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Frank Gruber

Move it, L.A.!

By Frank Gruber

When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa dropped by to make some lunchtime remarks at the "It's Time to Move L.A." conference that the new Los Angeles Country Transportation Funding Collaborative (LACTFC) sponsored last Thursday in downtown L.A., he told a campaign story that unfortunately summarized why we're in such a mess when it comes to mobility in the region.

It's all about easy fixes that please motorists but that won't work versus expensive, difficult changes that will.

The mayor recounted that when he was first running for mayor (i.e., when he lost to James Hahn) he tried but failed to get the attention of voters by talking about real solutions like mass transit and changing land use patterns. Only when he imitated the other candidates, and talked up measures that would have at best trivial results -- measures like synchronizing lights, or adding left-turn signals, or limiting construction during rush hours -- did voters pay attention.

Now that he's mayor, Mr. Villaraigosa said that he's been diligently fulfilling his campaign promises. Construction has been curtailed during rush hours. Hundreds of lights have been synched. Hundreds of left-turn arrows have been installed and hundreds more are on their way. (Comment: left turn arrows degrade the environment for pedestrians and make through traffic worse.)

But the mayor said that when he's finished fulfilling these promises, no one stuck in traffic will notice the difference. Traffic will still be bad and getting worse. He expressed the hope, however, that at least when all the simplistic solutions have been tried, people will realize that the only way to improve mobility will be to bring housing closer to jobs, and to provide mass transit and other alternatives to driving.

How to find the money for transit was the focus of the conference.

There were panels at Thursday's conference that considered the possibilities of using federal and state funding, private capital, tolls, parking revenues, a national container fee, carbon taxes, assessment districts, etc., etc., to fund transit. The ultimate question, however, considered in the final panel of the conference and given the most prominence, was whether L.A. Metro should ask the voters to tax themselves, probably by way of a half-percent increase in the sales tax, to fund much of the 60 billion dollars the county will need for both transit and road projects over the next twenty-five years.

Although pollster John Fairbank reported that preliminary polling is not bad, and notwithstanding that the presidential election in November is sure to attract a large turnout favorable to a tax proposal, such a tax will be a dicey proposition unless the legislature and the voters approve a proposal by Assembly Member Mike Feuer to reduce the threshold for passing transportation tax measures to 55 percent from two-thirds.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding that L.A. Metro would include in the measure projects, including road projects, designed to appeal to voters throughout the county, a stumbling block could be the project that would do the most good for us on the Westside -- the $7 billion extension of the Wilshire Boulevard subway.

Wilshire may be the best corridor in the country for routing a subway, but a member of the Metro board from Duarte told the conference that his constituents might balk if they thought subway might soak up all the money. And according to a report on the conference in the L.A. Times, a spokesman for County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the northern part of the county, said that the supervisor would probably oppose a transportation tax for the same reason.

To be honest, I understand the impulse. I have no interest in paying good money to widen the Pearblossom Highway, or whatever road projects they may want up in Santa Clarita.

But one thing we know from history is that projects that motorists like -- even if they're useless, like HOV lanes for two-person "carpools," or synchronizing streetlights and adding left-turn arrows -- will somehow get the money and transit projects, in the absence of extraordinary efforts, won't. For that reason I'd vote yes for a well-decorated Christmas measure if one of the ornaments is the subway.

One point I've been trying to make, though, is that we on the Westside, where there has been extraordinary enthusiasm for the subway extension (just ask the Beverly Hills City Council), need to prepare a back-up plan. If the county as a whole won't fund the transportation improvements we all need, then we on the Westside -- and by Westside I mean everything from Santa Monica to downtown L.A., and from Hollywood to Culver City and the Marina -- need to take our money (we are the richest part of the county) and spend it on the projects that we need, now.

I don't know (i) if the City of L.A. could enact a special sales tax for its part of the Westside, and join with the other Westside cities to do so, (ii) if an assessment district is feasible (Assembly Member Feuer is also proposing legislation that would make it more feasible to form what are called "Infrastructure Financing Districts"), (iii) if there could be a role for private capital, or (iv), if significant money could be raised by way of a Westside employee parking tax, but I would not put all our eggs in the county-wide basket.

If we don't want to be locked in by the great wall of the 405, we have to be willing to pay for a solution.

* * *

Three relevant digressions:

Relevant digression I: I know that all this talk of more funding for transportation must sound crazy when California is facing a $14 billion deficit, but this latest crisis reminds us of the root of our difficulties: Prop. 13. California is a wealthier state than ever, with one of the more productive economies in the world, but its finances careen from boom to bust because they are based on taxes on income, capital gains, and sales taxes.

Because of Prop. 13, a large portion of California's wealth is immune from taxes. Each year a large number of Californians, among them many of the most wealthy who have sat on real estate for decades, and many of the largest and most profitable corporations, get a tax decrease in relative terms, while all the while Republicans block any consideration of tax increases, even if the money would go for purposes they support (like transportation).

Yes, I agree, people with modest incomes might need tax relief, and moderating increases in property assessments can help with the stability of neighborhoods. But Warren Buffet, who has a certain insight when it comes to money, wasn't kidding when he said that California needed to fix Prop. 13.

Relevant digression II: At Thursday's conference there was a lot of talk about marshaling private investment to build transportation projects. This is done a lot in other parts of the world, and even in the U.S. it's becoming more common for road or bridge projects, where there is less resistance for charging meaningful fees for use (i.e., tolls) and operating costs are low compared to transit.

Private capital could be attracted to transit projects, too, but it won't happen if we continue to treat transit as an extension of the welfare system. As I have written before, we need to develop a rational fare system that charges closer to what the market will bear for the first class service everyone says the people deserve. Subsidies for the poor, unemployed, disabled, et al., in the former of discounted monthly passes, need to come from a different pot of money.

Relevant digression III: My Santa Monica pride overflowed at the conference, because so many SaMo residents were involved. Former mayor Denny Zane has been the lead organizer of the Subway to the Sea Coalition and the LACTFC, and Planning Commissioner Terry O'Day has also taken a big part. Council Member Pam O'Connor is the current Chair of the Metro board. Former Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke has been a principal organizer of Friends of Expo, which inspired the formation of the LACTFC. Allen Freeman, of Santa Monica-based JSM Capital, LLC, has also been involved, and JSM is a sponsor of LACTFC.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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