Roman emperors built coliseums, American mayors lay track. “Opening a rail or subway station is an exciting thing,” says Adrian Moore, a transit expert who sits on a congressional transportation commission. “Cutting that ribbon makes the front page of the paper. You buy a few new buses? Well, nobody notices.”
Proposition R, the half-cent sales tax that would generate some $40 billion over 30 years, may face a tough time with voters, in part because it pours money into what critics call “monuments” like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Subway to the Sea while siphoning taxes from 6 million suburban residents who will see far fewer pricey projects.
The measure, which needs a 66 percent vote, was written when the economy wasn’t in free fall. Last spring, its proponents believed they could capitalize on a swell of young Barack Obama voters who support higher taxes and want commuters to give up their cars.
Big numbers of young voters are still expected on November 4, but the economy is now a different story: Prop. R would give L.A. County the highest sales tax in California, tied with much more upscale Alameda County.
Analysts say Prop. R’s authors, including Denny Zane, a former mayor of Santa Monica, may have made a classic urban dweller’s error in assuming outlying areas would agree to more taxes, a disproportionate share of which will finance projects in L.A., when places like Temple City, Rosemead, Monterey Park, Van Nuys and Northridge are mired in as much standing traffic as Brentwood.
Democratic County Supervisor Gloria Molina has angrily taken up the cause of inland residents she represents, as have Republican supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich. A nasty spat has erupted between Molina and Democratic Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents much of urban L.A. A few days ago, he publicly called her “selfish.”
“This plan is the mayor’s and the mayor’s operatives,” snipes David Sommers, press deputy to Supervisor Knabe. “It will benefit the city of L.A. [Knabe] is happy to remind the mayor that the majority of the county doesn’t live in L.A.”
Prop. R’s $40 billion would turn Metro’s board, heavily dominated by urban L.A. politicians, into one of the most powerful elected bodies in California. And that rankles gadfly John Walsh, who spent the 1990s loudly and effectively slamming Metro’s mishandling of billions of dollars, as it built the existing subway system.
Metro, then called MTA, blew through the money so fast that the envisioned extensive subway was never completed. Walsh says of Prop. R, “We are talking about a subway from Hell to the sea.”
Such criticism has erupted, in part because subways cost orders of magnitude more than bus lines or light rail. Moreover, light rail costs twice as much as top-drawer bus lines. Yet Prop. R’s “wish list” of projects is dominated by light rail and subway projects, infuriating the Bus Riders Union, a coalition of activists.
According to data from Jody Litvak of Metro (see chart below), the Subway to the Sea, which under Prop. R would actually reach only to Westwood, would cost $475 million per mile to serve a hoped-for 68,000 riders — if it ever reaches the sea. Yet the popular Orange Line serves 28,000 San Fernando Valley bus riders — at a cost of $23.6 million per mile, one-twentieth the cost of the subway.
In the ’burbs, “the personal sentiment is that this part of the county gets consistently forgotten,” says George Hunter, a city councilman in chronically gridlocked Pomona.
Vice chair of the Gold Line Construction Committee, Hunter says the “wish list” of suburban projects described in Prop. R’s fine print will never be built. He says the L.A. leaders who devised the list “put the [Gold Line’s inland extension] so far out there [in time] that it’ll die on the vine.” (Its purported start date is the year 2022.)
In fact, Metro is not legally forced to complete projects mentioned in Prop. R’s fine print. Just as occurred in Miami’s ongoing transit-tax fiasco, Prop. R says that money for promised projects can instead be diverted to pay mounting costs if the earliest light rail and subway plans prove too ambitious and costly.
While conceding there are drawbacks, proponents, such as Metro board member Richard Katz, say Prop. R can’t wait for the next election, when a full-blown recession could make higher taxes impossible. “If this doesn’t get funded now, we will be in a world of hurt for a while,” Katz says.
What It Cost So Far
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Orange Line (bus): 14 miles for $330 million
Gold Line (rail): 13.7 miles for $859 million
Red Line (subway): 17.4 miles for. $4.5 billion