Facing the possibility that many of its ongoing light rail projects may be delayed due to a lack of funding amid the burgeoning state budget crisis, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro or MTA) board of directors has agreed to consider a half-cent sales tax measure for the November ballot.
The measure, approved 9-2 on June 26th, would generate approximately $40 billion for light rail projects that are in progress and in the agency’s long term plans if approved in November. Among projects that are currently being built is the Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Line, which will run from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City in its first leg of construction and continue to Santa Monica in its second stage.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed taking away approximately $800 million in gasoline tax revenues in order to close a widening budget deficit that is said to be close to $20 billion. Last year, the State Legislature took over $1 billion from the same revenue source in an effort to help reduce the budget deficit.
Revenue from gasoline taxes traditionally is appropriated to pay for transportation projects, but in the last two years Sacramento legislators have viewed this revenue source as a financial windfall that they can tap to lessen the budget woes.
The sales tax proposal, which would require a two-thirds vote of the electorate for passage, would allow the transit agency to continue to fund light rail lines already under construction and provide funding for capital rail projects and additional rapid buses in its long-range plan.
Forty percent of revenue that would be derived from the sales tax initiative will be appropriated for light rail.
At the Metro board meeting, Santa Monica Mayor Herb Katz, flanked by Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom and city manager Lamont Ewell, spoke in favor of keeping the Expo Line, as it is commonly known, viable through the sales tax proposal.
“We are here to advocate for the Expo Light Rail for Phase Two, and that it remains in Metro’s next priority and next funded portion of Metro’s long-range transportation plan,” Katz told the board. “Expo ridership will have [a] minimal 62,000 people per day, and that’s extraordinary.”
Representatives of other cities and Westside communities that will benefit from the Expo Line — Beverly Hills, Culver City and West Los Angeles — joined Santa Monica lawmakers at the board meeting in supporting the proposal.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Santa Monica, was blunt in his comments supporting the sales tax proposal.
“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 stated. “There are a number of ways that we can grow that pot, and a sales tax is one of them.”
Many of the speakers who back the proposal emphasized the fact that every area of the city has some form of light rail except the Westside.
“Every other part of Los Angeles County and regional community has multiple rails, while the Westside has none,” Katz noted. “[The Expo Line] will provide relief for the growing congestion on the I-10 Freeway.
“We need this… it has to happen.”
Council members and residents of the San Fernando Valley and the Eastside also came to lobby for their own light rail projects.
The Gold Line Eastside extension and Expo are the two transit undertakings that are in progress, and are the two that would be affected the most as they are entering their latter stages of construction.
The budget cuts can also threaten local bus service in many municipalities, where many students, seniors and fiscally challenged residents use the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus for transportation.
David Chun, the president of the Associated Students at Santa Monica College, spoke on behalf of students who use public transportation to get to and from school.
“We’re committed to creating a culture of transit oriented students,” said Chun. “We have proven so by subsidizing the Big Blue Bus by providing free ridership programs for students and faculty alike.”
Stephanie Negriff, director of transit services for the Big Blue Bus emphasized that residents who don’t own a car, the elderly and the disabled will be especially hard hit by any cutbacks in service or possible fare increases.
“People depend on low-cost and effective public transportation every day to go to work and school, to keep medical appointments, to shop for food, and to take care of other everyday needs,” she said. “It will be devastating to a large number of people if we continue losing these funds.”
Students are also included in that equation.
“We face a precarious future with the budget cuts planned, the rising costs of fuel and the high cost of housing,” Chun said. “Grant us the mobility to face the challenge we face in years to come by maintaining Phase Two of the Expo Light Rail as a high priority on the recommended draft plan.”
Not everyone is in favor of the sales tax plan. Bus rider groups around the region denounced the plan as overly burdensome on low-income residents, who make up the majority of the bus-riding population.
Andrew Terranova, who teaches economics at Westchester High School, feels that a sales tax could indirectly work against his students, many of whom travel to school by bus.
While he thanked board members County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks for voting against some bus rate hikes, Terranova chastised the board for raising bus fares earlier this year, and criticized the members for now seeking a measure that would raise the sale tax for primarily rail projects.
“What I’m afraid of now is that you’re coming to us with your hand out, in the form of this half-cent sales tax,” said the Westchester teacher. “What we’re trying to understand is how that is going to be a break with the past of building light rail on the backs of lower income people, like many of my students and their families.”
The high cost of gasoline is another factor that is influencing how Angelenos travel and commute to work and school.
“People all over Los Angeles and other parts of the state are flocking to public transit because of spiraling, out-of-control gas prices,” said Negriff. “People need to have transit options that don’t involve driving a car to help them economically with the rising cost of gas as well as to help our fragile environment.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl joined his Westside colleagues in supporting the proposal. He went even further by advocating a full one-cent tax, which he said would generate $2 billion a year.
“We need to get all of the projects that have been talked about built so that we can have a rail transit system that is interconnected and will reduce the gridlock that is continuing to get worse and worse on the Westside,” said the councilman. “By passing this initiative, all communities who are fighting over crumbs can have a bigger slice of the pie.”
Bus transit advocates remain steadfast in their belief that bus rates must be adjusted before rail projects receive any additional funding.
“Any discussion of a half-cent sales tax must start with a rollback of the 2007 fare increase and a complete scrapping of the proposed sales tax increase in 2009,” Terranova asserted.
The Green Line extension to Los Angeles International Airport is in Metro’s long-range plans, but a plan by Westside state legislators to create a joint powers authority for the extension failed in the State Senate Appropriations Committee in June for the second time. The passage of the sales tax proposal could increase the line’s chances.
“As I have said before, the time to build this light rail line is now,” Rosendahl said. “We have the modernization of LAX that is ongoing, and to have [light rail] plug in to the airport is crucial to the people who commute to the Westside and in taking cars off the streets, which will reduce pollution and gridlock.”
Yaroslavsky feels that if the board’s proposal is not approved, the consequences will be telling.
“The alternate is to consign communities all over the county to have to wait an awfully long time or to settle, not for a light rail, not for a subway, but for a busway,” he predicted.
The board will vote on whether to approve the sales tax measure later this month.