Mayor Eric Garcetti has taken a somewhat chill approach to his first four years in charge. Whereas his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, was all big ideas bold visions, which more often than not ended in failure (like his gambit to take over the public school system or planting a million trees), Garcetti has focused on the quiet job of governing, of making City Hall run smoothly. At least that's the generous interpretation.
That changes now. The mayor is is going all in on expanding L.A. County's nascent rail network.
This November, voters across the county will vote on Measure M, a plan that would raise the sales tax by a half-cent and extend, indefinitely, the half-cent sales tax set forth by Measure R in 2008. That means Metro would be getting two cents for every dollar spent in L.A. County (when you figure in two older propositions, passed in 1980 and 1990), or about $3.4 billion a year, according to the L.A. Times.
Most of that money would go light rail projects, like the Purple line subway extension, expanding the still-under-construction Crenshaw line north, all the way to West Hollywood, and building a train that would go through the Sepulveda pass, connecting the Valley with West L.A.
"Right now, our transit system is a series of lines unto themselves," says Measure M spokesman, Yusef Robb. "They’re very useful if you happen to live and work on either end of them. Measure M would extend existing lines and build new ones to a comprehensive network that’s tied together."
Measure M would also fund some freeway projects, some dedicated bus lanes (one which would run up and down Vermont), give some money back to cities for transportation projects, and the completion of the L.A. River bike path (for a cost of a mere $425 million). Here's a full list of Measure M's projects, with the completion date and cost.
There's a lot going on with this year's ballot. Once you get past Donald Trump and Kamala Harris and 17 statewide ballot measures, there's six local initiatives, including Proposition HHH, a city-wide tax to fund supportive housing for the homeless, and Proposition JJJ, which would force developers to build affordable housing and pay their workers more. Garcetti supports both of those. But his priority is Measure M.
The people running the Measure M campaign are Garcetti people. Its spokesman is his former spokesman, Yusef Robb. Its strategist is his strategist, Bill Carrick.
Garcetti's own ballot measure committee – a campaign war chest built from donations from various interest groups (mostly labor and developers) – has given $675,000 to Measure M. Of course, Measure M has raised something like $3.6 million in addition to that. But Measure M's fundraiser is Rick Jacobs, Garcetti's "executive vice mayor."
In short, this is a Garcetti joint through and through (he even penned an L.A. Times Op-Ed arguing for it). If it gets the required 2/3 supermajority of voters and passes, Garcetti will be able to claim a major accomplishment, something he could base a future campaign for Governor or Senator on. If it loses, he'll have spent gobs of money and political capital on nothing.
In 2012, a lame-duck Villaraigosa and his allies tried to pass Measure J, which would have extended the half-cent Measure R tax another 30 years in order to speed up certain projects. It got 66.1 percent of the vote, "losing" by fewer than 15,000 votes (tax measures in California need a 2/3 supermajority to pass).
Measure M is far more ambitious, and, crucially, it represents a permanent one-cent sales tax, since Measure R was set to expire in 2039.
Robb claims his internal polls show M ahead.
"Measure M makes sense to people," Robb says. "People’s daily lives and daily commutes are something that’s very intimate to them."
But Measure M has a small but committed opposition that includes the South Bay Council of Governments and the Gateway Cities Council of Governments. They say Measure M is too Los Angeles-centric, that it places a priority on projects in West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, while the cities on the southern outskirts of the county like Downey and Lakewood got the shaft.
"When you look at the vast project list the MTA has put forth, in terms of time, it's fairly systematic – the projects in the South Bay come towards the end of the list," says Nick DeLuca, spokesman for the Gateway Cities Council of Governments. "In some cases, projects that are new come in ahead of projects that have been in the works for a long time."
For example, Measure R guaranteed funding for the Santa Ana line, a light rail line that would run south from Downtown L.A., all the way down to Artesia. Measure M pushes the completions date for the Santa Ana line all the way back to 2041. Newer projects, like the Sepulveda Line and the Gold Line extension, would get to cut in front.
Damien Goodmon, executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, says Metro is building for richer Angelenos on the Westside and the Valley, not for lower income Angelenos who can't afford cars.
"Let’s be real," Goodmon says. "If you were really trying to increase ridership, you'd be building lines in communities of color. Yet, these are in affluent corridors. The objective isn’t so much to transport people, the objective is to bring in transit stations, and to increase development near transit sites. Metro’s not a transportation agency, it’s a development agency. Let’s not pretend this has anything to do with traffic, because it absolutely doesn’t."
Robb claims that Measure M will reduce traffic by 15 percent by 2057. That's not a 15 percent reduction of today's traffic, but a 15 percent reduction of the theoretical 2057 traffic levels if M doesn't pass. That's according to a study Metro commissioned. But by Metro's own statistics, the agency's total ridership numbers are down.
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"The data is in," says Mitchell Schwartz, a Democratic operative who's running against Garcetti in March. "Ridership has gone down. So what do they do? They double down on a failed policy... I know why politicians like it. It’s a nice shiny object."
He adds: "If we had all the money in the world, then I’d say great. But we don’t. Not when the roads are unpaved, when the streets are cracked, when the pension costs eat away at our budget. It’s a huge, huge mistake."
Robb says these critics are in the minority, and that Measure M is polling well in the Gateway Cities.
"We think that people understand that L.A. County is going to keep growing, and unless we take bold action, traffic will only get worse," Robb says. "The status quo is failing us now."