Metro Transit Wants to Go Big — With $120 Billion of Your Money

Metro Transit Wants to Go Big — With $120 Billion of Your Money
File photo by Andrew Hart/Flickr

A blueprint for the next Los Angeles is nearly here.

City Hall's Mobility Plan imagines L.A. as a bike lane–crazed, transit-friendly place, more like Manhattan than the picket fence–lined Los Angeles of the last century. The Build Better L.A. initiative, headed for the November ballot, seeks to make it easier to develop dense housing projects, the kind that would be erected near bus and light-rail hubs.

And now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) board wants you to vote for higher sales taxes, which will hit 10 percent in many parts of the county if you say yes. The Los Angeles Traffic Improvement Plan, endorsed for a journey to the ballot based on an 11-to-2 vote by the board, would help fill in this vast county's sparse web of light rail and rapid transit lines.

"I think what is before us is a statement of progress," Metro board member and county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said.

The overlapping county Board of Supervisors would need to vote to place the measure on the ballot. That's expected to take place in August. Since a majority of the supes already approved Metro's move, that's a shoo-in for now. Two-thirds of the county's voters would need to say yes for the cash to start flowing.

"This bold transportation plan will relieve our congested roads, connecting our region with the robust, comprehensive transportation system we need and deserve," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The plan will cost slightly more than $120 billion. It would make Measure R's half-cent sales tax permanent and add another never-ending half-cent tax on top of that, meaning we would be paying 9.5 to 10 percent on our retail purchases in Los Angeles County. Today you pay 9 to 9.5 percent, depending on the community. Those pennies will bring in more than $800 million a year, officials said.

Sales taxes are generally regressive in that the less money you have, the harder they hit you. This is unlike income tax, which tends to be more progressive because the rate increases the more you make, at least in theory.

Not everyone is happy with the plan, of course.

The same day Metro was hailing the proposal as an everlasting revenue stream that would buoy public transportation for generations, state Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia was throwing shade because a planned West Santa Ana Transit Corridor light-rail line from Artesia to Union Station downtown isn't being built fast enough.

Metro board member and county Supervisor Don Knabe, who voted against placing the tax-driven plan on the ballot, suggested that the smaller, often working-class communities of southeast L.A. County were getting the short end of the stick here.

Mendoza, seconding that emotion, introduced state legislation that would expand the powerful Metro board  from 14 to 24 members "to ensure it more fairly and equitably represents all of Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents," he said.

Metro CEO Phil Washington said the Artesia-to-downtown line's environmental review would be expedited and that it could break ground sooner than expected, by 2022, with completion possible in 2037.

Many of those cities, like all county municipalities, would get a 17 to 20 percent kickback from the sales tax increase. That cash is supposed to be used for transportation spending such as road repair and improvements.

In the meantime, organized bus riders have long bemoaned Metro's focus on subways and light rail, aimed at getting higher-income Angelenos off the freeways and boulevards, when a vast majority of the system's riders use sometimes overcrowded buses. And it's not entirely clear if these multibillion-dollar train lines are pulling those drivers out of their cars.

Yet the Los Angeles Traffic Improvement Plan would put L.A. full speed ahead when it comes to building out the light-rail map.

The tax windfall would help Metro wrap up the Purple Line to Westwood, once dreamed of as the "subway to the sea," by 2026, a decade or so sooner than first envisioned. A new station for Metro bus and rail riders headed to LAX via a people mover also would get the acceleration treatment if voters give the thumbs up.

Metro described the other major elements of the plan ("accelerated" projects as well as new ones) as ...

 ... the Gold Line to Claremont, the Green Line to Torrance, a new light-rail line between Artesia and the Green Line and a potential light-rail line or bus rapid transit project on Van Nuys Boulevard between the Orange Line and the Sylmar/San Fernando Metrolink Station.

The ballot measure would also include a dedicated pot of funds for pedestrian and biking projects, along with a dedicated funding stream for State of Good Repair projects to keep existing and future transit in good working order. The ballot measure also promises to keep fares affordable for those who most depend on transit, including seniors, students, the disabled and low-income riders.

You can read detailed lists of projects that would be funded under the tax increase here.

Environmental group Climate Resolve and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor endorsed the plan.

"For too long Los Angeles has topped lists as the nation's leader in air pollution and traffic," said Michael Swords, president of Climate Resolve's board. "By funding innovative projects, we can transform transportation in Los Angeles and reduce greenhouse gases in the process."

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