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Metro Sales-Tax Shell Game

THE STATED MISSION of the L.A. Bus Riders Union is to promote the “needs of low-income people” and make sure that oppressed people “be given priority since they suffer systematic racial and national oppression in our society.”

It’s not every day that the lefty bus advocates find themselves on the same side of the political fence as leaders of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association — where a political unknown named Howard Jarvis first shopped his California tax revolt.

But that’s exactly what has happened.

With emerging numbers now showing that the Westside will get far more transit investment per capita, heavily subsidized by pissed-off taxpayers in the San Fernando Valley, and with the Bus Riders Union furious over the heavy emphasis on rail at the expense of bus lines, a proposed half-cent local sales-tax hike is creating really strange new bedfellows — united by their suspicion of Metro.

If the sales tax is approved this month for placement on the November ballot by the state Legislature and Arnold Schwarzenegger — and that question is up in the air as chaos unfolds over the budget in Sacramento — and if voters approve it this fall, the new sales tax would raise $40 billion over 30 years.

Most of the grandest projects would serve the Westside and South Los Angeles: $1 billion to build the Expo light-rail line from downtown to Santa Monica; $235 million for the vaguely defined Crenshaw Transit Corridor; nearly $1 billion to partially build a Subway to the Sea.

But, in fact, all dollar figures are strictly preliminary. If Metro’s history is any guide, costs will skyrocket almost from the moment the money flows, and Metro will eliminate many improvements that its leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, are now promising to voters.

“There’s a specific mention of how much money is going to go toward the Subway to the Sea and how much is going to go toward an LAX extension” of the Green Line, says Manuel Criollo of the Bus Riders Union. “There’s no concrete numbers [for buses]. We don’t know how many buses they’re going to buy. The reason they wrote it in such a vague manner is so that they can change it.”

The Valley’s history of getting shortchanged is also coloring its leaders’ suspicions — again. Until this spring, Ron Kaye was editor of the Valley-based Daily News, who often focused his editorials on a downtown-centric City Hall that chronically drains the outlying areas to spend the money elsewhere.

The last time Valley residents backed a similar sales-tax increase, in fact, City Hall politicians promised sweeping transit fixes for the Valley. Instead, Kaye says, “At the Daily News, there was a tabulation that the Valley had paid $2 billion to $3 billion [toward local transit projects] and had gotten a $300 million busway” for its troubles. That busway, the Orange Line, is already groaning at full capacity.

This time around, the Metro has made it virtually impossible to calculate whether the Valley’s money will again be diverted elsewhere. The regional transit authority tracks total spending by seven big areas, lumping all of Los Angeles — including the Valley — into “City of Los Angeles.”

Many Valley community leaders suspect that it’s déjà vu all over again. “They promise the Valley great transit lines, and then they build them in other areas,” says Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and a former leader of the Valley secession movement. “Unless you have a Valley government, we get nothing. We get crumbs. This is just another indication of it.”

No, it’s not, says Richard Katz. The Villaraigosa appointee on the Metro board and a former state legislator, Katz points to expensive proposed projects that benefit the Valley and disgruntled peripheries: $100 million for Rapidways in the Valley; $735 million to extend the Gold Line to Claremont; and millions for an extremely unformed plan to "improve" the 405 in the Sepulveda Pass.

“The voters understand that if you live in Palmdale and you fix the 405, it will benefit you,” Katz says. “I think people get the need for a regional system.”

According to Metro (formerly MTA), 73 percent of November voters favor the tax after being fed selective information. But the poll was taken while gas prices were rapidly spiking, which is no longer the case.

The tax measure’s language offers voters vague pleasantries. It’s called “Traffic Relief. Rail Extensions. Reduce Foreign Oil Dependence.” It promises to “repair potholes,” “synchronize traffic signals” and keep fares low for students, the elderly and the disabled.

“Ironically, this is more honest than measures in the past,” Close says. “It doesn’t even promise us that much. But honesty will ultimately lead to a strong ‘no’ vote.”


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