A week after voting against an initiative to raise the county sales tax that would be used to continue ongoing light rail projects and fund other future ventures and highway projects, including an extension to Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe cast the deciding yes vote at the August 12th Board of Supervisors meeting. This will allow the measure to go before the voters in November, provided the State Legislature approves it.

In a stunning about-face, Knabe joined Yvonne Braithwate Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky in backing the half-cent sales tax proposal after steadfastly proclaiming his opposition to the initiative after the board first considered the proposal in June.

The vote was 3-1, with Michael Antonovich voting against the measure and Gloria Molina abstaining, but Molina later changed her vote to a no.

Knabe, whose district includes much of The Argonaut’s readership area south of Santa Monica, reiterated his opposition to the proposed sales tax hike, despite voting for it.

“I remain absolutely opposed to the MTA sales tax measure and I plan to spend my time and effort campaigning against it,” said Knabe last week, two days after he initially voted no on the ballot proposal. “The plan is not equitable for all county residents and this is the wrong time to burden people with even higher taxes.”

But after Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA or Metro) officials said that if the supervisors did not pass the measure, they were prepared to go to court and sue to put the measure on the November ballot in a consolidated election, which would have been quite expensive, Knabe had a change of heart and said, “Although I am against the sales tax plan, I cannot in good conscience burden county residents with over $10 million in higher election costs,” Knabe explained. “The taxpayers will have to pay for these costs, and that is something I will not allow to happen.”

On August 7th, Dean Logan, the county registrar-recorder/ clerk, wrote a letter to the board informing it that previous calculations for a consolidated election underestimated the expenditures that would be necessary to put the sales tax proposal on a separate ballot in the November election.

“Upon further review, it is now clear that the costs of conducting a concurrent election would be considerably higher than the preliminary estimates,” Logan wrote to the supervisors. “Our estimate for the cost to the MTA for a consolidated election was originally $7.2 million in May.

“Costs of conducting a separate and concurrent election on the MTA measure are now estimated to be in the range of $17.5 million.”

Metro officials estimate that the sales tax increase would generate $40 billion in 30 years and pay for several current and planned rail ventures that would benefit the Westside, which is plagued by some of the worst gridlock in the region.

The second portion of the Mid Cities Exposition Light Rail Line, known as the Expo Line, would be funded with the passage of the sales hike plan. The second leg of the line is planned to run from Culver City to Santa Monica, where there would be at least two stops. Santa Monica and MTA officials are considering a third stop for the light rail route, which would have an estimated ridership of 62,000 people.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa initiated a lobbying campaign on August 5th after the supervisors could not get the necessary three votes to pass the sales tax plan. Villaraigosa, a strong proponent of the initiative, criticized the decision not to pass the measure in the initial vote.

“There is simply no legitimate basis for failing to consolidate the November ballot,” said Villaraigosa. “No matter how you cut it, the taxpayers and voters will be the ultimate losers if the board refuses to place the MTA measure on the general election ballot.

“Either the taxpayers will be stuck with costly legal bills resulting from the MTA’s litigation against the county on this matter, or the taxpayers will be on the hook for an additional $3 million required to run a confusing dual-ballot election in November, which would create a logistical nightmare certain to disenfranchise untold thousands of county voters,” the mayor added.

Transportation advocates such as Darrell Clarke, the co-chair of a light rail transit group called Friends 4 Expo, took a large view of what he and others feel is transpiring among the supervisors.

“I think the bigger issue is the fracturing of support for this project among various county supervisors who are complaining that they didn’t get everything that they wanted instead of working together on the sales tax measure,” said Clarke, a former Santa Monica Planning Commission member.

Villaraigosa views the sales tax plan as the best way to keep the ongoing and future light rail and bus ventures on track and to bring mass transportation to the Westside.

“I think we all agree that our long-term transportation needs require significant public investment in mass transit alternatives,” he said. “The MTA sales tax measure is a down payment toward the many transit and highway improvements this county needs to support our economy, our environment, the needs of the transit dependent and an overall high quality of life for the people we represent.”

Bart Reed, a co-chair of the Sylmar-based Transit Coalition, said that while he is grateful that Knabe changed his vote, he was disappointed in Antonovich and Molina.

“I’m thankful that Don Knabe ultimately voted for the sales tax measure, but I’m extremely discouraged that Molina and Antonovich were seeking to potentially waste taxpayer money on a separate election,” said Reed. “The reality of the situation is that the electorate should have the right to vote yes or no.”

Villaraigosa concurs.

“The people of Los Angeles County should have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to invest in their future,” the mayor said. “And the most transparent and cost-effective way to do that is through a consolidated November 4th ballot.”

Knabe seemed to recognize how a separate election could not only be costly for county residents, it could also be very confusing to the electorate.

“This upcoming election is the most important in many years, and voters deserve better than a potential disaster at their polling place,” the supervisor said.

The sales tax measure will require the approval of Sacramento lawmakers. One legislator who has questioned the proposal is State Senator Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach, who says that she is concerned over the wording of the county’s ordinance, which included the Expo Line and a light rail line from Crenshaw Boulevard to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as among the next projects to be built, while the Green Line extension to LAX, which Oropeza strongly backs, is included only in MTA’s long-range plans.

“I am fighting to get the Green Line extension into the statute,” said Oropeza. “Right now the bill does not include the Green Line extension to LAX, and I made it very clear some time ago to the people at MTA that this is a very high priority for not just the South Bay, but the entire county of Los Angeles.”

Oropeza said that passengers traveling to and from the airport would be able utilize a Green Line extension into LAX.

“This can also be used for people who come in from other countries and other states,” Oropeza noted. “Being able to move around and out of LAX is a very critical issue.

“Until that project is in the bill, I have real concerns about it.”

Councilman Bill Rosendahl says that he understands Oropeza’s concerns, but he feels confident that the current proposal will take care of the needs of the Green Line extension, along with the other light rail plans.

“It is impossible at this late date to include the language that Jenny wants in the ordinance,” said Rosendahl, who is a proponent of the LAX extension. “I feel comfortable with the assurance from the MTA that the Green Line is well represented in the ordinance.”

Oropeza was not as confident as Rosendahl.

“It’s pretty clear from the language of the ordinance that they’re claiming that they’re going to fund the [Green Line] airport extension, but they have not put it in the measure. I want the measure to match the ballot language,” the senator said.

Oropeza said that if the Green Line language remains out of the bill, it would not have her support.

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