In an effort to secure the continuation of light rail projects, some of which have the potential to benefit the Westside, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro or MTA) board of directors passed a resolution July 24th to place a half-cent sales tax initiative on the November ballot.

The 9-2 vote was the culmination of a protracted public campaign among members of the board who have advocated for more funding for regional projects, others who lobbied against the proposal for various reasons and those who held the view that the sales tax endeavor would benefit the entire system of light rail and bus lines, now and in the future.

County transportation representatives estimated that approximately $40 billion would be generated by this measure, which will be on the November ballot among other voter initiatives, provided it is approved by the State Legislature.

The Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Line, which will run from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City in the first leg of construction, could continue to Santa Monica in its second stage if the measure passes.

“This is a major win not just for the Westside, but for the entire region,” said Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager for government relations for Santa Monica. “We’re very excited that Phase Two of the Expo Line will remain as Metro’s first priority for light rail.”

Former Metro board chair Pam O’Connor, who is a member of the Santa Monica City Council, voted for the sales tax hike.

Elected representatives of various cities around Los Angeles joined light rail and bus proponents at the July 24th hearing, where the Metro board listened to public comment regarding the sales tax proposal. Residents of the Westside, which has no rail system, implored the board to approve the tax initiative in order to keep the Expo Line as the top rail project in Metro’s pipeline.

“We are here to advocate for the Expo Light Rail for Phase Two, and that it remains Metro’s next priority and next funded portion of Metro’s long-range transportation plan,” Santa Monica Mayor Herb Katz told the board. “Expo ridership will have a minimum of 62,000 people per day, and that’s extraordinary.”

Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes the local area south of Santa Monica, was not present for the vote, due to the fact that his daughter was in labor, according to his office. The supervisor has publicly stated that he opposes a tax hike and he voted against the measure at last month’s board meeting.

Aaron Nevarez, the deputy press secretary for Knabe, said that the supervisor maintains his opposition to the sales tax initiative despite its passage and would have voted against the proposal, had he been able to attend the meeting.

“He still believes that this is not the right time for a sales tax increase for Los Angeles County residents,” Nevarez told The Argonaut.

Metro authorities stated at a June 24th meeting that in order for its current rail and bus projects to continue to move forward and to have the necessary funding for future transit ventures, a raise in the county sales tax would be necessary. Due to the state budget crisis, escalating construction costs and the rising cost of gasoline, funding for transportation has once again been slashed.

Last year, the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took away over $1 billion in gasoline sales taxes, which were earmarked for transportation projects, including light rail, bus and freeway improvements. This year, Sacramento has proposed siphoning an additional $1.4 billion from the same gas tax fund, further eroding the opportunity to secure funding for transit projects outside of federal or local possibilities.

Revenue generated from the sales tax increase initiative would also be used for future rail projects, such as an extension of the Green Line to Los Angeles International Airport, for which Knabe has been a strong advocate.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chair of the Metro board and a proponent of the sales tax plan, views the vote as the beginning of a concerted effort by city and county leaders to create a transit system that will have benefits beyond an alternate means of transportation.

“Today’s vote gets us closer to the opportunity to create a greater Los Angeles, no longer chained to its cars and dependent on foreign oil, and where we are making smarter investments to ease traffic congestion and improve our quality of life,” said Villaraigosa the day after the vote.

Light rail proponents also applauded the decision to increase the sales in order to keep existing light rail projects moving and open the door for future rail ventures.

“I see this as a way that Los Angeles County can save itself from a lack of responsible behavior from Sacramento and Washington politicians,” asserted Ken Alpern, the co-chair of the Transit Coalition, a public transportation advocacy group.

Advocates for increased bus service were hesitant to back the tax proposal, fearing that an emphasis on rail transit would be to the detriment of bus service. 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.

Metro has cut back service on some bus lines and earlier increased fares in an effort to reduce the agency’s expenses. One of those routes is Line 115, which serves Playa del Rey and many Westchester High students.

“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,” Terranova said at the June meeting. “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 board’s vote also approved an amendment to freeze fare increases for students, seniors, Medicare recipients and physically challenged riders for five years, beginning July 1st next year, if the November bond measure passes.

The Big Blue Bus, the Santa Monica municipal bus company, which traverses several communities, including Venice, Mar Vista, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and LAX, would lose approximately $3.5 million under Sacramento’s plan to close the budget gap, which is estimated to exceed $15 billion.

“The state has taken away over $4 billion over the last few years,” said Dan Dawson, customer relations manager of the Big Blue Bus.

Dawson said that due to effective budgeting and planning, Santa Monica’s transportation department will be able to withstand the state grabbing funds that are normally reserved for counties and municipal transit.

However, if this trend continues over the next year or so, Dawson feels that the Big Blue Bus would begin to feel the effects of being deprived of necessary funding.

“There are only so many reserves that are available,” he pointed out. “We also won’t be able to make any improvements or add additional bus routes.”

David Chun, president of the Associated Students at Santa Monica College, spoke at the MTA meeting 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.”

The cuts to transportation come at a time when ridership on both light rail and bus lines has increased, in large part due to the high gas prices, resulting in more people using public transit.

“We definitely feel that this is the wrong time to take money away from public transit,” Dawson said.

Bus ridership in Santa Monica has increased by seven percent this year, according to Big Blue Bus officials.

“An increase of one to two percent is usually very good, so this is really exceptional,” said Dawson.

“That’s very good news,” said Santa Monica city manager assistant Vernez when told of the ridership figures. “[Higher ridership numbers] are very good for the environment as well.”

Alpern believes that — like education, the environment and law enforcement — transportation needs elected officials to advocate on its behalf in order to protect funds from being raided each year to help reduce the state budget deficit. “I also think that labor and the business community have to stand up for transportation,” he said. “I believe that one of the surest ways is to make sure that the money from the gasoline spillover tax and bond monies will not be taken away whenever Sacramento needs an easy piggy bank to crack open.”

In order for the sales tax proposal to pass, it would need two-thirds of all ballots cast.