The other day, in a hip-looking building housing the architectural firm VTBS, former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane revved up a small crowd, including two state legislators, developers, and environmental and labor groups, asking them to urge voters to increase the county sales tax next November. The goal: $40 billion for mass transit over the next 30 years.

(Click to enlarge)

Pro-growth: Denny Zane embraces the hotly disputed projections that 3 million more people will
jam L.A.

As supporters of the proposed tax munched on crackers laden with puffs of gourmet cheese, the affable Zane said that Los Angeles must prepare for another 3 million residents, and he is convinced that without dramatic investment in mass transportation, the area is in for “a world of hurt.”

“Chicago is coming to L.A. in the next 30 years,” he said, citing a not exactly universally embraced population projection. “We better be ready for it.”

But voters will be asking much harder questions than those lobbed at Zane a few days ago. The proposed transit projects, included on a wish list being peddled by the MTA, are not guaranteed — and they heavily emphasize rail projects, including the “subway to the sea” and the Expo Line to the Westside. Voters might question the scope when they learn that cities with extensive light-rail systems have been unable to take more than 1 to 2 percent of the cars off the road.

In fact, a recent study by Seattle’s Washington Policy Center, of the six West Coast cities that have invested in light rail since 1995 — L.A., Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Portland and Seattle — found it costs a princely $82,000 to $240,000 for each transit rider they have wooed on to their systems.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is slamming the tax, which would be the third half-cent “transit” charge piled atop the local sales tax, pushing it to 8.75 percent.

In 1980, politicians similarly promised that a half-cent tax would build a modern transit system. In 1991, L.A. leaders again claimed that an additional half-cent was needed. Those dual transit taxes, Proposition C and Proposition A, provide MTA with an annual $1.4 billion windfall, but the agency has delivered only a fraction of what was promised.

Even the darling of mass-transit advocates, the city of Portland — which has embraced “transit-oriented development” and so-called “smart growth” — is in the throes of massive congestion, and local critics say the dense urban-development projects that were supposed to reduce Portland’s traffic have had the opposite effect. A nonscientific 2005 survey of more than 400 Portland residents showed that they wanted tax dollars to be spent on better roads. “Transit” came in a distant fourth in Portland.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seemed to acknowledge that some of the thinking will have to focus on making things easier for cars, when he attempted to create a one-way plan for Olympic and Pico boulevards to move traffic between the disastrous Westside and downtown.

But he failed to do his homework, and without the public’s support, the plan blew up in his face — just like his abruptly abandoned idea to charge a toll on the 210 freeway’s commuter lane.

As first proposed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the one-way plan on Pico and Olympic would have stretched 14 miles, from the beach to downtown. But that plan was dramatically reduced to a seven-mile stretch, and then citizens filed a temporary restraining order. On May 5, Judge John Torribio ruled that an environmental-impact report was required.

Zane and other backers of the transit tax say they have done their homework to garner public support, and a recent poll showed that 73 percent of voters support the higher tax.

At the recent tax-increase launch event, state legislator Mike Feuer made its November passage — it must get 66 percent of the vote — sound like nothing less than a transformational moment. “We’re going to make a generational leap forward,” he said, “or consign the next generation to congestion that is unbelievable.”

But the experiences of several other cities do not bear Feuer out. The new transit systems consistently serve only a nominal percentage of workers, and several are awash in scandal. A June series in the Miami Herald has rattled the transit-advocacy movement, with its in-depth tales of rail lines never built.

Zane says his ace in the hole is the fact that liberal Los Angeles voters turning out for Barack Obama are going to be very pro-tax. But, he agrees, he still has “a lot of convincing to do.”

LA Weekly