The Suburbs Are Fighting Back Against the MTA's New Transit Plan

The Santa Fe Yard, near MTA headquarters in downtown L.A.
The Santa Fe Yard, near MTA headquarters in downtown L.A.
Photo by Ryan Orange

It was inevitable that not everybody was going to be satisfied with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's new sales tax plan. But as they dig into the details of the proposal, which was released on Friday, more and more representatives from the suburban areas of L.A. County are crying foul.

The centerpiece of the $120 billion plan is a rail tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, connecting the San Fernando Valley to the Westside by 2033. The plan also includes funding to complete the Wilshire subway and construct an LAX rail terminal by 2024. Though the MTA staff has tried to provide something for every region of the county, many in the outlying areas see the proposal as heavily tilted toward the city of L.A., which has four seats on the MTA board.

"The staff is playing to that board," says Mayor James Ledford of Palmdale, who chairs the North County Transportation Coalition. "They know how it's weighted, and they know that when push comes to shove the city of L.A. is gonna prevail."

Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents the South Bay and the Gateway cities in the southeast part of the county, was the first to raise serious objections to the proposal.

"There are 88 cities in Los Angeles County, not just one," Knabe said in a statement. "Taxpayers across the county will be asked to pay an additional half-cent sales tax, and in return, they should all see benefits."

Knabe is pushing for improvements to the 710 freeway, a twisty and treacherous span running north out of the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach. One proposal would create a separated lane for truck traffic, making the freeway safer for cars. Under the MTA schedule, that project would not be complete until 2041. A plan to widen the 5 freeway between the 710 and the 605 would not be done until 2047. And a plan to build a 20-mile light-rail line from Artesia to downtown would be split into two segments, with the second not being built until 2047.

"The Gateway cities do not have a whole lot to celebrate," said Karen Heit, transportation deputy for the Gateway Cities Council of Governments. "We've gotta either wait or be upset, and we've chosen to be upset."

The tax must win support from two-thirds of the county electorate in November. From the point of view of transit design, it makes some sense to concentrate big rail projects in the center of the county, where the population is denser, there are more jobs and ridership is likely to be higher. From a political perspective, it makes sense to spread the money around so everybody has a reason to vote yes.

In three previous transportation measures, that has been done through "local return" — a set-aside for cities to do small-scale projects, such as fixing streets and intersections. In the first ballot measure, in 1980, the "local return" was 25 percent of the total revenue. In the second, that figure dropped to 20 percent, and in Measure R it dropped again to 15 percent. Cities have been clamoring to raise the figure for the new measure, but the MTA staff proposed raising it only to 16 percent.

"The system is certainly stacked against (small) cities," said Ledford, the mayor of Palmdale. "Road maintenance is a real issue for cities, and I don't see any help for that." Meanwhile, he said, "The downtown interests are certainly being taken care of."

Local return is also a big concern in the South Bay. The South Bay cities are interested in improving the 405 freeway as it curves from LAX down to Long Beach, but that project is not scheduled for completion until 2047.

Meanwhile, the suburban cities have watched as Measure R projects in the city of L.A. — such as the Wilshire subway — have been accelerated. New L.A. projects have also been added to the mix, like a bus rapid transit line down Vermont Avenue and a plan to spend $425 million completing the L.A. River bike path. 

The MTA hoped to avoid backlash from the outer regions of the county by soliciting lists of projects last year, in what it called a "bottom-up" process. The MTA staff then analyzed the projects and prioritized them based on ridership and other performance factors. The low priority given to many of the suburban projects seems to have erased much of the good will generated by the initial outreach.

The objections are not limited to the suburbs. In West Hollywood, officials were disappointed to see the low priority given to the northern extension of the Crenshaw Line, which could cut through West Hollywood while connecting the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay. The project is one of the last in line, with a proposed completion date of 2055.

"We need love and attention, too," West Hollywood Councilman John Duran said. "If they want ridership, they should put the lines where population is heavily concentrated and dense. ... We are more likely to be the ridership than people out in Arcadia."

Indeed, just about the only region not complaining about the plan is the San Gabriel Valley. The proposal calls for extending the Gold Line, which just opened from Pasadena to Azusa, all the way out to Claremont. The project has a high priority, with a completion date of 2025, even though it is expected to have modest ridership.

The MTA staff made it explicit that the Claremont line was the lone exception to the performance-based prioritization scheme. That decision was the result of effective politics. The San Gabriel Valley spent years organizing and lobbying the MTA board, and the board voted in 2009 to make the project a top priority.

The MTA board is expected to hear public comment on the plan for the first time on Thursday, and many groups are organizing to make their objections known.

"I think it’s gonna be a circus," Heit said, "with all lions and no Christians."

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