By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
LOS ANGELES COUNTY SUPERVISORS Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich don’t often agree, separated by a natural gulf between a liberal Democratic woman and conservative Republican man. But as representatives of the inland reaches of the county, both are pushing hard for their share of a pot of money so vast that it has set off a bitter Eastside versus Westside war.
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The money that fueled this feud does not even exist yet. Voters would have to approve a new county sales tax on themselves in November to make it happen. But the mere thought of $40 billion — more money than some small nations spend annually — is causing a grab-fest among scores of bureaucrats and elected officials, all of whom have promised their campaign backers, constituents or customers that they’ll reduce congestion — but keep failing to deliver on it.
If the new pot does materialize, it will make the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles the richest transportation agency in an American city outside of New York and give the MTA’s bureaucrats and politically driven board of directors a new mandate to redesign Los Angeles itself, ushering in more rail lines, heavily concentrated new areas of apartment towers and massive long-term construction projects.
Palpable drooling over all that potential money has resulted in a food fight among the adults, involving bitter legislative intrigue in Sacramento, public name-calling among L.A. civic figures and over-the-top hyperbole that could qualify the entire tax-for-transit enterprise as one of those national Boondoggle Awards.
Molina is leading the charge in demanding more transit spending for the aging, working-class Eastside suburbs and so-called Gateway Cities she represents. Her demands are infuriating advocates who want rail lines to move commuters between the more monied downtown and Westside.
Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, who wants priority given to the Expo Line, between downtown and Culver City, and the Crenshaw line — the “line to nowhere” roughly between El Segundo and the Crenshaw District — says scornfully of the scrappy, longtime Eastside pol, “She is ... a shrill, shrieking shrew, who’s very vindictive.”
The truth is, despite the ugly geographic battle, nobody knows which projects would be funded — including voters. The plan is evolving, the fine print is expected to be filled with loopholes, and the MTA is purposefully keeping its cards close to the vest.
But Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, clearly does not trust the MTA board — whose president, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is presiding over one of the biggest city deficits in California history — to handle such remarkable sums of money. “If L.A. County is going to raise funds from every part of L.A.,” Bell says, then taxpayers who pay into it “should make sure that money is being spent” to improve their parts of town.
That’s not what has happened, ever, in the history of the MTA. In practice, huge sums of transit funds are taken from one group and showered on another. When the MTA funneled billions of dollars out of San Fernando Valley taxpayers’ pockets during the 1990s to build its system on the “other side of the hill,” it left the Valley with just two subway stops. The resulting fury helped drive the Valley secession movement.
Critics say the MTA still doesn’t care if one hard-working area of the Los Angeles Basin is squeezed to benefit another. Of the proposed tax, Bell says, “Those regions not in the city of Los Angeles need their voice.” But the problem “goes back to MTA structure, which is very L.A. city-centric” because several of its 13 board members are from Los Angeles and continually vote against the less powerful suburbs.
BREWING JUST BELOW THE SURFACE of this war between widely separated areas of the county is a potentially bigger battle: Will L.A. voters agree to raise the sales tax from 8.25 percent to 8.75 percent, making it the highest in California?
The measure, if it makes the November ballot, needs a 66 percent “yes” from voters. Opponents are asking why taxpayers should pour $40 billion into public transit systems that have broadly failed to woo people out of their cars and made only small inroads lately, even in the face of rising gas costs.
One critic of the tax hike is USC professor of public policy Peter Gordon, who opposed a similar attempt to raise the sales tax in 2004. (It would have given the MTA the power to tax Angelenos an extra half-cent for six and a half years, but it never went before voters. The new effort would allow MTA to tax Angelenos for 30 years.)
Gordon riles transit buffs and Los Angeles elected leaders when he points out that although billions of dollars have been spent on transit in big cities since 1990, aside from New York City, these modern systems usually have no effect on traffic congestion.
“The fact is that about 1.5 percent of traffic is handled by transit systems,” Gordon says. “If you took New York out of that mix, the figure would plummet. We as a nation are currently below the level of ridership — below it — that was using transit during World War II. We are only now catching up to the ridership levels during that war, which [also] were very low.”