War Over MTA's "Eternity" Tax
LOS ANGELES COUNTY SUPERVISORS Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich don’t often agree, separated by a natural gulf between a liberal Democratic woman and conservative Republican man. But as representatives of the inland reaches of the county, both are pushing hard for their share of a pot of money so vast that it has set off a bitter Eastside versus Westside war.
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The money that fueled this feud does not even exist yet. Voters would have to approve a new county sales tax on themselves in November to make it happen. But the mere thought of $40 billion — more money than some small nations spend annually — is causing a grab-fest among scores of bureaucrats and elected officials, all of whom have promised their campaign backers, constituents or customers that they’ll reduce congestion — but keep failing to deliver on it.
If the new pot does materialize, it will make the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles the richest transportation agency in an American city outside of New York and give the MTA’s bureaucrats and politically driven board of directors a new mandate to redesign Los Angeles itself, ushering in more rail lines, heavily concentrated new areas of apartment towers and massive long-term construction projects.
Palpable drooling over all that potential money has resulted in a food fight among the adults, involving bitter legislative intrigue in Sacramento, public name-calling among L.A. civic figures and over-the-top hyperbole that could qualify the entire tax-for-transit enterprise as one of those national Boondoggle Awards.
Molina is leading the charge in demanding more transit spending for the aging, working-class Eastside suburbs and so-called Gateway Cities she represents. Her demands are infuriating advocates who want rail lines to move commuters between the more monied downtown and Westside.
Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, who wants priority given to the Expo Line, between downtown and Culver City, and the Crenshaw line — the “line to nowhere” roughly between El Segundo and the Crenshaw District — says scornfully of the scrappy, longtime Eastside pol, “She is ... a shrill, shrieking shrew, who’s very vindictive.”
The truth is, despite the ugly geographic battle, nobody knows which projects would be funded — including voters. The plan is evolving, the fine print is expected to be filled with loopholes, and the MTA is purposefully keeping its cards close to the vest.
But Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, clearly does not trust the MTA board — whose president, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is presiding over one of the biggest city deficits in California history — to handle such remarkable sums of money. “If L.A. County is going to raise funds from every part of L.A.,” Bell says, then taxpayers who pay into it “should make sure that money is being spent” to improve their parts of town.
That’s not what has happened, ever, in the history of the MTA. In practice, huge sums of transit funds are taken from one group and showered on another. When the MTA funneled billions of dollars out of San Fernando Valley taxpayers’ pockets during the 1990s to build its system on the “other side of the hill,” it left the Valley with just two subway stops. The resulting fury helped drive the Valley secession movement.
Critics say the MTA still doesn’t care if one hard-working area of the Los Angeles Basin is squeezed to benefit another. Of the proposed tax, Bell says, “Those regions not in the city of Los Angeles need their voice.” But the problem “goes back to MTA structure, which is very L.A. city-centric” because several of its 13 board members are from Los Angeles and continually vote against the less powerful suburbs.
BREWING JUST BELOW THE SURFACE of this war between widely separated areas of the county is a potentially bigger battle: Will L.A. voters agree to raise the sales tax from 8.25 percent to 8.75 percent, making it the highest in California?
The measure, if it makes the November ballot, needs a 66 percent “yes” from voters. Opponents are asking why taxpayers should pour $40 billion into public transit systems that have broadly failed to woo people out of their cars and made only small inroads lately, even in the face of rising gas costs.
One critic of the tax hike is USC professor of public policy Peter Gordon, who opposed a similar attempt to raise the sales tax in 2004. (It would have given the MTA the power to tax Angelenos an extra half-cent for six and a half years, but it never went before voters. The new effort would allow MTA to tax Angelenos for 30 years.)
Gordon riles transit buffs and Los Angeles elected leaders when he points out that although billions of dollars have been spent on transit in big cities since 1990, aside from New York City, these modern systems usually have no effect on traffic congestion.
“The fact is that about 1.5 percent of traffic is handled by transit systems,” Gordon says. “If you took New York out of that mix, the figure would plummet. We as a nation are currently below the level of ridership — below it — that was using transit during World War II. We are only now catching up to the ridership levels during that war, which [also] were very low.”
He feels “it’s far more accurate to look at this for what it is: a construction-jobs program. Not a congestion-relief program. The $40 billion will not affect congestion. That’s a fact we have been measuring for many years.”
He’s not alone in his view that big-city politicians peddle transit projects in large part to please rich developers and labor unions who pour money into politicians’ political fund-raising chests. Gordon’s views are disputed by almost every elected official in L.A. One eager proponent of the transit tax is former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer, now a state legislator, who agreed to author the law proposing to voters the 30-year sales tax hike.
Feuer’s bill faces stiff hurdles in Sacramento, where it must make it through hearings and amendments this month, and is being pilloried by angry Eastside Democratic legislators who think their areas will get screwed, as well as fed-up fiscally conservative Republicans who say Southern Californians are being taxed to the limit.
Feuer has begun lowering expectations about what the bill will accomplish. Asked about MTA’s consistent history of billion-dollar mistakes, and what might result if such a troubled agency controls another $40 billion, Feuer says, “I choose to look at the future with optimism, because we don’t have a choice.”
He is already warning that many pet projects will not be completed, even with $40 billion. He says the Expo Line and Crenshaw Line will be completed. However, the big political enchilada, the long-fantasized “subway to the sea” from downtown, known as the Purple Line, would stop far short at Westwood because “only” $4 billion would be spent on it.
In fact, none of the claims made by Feuer are entirely true. The language of Feuer’s bill, AB 2321, leaves plenty of vagueness that could tempt the MTA to divert funds into operating expenses, overhead, raises, consultants and other money pits — as has happened in nearly identical efforts in other cities.
The promises being peddled by Feuer, Villaraigosa and others are eerily reminiscent of those made by politicians in Miami in 2002, when voters agreed to a stiff new tax. Six years later, the city has a disaster on its hands, with little rail line built, gross overspending and infighting.
That doesn’t surprise L.A.’s Tom Rubin, who for years was chief financial officer for the Rapid Transit District, which was subsumed by the MTA. Rubin has analyzed MTA’s own data, and according to Rubin, the local sales tax boost here would clearly favor projects with the least effective track record.
He found that the transportation agency spends 18 times more to attract a rail passenger than a bus passenger. Local politicians, driven in part by their own egos, insist on far sexier rail projects over bus projects — indeed, many pols in L.A. and nationally tout rail lines as necessary to create the feel of a “world class” city. But, Rubin says, the money should clearly go to new rapid and express bus routes.
“This is already the most expensive light-rail project in history,” he says. “At some point, even MTA has to ask, ‘What the heck are we doing?’”
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