prop. 1B funds, at least potentially, always were available?
Mr. Cunningham hesitated for a moment and sighed.
“I think that with the ongoing conversations, we were pretty successful in making the argument that it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way but the right way the first time,” he said. “An interim station would have thrown away $10 million. It would have to have been dug up and rebuilt eventually anyways at a far greater cost than if we were building it today, even in today’s numbers. Five years from now, who knows what the costs will be?”
Q .Remind us of why the interim station was planned in the first place?
“Money was not available,” Mr. Cunningham said. “No more complicated than that. We did not want them to cross those boulevards at grade, which would have created significant issues for us, traffic-wise. They said, ‘We don’t have enough money for an aerial station,’ although remember, they did clear it environmentally at the time. They said, ‘We have no choice but to stop here (at an interim station).’
“But that does not mean we ever stopped working for the final and best solution.”
Q. Was Mr. Cunningham, the born optimist, worried that the interim station might become a reality?
“I was concerned it might be a reality,” he admitted. “Over time, I became less and less concerned because of off-the-record, side conversations with people — the ones that really count.
“When you start talking about Metro’s plan for parking, and they are going to have all of these paved lots between Washington and Venice, and then on the north side of Venice…
“When you start talking about pedestrians trying to make their way from those paved lots across very busy boulevards and how much time it takes to do that, what that will do to the surface traffic with pedestrians trying to cross, how turn movements suddenly can’t happen — on and on and on.
“Those are the little light bulbs you leave in people’s minds where it becomes kind of a cumulative effect.
“Over time, with the construction costs, with the physical reality of trying to put a station at Wesley, which, as we all know, is in the middle of nowhere, it just made more and more sense to do the permanent station instead. Metro, sometimes, is seen as an agency that doesn’t get it right. This became an opportunity for them to show, ‘Hey, we can get it right.’”
To be continued