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Will Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's transportation track record pass White House muster?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined Sen. Barbara Boxer on top of the San Diego (405) Freeway to celebrate the passage of a federal bill for public transit projects that he lobbied for.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined Sen. Barbara Boxer on top of the San Diego (405) Freeway to celebrate the passage of a federal bill for public transit projects that he lobbied for.
Alice Walton/KPCC

The idea may seem crazy to Southern California drivers who navigate some of the worst traffic in the nation, but L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is among those President Obama may be considering as his next Secretary of Transportation.

The current secretary – Ray LaHood – announced his resignation Tuesday, and President Obama is looking at a Cabinet that includes no Latinos, following the departures of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Activist groups from throughout the country are calling on the President to make sure Latinos are included in his second-term Cabinet.

If Villaraigosa is considered for the transportation post, the vetting process will surely include a look at the mayor’s record on one of the most vexing issues that faces the region.

Anyone who runs for mayor of Los Angeles promises to improve traffic flow. In 2005, Villaraigosa was no different. But the mayor’s early transportation initiatives were like a compact car – kind of small, says LA StreetsBlog Editor Damien Newton.

"The major projects we heard about were 'Tiger Teams’, which were out to ticket parked cars at rush hour to free up road space," Newton recalls.

Newton and other transit advocates say that changed over time.

"The Villaraigosa administration has been a golden age of transit," Joe Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council says.

The turning point came three years into Villaraigosa’s first term when voters approved Measure R – a half-cent sales tax that will double the size of L.A.'s rail system with $40 billion in new transit funding over 30 years.

Newton says the mayor spearheaded the campaign for Measure R, even as many politicians predicted it would fail to obtain the necessary two-thirds support of voters to pass. And Villaraigosa didn’t just work in front of the TV cameras he so loves.

"Publicly, he was the chief cheerleader," Newton says. "But behind the scenes he was the chief fundraiser for it."

As a result of Measure R’s passage, a dozen major mass transit projects are under way in L.A. County, including the Expo Line Phase Two and the Gold Line Extension. The building frenzy is creating thousands of new jobs.

Villaraigosa accelerated funding for those projects too. While he fell short of securing federal support for compressing 30 years of projects into 10 years, he successfully lobbied Congress to dramatically expand federal transportation loans – something that’s benefited other cities as well. The America Fast Forward program is the mayor's brainchild.

While many in L.A. see him as a partisan Democrat, the view of Villaraigosa in the nation’s capital is different, says Newton.

"In Washington, his reputation is that of someone who can reach across the aisle," Newton says. "[He] can work with a John Mica, who’s considered by some to be a Tea Party Republican, as well as Senator [Barbara] Boxer."

Many transit and environmental activists in L.A. Also praise Villaraigosa for his clean trucks program at the port, which has reduced air pollution significantly, and his bicycle plan, which includes building 1,600 miles of new bike paths over 40 years.

"I think that Mayor Villaraigosa’s vision for improving transit in L.A. has changed the way that a lot of mayors are looking at this," says David Cooper of the Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. "And I think that these types of public investments are exactly the sorts of things that need to be done on a larger scale throughout the country."

But Villaraigosa does have his transportation critics.

"In regards to bus riders, Mayor Villaraigosa’s record is pretty abysmal," says Sunyoung Yang, lead organizer for the Bus Riders Union. She points out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has cut nearly 1 million hours of service in the name of efficiency, but at the expense of working class residents. Yang notes Villaraigosa sits on the board, and appoints three of its 13 members.

"He never really flexed his power enough to protect bus riders from egregious bus service cuts," Yang says.

African-American transit activists also fault him for not using his political capital to ensure a Leimert Park stop on the new Crenshaw Rail Line. And if you’re sitting in traffic on the Westside, you might wonder what Villaraigosa’s done for you.

Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the mayor’s transit accomplishments may not be appreciated for a while.

"We have been suffering a mobility crisis in Los Angeles for a very long time, and changing that is a very complex problem," Reynolds says. He predicts people will thank the mayor more as Measure R builds additional transit projects.

Reynolds and Newton of LA StreetsBlog like the idea of President Obama appointing Villaraigosa as transportation secretary. Newton says L.A. may get more federal funds as a result.

"Usually, there is a hometown bump if you have a secretary that’s from your hometown," Newton says.

In addition to Villaraigosa, President Obama’s list of possible transportation secretaries reportedly includes former House Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar, New York City’s transportation chief Janette Sadik-Khan, former Washington Governor Gregoire and former FAA chief Jane Garvey.