Measure J Transit Tax -- Too Soon?
When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa leaves office in July, his legacy will be spotty, at best, marked by unfulfilled promises, political failures such as the attempted takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a freebie-ticket scandal and excessive absenteeism from L.A. — not to mention the little matter of an affair with a TV reporter and a messy divorce.
But even a broken clock is right twice a day, and there's one area in which Villaraigosa is lauded — getting funding for public transit in Los Angeles.
Big, Los Angeles–centric transit projects have been launched under the outgoing mayor, who sits on the powerful regional Metro transportation board and appoints three of its members. Forty billion dollars in tax revenue is flowing gradually to Metro, thanks to Measure R, a 2008 sales-tax hike approved by Los Angeles County voters.
"Measure R is going to turn out to be one of the mayor's principal legacies," says Raphael Sonenshein of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs.
The tax, voted in with a bare supermajority, raised the L.A. County sales tax by one-half percent to 8.75 percent for 30 years.
Most of the billions being generated have been earmarked for 12 public transit projects. But Metro's and Villaraigosa's emphasis on complex and pricey rail and subway lines means taxpayers won't see some of them up and running until 2030 and well beyond.
In a bid to cut the nearly three-decade wait to 10 years, Villaraigosa repeatedly traveled to Washington, D.C. He wanted Congress to give Los Angeles up-front, low-interest federal loans, using as collateral the future $40 billion collected from taxpayers across L.A. County.
Not many people realize just how new an idea this was — D.C. usually gives cities grants or loans for a single bridge or tunnel. Villaraigosa was essentially asking for a line of credit. Sonenshein calls it a "remarkable innovation in intergovernmental relations."
Despite mostly glowing press coverage of his Washington trips by the Los Angeles Times and others, however, Villaraigosa never did get the billions in up-front loans he sought in 2010 and 2011 for his so-called 30/10 program, aimed at building rail and subway projects in 10 instead of 30 years.
In 2011, he abandoned 30/10, embracing a plan called America Fast Forward, which was aimed at putting construction workers on the job in L.A. and other cities via huge transit projects — and again, it required billions in federal loans. Fast Forward fell far short. The Crenshaw Line did get a $546 million loan, and Congress is thinking of borrowing $3.3 billion for other Metro projects — a fraction what Villaraigosa wanted in order to complete L.A.'s big rail projects in a decade.
So Villaraigosa and transit promoters are dramatically shifting gears. They want Los Angeles County voters, not the feds, to provide the leverage to borrow billions of dollars up-front, by extending the 2008 sales tax hike from 30 to 60 years.
Villaraigosa's team argues that this virtually permanent tax — most current voters will be dead by 2068 — will let Metro nail down low-interest loans, with terms locked in for up to 35 years.
One key backer of Measure J, Denny Zane, executive director of Move L.A., says, "We need jobs now, traffic relief now, and we can take advantage of historically low interest rates."
But their scheme has attracted critics with a wide range of concerns.
Some find it suspicious that public officials would ask for an extension 26 years before the tax expires. "Wouldn't it be a good idea to make sure that Metro spends the $40 billion we've already authorized, before we go out and give them another check?" asks budget advocate Jack Humphreville.
"Can you trust these guys with that much money?" asks Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. "Hell, no!"
Goodmon favors transit spending but hates the way Metro has gone about it. He's pissed off about the gobs of money being lavished on the Purple Line Westside Extension, which will run under Wilshire Boulevard.
The $6.3 billion to $9 billion Westside Extension will suck up a hefty chunk of the sales tax collected from consumers countywide, yet it falls miles short of the "subway to the sea" once promised, and it won't be completed until 2035.
Meanwhile, the planned Crenshaw Line in South L.A., serving mostly black and Latino riders, will be built on the cheap, at ground level. Goodmon has pleaded with Metro to address safety concerns at points where the line will intersect with streets.
Other black leaders were outraged when Metro's board chose not to build a Crenshaw Line transit stop at Leimert Park, which, in the eyes of many, is the business and shopping heart of black Los Angeles.
Goodmon says the Metro board's unfairly tilted votes on where to spend Measure R taxes amount to "basic economics: We're getting jacked."
He's part of a ragtag coalition, including the Bus Riders Union, the Beverly Hills School District and the No 710 Action Committee, which opposes Measure J. The Bus Riders Union says light rail and subways are being lavished with funds while bus service — used by four times as many people in the region served by Metro — is being cut.
Zane argues that the bus cuts have more to do with the recession, and that Measure R and J include subsidies for bus operations.
But the Bus Riders Union says the MTA took the Measure R money, touted its support for buses, then pulled a bait and switch, chopping out 1 million hours of bus service that hit the poor and working class hard.
Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills Unified School District opposes the Purple Line Westside Extension because the Metro board dropped its tentative route and adopted an alternate route that runs directly under Beverly Hills High School, interfering with the school's expansion plans.
"This is the m.o. of the MTA," says Brian Goldberg, president of Beverly Hills Unified, "to run roughshod over people and to benefit wealthy development firms."
Many pouring big bucks into Measure J are developers who stand to profit from the Purple Line Westside Extension because it could feed people into their skyscrapers and malls. Global mall giant Westfield has donated $100,000 to the campaign. Other major funding came from Eli Broad and the Anschutz Entertainment Group.
"Those that are interested in investing in traffic relief should absolutely be participants in this campaign," says Matt Szabo, a policy adviser to Villaraigosa during his many trips to Washington, who is now running for the open City Council District 13 seat.
But County Supervisor Michael Antonovich questions the very premise of the proposed tax. Measure J money is to be divvied up according to the same Westside-centric formula as Measure R, Antonovich says, leaving many of this vast county's 9.9 million residents with public transit scraps.
Los Angeles, for example, gets about 35 percent of Measure R funds from the Metro board, but northern L.A. County, which includes the dense and fast-growing San Gabriel Valley, gets only about 5 percent.
"When you lock in sales taxes too long, you can't address needs that change on you," says Antonovich transportation deputy Michael Cano. "This would be a 60-year commitment to formulas and categories — created in 2008."
For Cano, "Measure J is really all about the subway" to L.A.'s Westside. "It's, 'How do you get the subway built as fast as possible and call it a 'regional' package?' "
The Westside subway has suffered major PR problems since voters approved Measure R. Metro's 2010 Environmental Impact Report revealed that officials had mislead the public by selling the subway as "congestion relief." In fact, it won't relieve congestion one iota, creating a less than 1 percent drop in cars on jammed nearby arterials and freeways. Its daily ridership of 46,000 is expected to be heavily comprised of bus-system refugees.
Zane says it's unfair to look at the subway in isolation: It's really a multilayered system combined with land-use policies that favor more density along the rail lines, plus the effects of rising gas prices, that will force people to use public transit.
When those things align, Zane says, L.A. residents will have an incentive to stop driving.
The idea behind "smart growth" championed by Zane and Villaraigosa is that if you allow dense zoning in the areas through which rail lines run, L.A. will grow in a way that's environmentally sustainable.
"It's a lie," says USC professor James Moore, "the idea that once you build out the rail system, it will reconfigure the land-use system."
Because jobs in Los Angeles are so spread out — only 2 percent of the workforce is based downtown, for instance — the city is uniquely inhospitable to subways and light rail, which aren't as flexible as a car or bus.
"At least you can reconfigure bus routes," Moore says.
Views such as Moore's have Metro worried. A two-thirds Yes vote is needed on Nov. 6 to extend the tax to 2068. Metro spokesman Marc Littman calls many of Moore's claims "horseshit," and says an effective system will include everything.
"This is an integrated transit system," Littman says. "You can't just say, 'bus vs. rail.' "
A poll by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates showed that 68 percent of voters would vote for Measure J.
Moore can't help but marvel at the fact that more people support public transportation than actually use it. "I'm guessing they think that rail will free up the freeway for them — because their neighbor will use it."3
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