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He feels “it’s far more accurate to look at this for what it is: a construction-jobs program. Not a congestion-relief program. The $40 billion will not affect congestion. That’s a fact we have been measuring for many years.”
He’s not alone in his view that big-city politicians peddle transit projects in large part to please rich developers and labor unions who pour money into politicians’ political fund-raising chests. Gordon’s views are disputed by almost every elected official in L.A. One eager proponent of the transit tax is former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer, now a state legislator, who agreed to author the law proposing to voters the 30-year sales tax hike.
Feuer’s bill faces stiff hurdles in Sacramento, where it must make it through hearings and amendments this month, and is being pilloried by angry Eastside Democratic legislators who think their areas will get screwed, as well as fed-up fiscally conservative Republicans who say Southern Californians are being taxed to the limit.
Feuer has begun lowering expectations about what the bill will accomplish. Asked about MTA’s consistent history of billion-dollar mistakes, and what might result if such a troubled agency controls another $40 billion, Feuer says, “I choose to look at the future with optimism, because we don’t have a choice.”
He is already warning that many pet projects will not be completed, even with $40 billion. He says the Expo Line and Crenshaw Line will be completed. However, the big political enchilada, the long-fantasized “subway to the sea” from downtown, known as the Purple Line, would stop far short at Westwood because “only” $4 billion would be spent on it.
In fact, none of the claims made by Feuer are entirely true. The language of Feuer’s bill, AB 2321, leaves plenty of vagueness that could tempt the MTA to divert funds into operating expenses, overhead, raises, consultants and other money pits — as has happened in nearly identical efforts in other cities.
The promises being peddled by Feuer, Villaraigosa and others are eerily reminiscent of those made by politicians in Miami in 2002, when voters agreed to a stiff new tax. Six years later, the city has a disaster on its hands, with little rail line built, gross overspending and infighting.
That doesn’t surprise L.A.’s Tom Rubin, who for years was chief financial officer for the Rapid Transit District, which was subsumed by the MTA. Rubin has analyzed MTA’s own data, and according to Rubin, the local sales tax boost here would clearly favor projects with the least effective track record.
He found that the transportation agency spends 18 times more to attract a rail passenger than a bus passenger. Local politicians, driven in part by their own egos, insist on far sexier rail projects over bus projects — indeed, many pols in L.A. and nationally tout rail lines as necessary to create the feel of a “world class” city. But, Rubin says, the money should clearly go to new rapid and express bus routes.
“This is already the most expensive light-rail project in history,” he says. “At some point, even MTA has to ask, ‘What the heck are we doing?’”