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L.A. Light Rail? Or Keep Your Car? 

Villaraigosa's rush aside, the sales-tax increase won't pay off for decades

Wednesday, Nov 4 2009
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When Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned for last year’s Hail Mary transportation law, Measure R, which boosted Los Angeles County sales tax to 8.75 percent, the highest tier in the state, he billed it as a traffic-gridlock fix for a region some say will see a stampede of 3 million new residents in the next 30 years.

“It would fortify our network of rapid bus lines and allow for more service in the underserved corners of South L.A., the Valley and East L.A.,” the mayor in September 2008 told the Los Angeles Business Council. “Measure R would fundamentally reshape Los Angeles — and Southern California.”

When the measure, which needed a two-thirds majority of voters, passed a year ago, it meant a windfall for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which had been facing a severely diminished bank account.

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But when the MTA several days ago approved its eye-popping $298 billion, 30-year Long Range Transportation Plan, with Measure R’s $40 billion sales-tax injection as its engine, it was an unpleasant surprise for many. Critics say the day-to-day needs in densely packed Los Angeles County were swept under the bus in favor of vanity projects that include not one, but two trains to Santa Monica. The mayor trumpeted the unanimous approval of the Westside-tilted plan by MTA board members — made up of 13 politicians and one gubernatorial appointee — saying it “represents our shared vision.”

To some, it reflects Villaraigosa’s ego and desire for a monument — the “subway to the sea” — to himself. “That’s the project people most want in West Los Angeles,” he told the Los Angeles Times one year ago.

But not everyone, and possibly, not most people in the city and county.

“The $300 billion, 30-year Long Range Transportation Plan outlines rail and subway projects that aren’t necessarily being motivated by actual transit needs,” says Esperanza Martinez, lead organizer of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union.

The majority of L.A. County’s transit users take bus lines, which are far cheaper to expand and — unlike totally inflexible rail lines — are extremely easy to reroute when populations and jobs shift. Existing rail in L.A. is already being heavily subsidized, and despite all the hype, existing lines are underutilized. “It’s politics that come behind building these new, shiny projects,” Martinez says. “Bus riders are completely left out of the equation.”

The MTA, through spokesman Rick Jager, denies its plan favors low-ridership rail and subways over far more popular but less-sexy-to-politicians buses: “There is no bus-rail debate in our plan,” Jager says. “We need them all. We are absolutely aware we have to have a vital bus system. There’s a huge investment in both.”

The plan is essentially a vision statement by the current politicians on the MTA board; it’s also an official hope that the unknown politicians who control the MTA board five and 10 years from now will raise $298 billion by 2040, and will spend that money to fund the current board’s vision.

Major political fights broke out last year when MTA leaders and Villaraigosa refused to explain that vision fully to voters. Now it’s getting clear: a new bus lane on Wilshire Boulevard; the Eastside light rail project, the Exposition light rail to Culver City; the Exposition light rail to Santa Monica; the “Crenshaw Corridor” light-rail project; a two-mile subway linking the Blue and Gold lines downtown; and, of course, a subway from Koreatown to Westwood, and maybe, eventually, to the coast. MTA says more than one-third of the money will fund highway improvements such as carpool lanes on the 405 through Sepulveda Pass.

Some Westside-rail boosters point out that the subway to the beach — slammed by many who live and work nowhere near L.A.’s Westside — gave the countywide sales-tax boost its narrow victory. Dennis Zane, former mayor of Santa Monica and executive director of Move L.A., says, “Without that project we would never have won two-thirds of the vote. It was a decisive factor for many voters.”

MTA chief planning officer Carol Inge adds, “What we heard from the public was, ‘We want more rail lines and carpool lanes.’ ”

Still, the Long Range Plan’s emphasis on a Westside subway that does not actually go near the sea and a Westside light rail that may not ever reach Santa Monica was so pronounced that members of Congress, Sacramento legislators, and the Bus Riders Union pressured the MTA’s board to agree to protect non-Westside projects.

A rare bipartisan delegation of Southern California congressional representatives urged “a more inclusive, regional and long-term strategy” than the Villaraigosa-favored blueprint. Several state senate and assembly members argued in a separate letter that with the new sales-tax bite affecting all county taxpayers for the next 30 years, not just Westsiders and L.A. urbanites, the plan “must be geographically representative of the entire region.”

The Bus Riders Union loudly demanded that MTA’s board officially lock in 20 percent of Measure R money for bus lines, and MTA board member Mark Ridley-Thomas backed that idea several days ago, while also seeking to give the Crenshaw/LAX corridor rail and the Gold Line Foothill extension subway the same weight as the mayor’s Westside routes.

Ridley-Thomas was joined by fellow Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is also on the MTA board. Ultimately the entire body — even Villaraigosa — backed the “Kumbaya” idea of spreading the countywide sales tax more equitably.

But some question Villaraigosa’s sincerity in supporting anything that could get in the way of his beloved subway.

“We believe the mayor is motivated by his dream to leave the legacy of the subway to the sea,” bus advocate Martinez says. “There are issues here of inequity and making sure the South and East side get their fare share from Measure R. We had major concerns that the agency would raid bus funds to build their rail and subway projects.”

Now it’s the public’s chance to jump in, since they’re paying for the transit system. Hearings are set for later in November to wrangle over the selection of subway-stop locations along Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills — a potentially ugly controversy given the extreme disruption and dramatic commercialization subway stops brought to Mid-Wilshire, Hollywood and other areas.

The mayor is so keen to get his subway built on the Westside — where he finds much of his political support and campaign contributions — that he is pushing to accelerate what would normally be a 30-year-dream into a 10-year project. He wants those subway cars running before he retires — highly unlikely, if the history of subway construction in L.A. is any guide.

First, the Westside subway, like everything in the long-term plan, requires significant funds from the federal government. Second, no subway line in L.A. has ever remotely made it on-budget or on-deadline.

Villaraigosa peddled Measure R as something of a transportation panacea. But, in fact, the increased tax only generates $40 billion of the $298 billion needed for the grand scheme backed by MTA’s board. As it turns out, Measure R is just seed money — another thing few county voters realized. Says Zane, “Measure R is the breakthrough. It’s not the end.”

Zane says Villaraigosa got L.A.’s rail-oriented future off the ground, helping to convince U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman to persuade Congress to back off its ban on federal funding for L.A. subways. Villaraigosa clearly shaped the Long Range Plan — for better or worse.

“Frankly,” Zane says, “we have to give Mayor Villaraigosa credit for all of this.”

Reach the writer at dennisjromero@gmail.com

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