Breaking with his fellow members of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro or MTA) board of directors, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe is opposing a plan that would generate $40 billion in revenues to fund current capital rail and bus projects that could be threatened by the state budget crisis.

The Metro board voted 9-2 to consider placing a half-cent sales tax proposal on the November ballot at last month’s hearing to offset state officials taking away more than $800 million from gasoline sales tax coffers, money that is normally used for funding transit-oriented projects, including freeway improvements, light rail construction and bus operations.

The board will have a final vote on whether to push the sales tax increase initiative forward at its monthly meeting Thursday, July 24th.

“Now is not the time to burden the residents of Los Angeles County with yet another tax increase,” said Knabe, who represents the Fourth District, which includes the Argonaut distribution area south of Santa Monica. “Taxpayers in our county already pay the second-highest tax rate in California, behind only Alameda County.

“Metro’s proposed increase would unfairly push our local tax rate even higher.”

Metro authorities estimate that the half-cent proposal would cost taxpayers $25 a year to pay for capital rail projects and new bus lines.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Santa Monica, supports the plan to raise the sales tax as a last resort.

“If we are going to accelerate or even meet our goals for the projects that are on the books that we have not been able to fund, then we are going to have to grow the financial pot,” Yaroslavsky told his colleagues at last month’s board meeting. “There are a number of ways that we can grow that pot, and a sales tax is one of them.”

The sales tax increase proposal is designed to provide the county an alternate revenue stream that would pay for continuing ongoing projects like the Mid-Cities Light Rail Exposition Line, which is slated to run from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City in its first leg and continue on to Santa Monica in its second phase. To date, construction costs of the light rail project stand at approximately $850 million.

One of Knabe’s contentions was that in prior years, state officials have taken away money that had been previously earmarked for transit projects, including light rail and freeway improvements funding.

Last year, the Legislature grabbed $1.3 billion in gasoline tax revenues to close the state deficit, forcing municipal and county officials to use funds from Proposition 1B to maintain ongoing projects. This year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing an even larger budget deficit, has proposed taking approximately $800 million from the gasoline tax fund, which some call the “spillover tax.”

State Senator Jenny Oropeza, whose district includes part of the Argonaut readership area, does not support a replay of last year, when spillover funds were taken back by state lawmakers.

“Senator Oropeza believes that voters should have the right to vote on any ballot initiative regarding public transportation,” said Ray Sotero, Oropeza’s communications director. “She is always opposed to raiding gasoline tax funds in order to balance the general fund.”

Ken Alpern, the president of the Transit Coalition, feels that past practices by transit authorities and lawmakers have led to the current situation where residents are being asked to help subsidize mass transportation.

In a letter to Metro board chair Pam O’Connor, who is a Santa Monica city councilwoman, Alpern stated his belief concerning the reasons many important rail initiatives have not been built in Southern California.

“A decades-long lack of foresight in transportation planning, worsened by a lack of balance between transportation and other local, state and federal budgetary priorities, and a political override of prioritizing a series of ‘pet projects’ in that these projects (all worthy and decades overdue) are not being built in an order that is best for county taxpayers and commuters, over the establishment of a prudent rail transit network to benefit the entire county,” wrote Alpern, a Mar Vista plastic surgeon.

While he is an avid supporter of an extension of the Green Line to Los Angeles International Airport, Alpern also backs continued funding of the Expo Line to Santa Monica.

“I strongly urge the Metro board of directors to adhere to a full Exposition Light Rail Line as its top priority in the constrained portion of the Long Range Transportation, and to similarly adhere to a Strategic Plan that encourages all segments of the county of Los Angeles to increase the necessary funding of all the projects required to create a countywide rail network,” Alpern wrote.

Knabe, who says he also supports the Green Line extension to LAX and mass transportation in general, said that he was uncomfortable with implementing a sales tax in order to fund light rail projects.

“We need to make long-range investments in expanding mass transit options and improving our existing transportation infrastructure across every part of our county, but now is not the time to do it on the backs of taxpayers,” the Fourth District supervisor asserted at last month’s board meeting. “We have too many people in Los Angeles County struggling to make ends meet right now.

“This tax increase, at this time, is an unnecessary burden on residents.”

Several communities are lobbying the Metro board for funding for their own local capital projects. Representatives from east Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley attended the board meeting to press their respective cases for additional funding.

“Neither the Crenshaw Corridor advocates, nor the Foothill Gold Line advocates, nor the Wilshire Subway advocates, should ‘get their way’ at the expense of other worthy projects and their advocates elsewhere in the county until a funding mechanism is achieved to best satisfy all parties,” Alpern recommended.

The Expo Line and the Gold Line are the first light rail initiatives that are in Metro’s long-range plan, and are ongoing projects, unlike most of the other light rail proposals.

Alpern feels that in order to get voters county-wide to back Metro’s ballot initiative, all communities that are seeking light rail extensions or new capital projects must benefit.

“If we want the whole county to vote favorably on this sales tax initiative, then each portion of the county should get something in return, even if it means that each individual region won’t get as much as it would otherwise like to have,” he said.

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