Plans to augment and continue transit rail lines and transportation projects through funding from an infrastructure bond measure passed last year by the California electorate have been dealt a serious blow by Sacramento lawmakers.
The decision to take away $1.3 billion in gasoline tax revenue upgrades to close the state budget gap that had been earmarked for state and county transportation and freeway is viewed by many Westside officials, transit advocates and Los Angeles transportation authorities as a detriment to the ongoing battle to ease gridlock and congestion and improve environmental health and safety.
The western extension of the Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail Line, or Expo Line, which is under construction in downtown Los Angeles and is scheduled to travel all the way to Santa Monica by 2014, is one light rail venture that will almost certainly be held back, according to authorities with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA or Metro), unless funding is restored.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Third District is scheduled to see portions of the Expo Line within four or five years, called the action by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sacramento legislators a breach of the voters’ trust.
“This is a classic bait-and-switch operation coming out of Sacramento,” Yaroslavsky said. “It’s breaking faith with the people of California.”
“It’s absolutely horrible,” stated Ken Alpern, co-chair of the Friends of the Green Line, a Westside transit advocacy organization. He holds both Democrats and Republicans responsible for the loss of revenue that was designed to supplement long-overdue transportation needs. “The Democrats didn’t push hard enough for mass transit and the Republicans, who say they were focused on balancing the budget, made transportation their chief target for budget cuts,” he believes.
Jason Weiner, executive director of Westside Transportation Partners, worries that the lost gasoline tax money will result in major Westside projects like the Expo Line being held back.
“It puts in danger the extension of the Expo Line,” said Weiner.
“What we’re looking at in Santa Monica is how the $1.3 billion shift will affect the first phase of Expo,” Kate Vernez, assistant to the Santa Monica city manager for governmental relations, told The Argonaut. “We are also focusing on making sure that the first phase of the Expo Line is fully funded.”
One important benchmark that could play a large role in determining how long the Westside light rail will be delayed is a hearing to be held by the California Transportation Commission next month. It will decide whether to release $314 million for the continuation of the Expo Line.
“We think that we will be able to find the funds for the [Expo] project for this fiscal year,” John Barna, executive director of the California Transportation Commission, confirmed in an interview prior to the state Senate’s passage of the budget on August 22nd. Light rail extensions could be jeopardized, he added, if the money is not appropriated in the 2008-09 budget.
“There could be a possibility of projects getting pushed back if that happens,” Barna acknowledged.
“That is why it is important that advocacy needs to remain strong in order to obtain funding for Expo One,” said Vernez.
FREEWAY UPGRADES IN JEOPARDY — Light rail extensions are not the only projects that face uncertainty. Because money from infrastructure bond measure Proposition 1B will be used to backstop current public works projects, funding for freeway upgrades could also face the strong possibility of being delayed, according to representatives from the California Department of Transportation (Cal- trans).
State transit authorities say that seismic upgrades to California’s bridges and infrastructure will not be put off.
Recently, Sen. Barbara Boxer called into question Caltrans director Will Kempton’s earlier assessment that the state’s overpasses were sound and voiced concern over the fact that over 1,500 bridges have been tagged “structurally deficient.”
Another potential landmine for the Expo Line’s progression to Santa Monica will be the 2008-09 budget, as Barna suggested. Transit proponents and local officials are cognizant that Sacramento lawmakers could again raid transportation coffers to balance the budget.
“That’s the hardest part,” Weiner lamented. “This could happen again next year.”
Alpern, who is also co-chair of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Urban Planning/Land Use Committee, is optimistic that Barna’s commission will release the millions of dollars that the Expo project sorely needs.
“I would be shocked if the $314 million were not approved,” Barna said. “I’m very optimistic that we won’t see any significant delays to the Expo Line.”
Vernez is also hopeful that the funds will be authorized.
“I’m optimistic because the project is so compelling,” she said. “We need to advocate to Metro that Expo should be the next [light rail] priority.”
“I’m pretty optimistic that [the extension to Santa Monica] will happen without a long delay,” added Weiner. “To be able to roll right into the second phase would be the most effective option for everyone.”
Transit supporters are not as organized as they should be, Alpern feels, and that is why Sacramento politicians are able to regularly take money away from transportation.
“We don’t have enough advocates in office to get transportation projects built,” Alpern said.
He also took issue with bond money being used to backfill transportation ventures instead of funding rail extensions and other mass transit projects, as they were intended.
“I don’t know which is worse; sending the wrong message to voters who back mass transit or voters who want to know how their tax money is being spent.”
Santa Monica Councilwoman Pam O’Connor, who is the chair of the Metro board, had not returned phone calls for comment at Argonaut press time.