After years of planning and study, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority planned to finally release the spending plan this week for a new $120 billion sales tax. The agency's executives carefully orchestrated the rollout, arranging confidential briefings for board members early in the week before the public release, set for Friday afternoon.

But on Thursday, there was an abrupt change in plans. After briefing the board, they realized they needed more time to fine-tune the proposal. Some board members, clearly, were not happy.

“There's an issue of equity, an issue of fairness,” said Supervisor Don Knabe, who appeared to be the most displeased with the plan. Though he did not get into specifics, Knabe said he was worried that the South Bay and the cities in southeast L.A. County, which he represents, would “get the shaft again.”

The MTA hopes to increase the sales tax by a half-cent for 40 years to raise money for new transit, highway, bike and pedestrian projects. An existing sales tax, known as Measure R, would be extended by 18 years. 

The measure, expected to go on the November ballot, would pay for projects such as a tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, an extension of the Crenshaw Line north to Hollywood, a busway on Vermont Avenue and a rail line along Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

Though the measure would raise three times as much money as Measure R, which narrowly passed in 2008, that still isn't enough to keep everybody happy. A major issue is the scheduling of projects. The tax runs for 40 years, but many officials will be disappointed if their projects are not funded in the first decade.

“The fighting is about sequencing,” said one board source. “It's not whether we get it. It's how soon it happens.”

The MTA executives did not hand out paper copies of their presentation to board members, for fear of leaks. But many details have begun to dribble out anyway.

For Knabe, one of the key issues is highway improvements near the Port of Los Angeles. That project was part of Measure R, but Knabe indicated that it has lost priority in the new proposal.

“We gotta keep our Measure R promises,” said the supervisor, who is termed out of office this year. “If somehow there's leapfrogging built into this tax measure — that can't happen.”

Knabe also is pushing for the Eco-Rapid Line, which would run from downtown L.A. through several southeast cities to Artesia. The project is currently slated for completion in 2027, though there is inadequate funding for it. The draft proposal, according to a board source, does not speed up the completion of the project.

“Everyone wants their project in there, and they’re looking at the other guy's plate and making sure he’s not taking too much,” said Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian, who serves on the MTA board. “There’s gonna be a lot of sharp elbows at the table trying to get their projects in.”

In a statement, Inglewood Mayor James Butts said he had pushed for an increase in the “local return” funds in the measure — the money given to cities for small-scale traffic and roadway improvements. 

“It is vital to develop comprehensive support” for the measure, Butts said.

Many transit planners, however, see local return money as taking away from bigger projects with regional effects.

Some board sources downplayed the delay in releasing the plan, saying that it required only minor “tweaks.” But others seemed to think that a lot of big decisions were still in play.

“I think things are moving around a bit,” said Duarte Councilman John Fasana, an MTA board member.

The MTA staff solicited input from cities and organizations around the county last fall. Those organizations came up with up to $273 billion worth of projects. Since then, staffers have been paring the list based on ridership projections and other factors. Now politics are coming into play, as the board members argue for projects based on what they think their constituents will support.

“It's not necessarily about putting in the most cost-effective projects,” says Ethan Elkind, author of Railtown, a history of L.A.'s transit infrastructure. “You end up having to distribute the goodies around the county as best you can.”

LA Weekly