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Metro Needs 2 More Years to Perfect its Plan – Vote No on Measure M

GUEST COMMENTARY--Metro’s Measure M on the November ballot adds LA County’s fourth half-cent transportation sales tax increase since 1980, and gives Metro two full cents in “forever” sales taxes. But, is Metro’s Plan as advanced in Measure M really perfect enough to cast in concrete for perpetuity? The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association has studied Metro’s transportation plan for more than two years and wanted to support it. Unfortunately, we believe the plan is flawed by five inherent weaknesses and we must recommend a NO vote. Let’s give Metro a couple of years to perfect their plan for the 2018 ballot. 

We agree that Los Angeles County desperately needs better transportation solutions – to move people more effectively on streets, freeways and in public transportation. 

Taxpayers have been contributing to Metro’s coffers since 1980 when they approved Measure A, Metro’s first half-cent forever sales tax. They again ponied up in 1990 with Measure C, Metro’s second half-cent forever sales tax. In 2008, they passed Measure R, Metro’s third half-cent sales tax, which was not forever but expires in 2037. As a result, we are currently paying a 1-1/2 cent sales tax to Metro, which brought them about $2.3 billion in FY2014. 

And now, we are being asked to pass Measure M, adding a fourth half-cent forever sales tax. It also removes the expiration date from Measure R to make it a forever tax as well. So, if taxpayers pass Measure M, we will all be paying a two-cent transportation sales tax in perpetuity. For example, LA City’s sales tax will rise to 9 1/2 percent – and stay at least that high forever! Is Metro’s plan really perfected enough to warrant this? 

We give Metro credit for working hard on the plan -- with the County, its 83 cities and its unincorporated areas, looking at hundreds of projects across nine subregions. Using a bottom-up selection process, Metro used local input to focus on the 39 major highway and transit projects listed in their August 2016 Measure M Flyer – “Facts About The Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan.” 

The key questions are whether these projects are good enough to truly improve the County’s traffic gridlock and whether we can be sure the projects get built as promised. We think the answer to both questions is no, because Metro’s plan is flawed by five weaknesses: 

  • Guarantees are weak; 
  • Parking plan is weak; 
  • Management capability is weak; 
  • Route implementation is weak; and 
  • Long-term public commitment is weak. 

Guarantees are Weak 

Measure M does not include strong guarantees that promised projects will really be built – and as we know, Metro has reneged on promises before. 

Look at Metro’s 1980 ballot measure brochure transit route map on the left. This was Metro’s promise for its first half-cent transportation sales tax. There’s a line from Sylmar to Long Beach. There’s another line from El Monte to San Pedro. And another from Burbank Airport to Canoga Park. But none of these were ever built. 

Oh yes, the Orange Line busway in the Valley is similar to the Canoga Park route, but it was not built with Metro funds (former Assembly Speaker, now Senator Bob Hertzberg found the funds.) 

The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association was worried about promised projects being built and identified this as a key concern in our March recommendations letter to Metro. We told them that ironclad written guarantees are absolutely necessary for Measure M’s success

Measure M does include some new provisions that help ensure that projects will be built. For example, paragraph 11.a of Measure M’s implementing ordinance provides that “the Metro Board of Directors may amend the ‘Schedule of Funds Available’ … to accelerate a project, provided that any such amendments shall not reduce the amount of funds assigned to any other project or program … or delay the Schedule of Funds Available for any other project or program.” 

In other words, you can’t rob one project to pay for another. This is good. But, when Metro CEO Phil Washington spoke at our August Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association meeting, we asked him a question about guarantees – expecting him to quote this paragraph. 

Inexplicably, he instead talked about the Measure’s Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee and how they would ensure projects are built. How does a seven-member committee of technical specialists hired and fired by Metro ensure taxpayers that their projects are built? No way! It seems that Metro is planning for flexibility to do what it wants rather than what the public wants. Maybe the committee should be nine members from the public – one for each of the nine subregions that Metro used to develop its bottom-up plan? 

Vote NO – Give Metro two years to develop ironclad guarantees. 

Parking Plan Is Weak 

The key to any public transportation system is strong ridership – make it easy for people to get to stations. Unfortunately, Metro’s Measure M includes no parking plan. In fact, Metro’s proposed Measure M Ordinance includes the word “parking” only once, and then it’s about bicycle parking, not car parking. And, Metro’s April 2016 Active Transportation Strategic Plan also only addresses bicycle parking. So, why is Metro ignoring parking? 

We met with Metro’s new Director of Parking Management and know that Metro is beginning to work on a parking plan. But, it is not ready yet – and shouldn’t a parking plan be part of Measure M right now – not later? Other transportation systems in major metropolitan areas have learned that parking is necessary to secure ridership. In fact, the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association sent Metro a detailed letter in June explaining how Washington DC had drastically increased automobile parking to improve ridership. And, we don’t even have a parking plan? Are we supposed to walk or ride our bikes to a station four miles away? 

Vote NO – Give Metro two years to include a detailed parking plan in their ballot measure. 

Management Capability Is Weak 

Metro doesn’t have a good track record managing large transportation projects. A few examples are the original tunneling problems on the Red and Purple subway lines, the lack of sufficient rail cars on the brand new Expo Line, and the massive overruns and schedule delays on the recent I-405 improvement project, including a $400 million lawsuit against Metro by the project contractor. 

Now Metro is asking voters to approve a massive transportation plan where multiple huge projects will be built at the same time. Are we to expect that Metro’s management capability has so improved over the last few years? The answer is very probably no. At our August Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association meeting, Metro CEO Phil Washington told us that he is working on a detailed program management plan. But working on a plan and having a complete management capability are two different things. Is Metro really ready? We don’t think so. 

Vote NO – Give Metro two years to prove they have a strong management capability in place. 

Route Implementation Is Weak 

Rapid transit must have effective routes and fast vehicles. You can have a great route, but implement it with a slow bus or tram and ridership will not materialize. We fear that Metro’s plan suffers weak route implementation. Let’s look at some illustrative examples in the San Fernando Valley. 

There are seven major Valley projects in Metro’s plan, as listed here by opening year. Together, they form a rectangular route from Van Nuys to Warner Center to Canoga Park to Sylmar and back to Van Nuys, with offshoot lines through the Sepulveda Pass and to the Red/Gold Lines. But while the routes look effective, their implementation does not. It raises some serious questions about Metro’s plan for the Valley – and the entire County. 

Why, for instance, are the first four Valley projects all busways? Probably because busways are cheap and quicker to build. But, they are slow and lack the capacity of rail. We know – the Valley’s Orange Line is a dedicated busway that was over-capacity on the day it opened. But, not to worry, the Orange Line is being improved by Project 4 – except that this project simply adds a very few grade separations to the existing busway – and still leaves many street crossings. 

Again, not to worry, the Orange Line is converted to light rail with Project 7. But, it will still have many at-grade street crossings. And, this project does not open until 2057 – one of the very last Measure M projects completed. Even when the project is complete, the Valley route rectangle will only have rail on two of its four sides, and busways on the other two. And we all know that once these busways are in place, it will be decades before they might be upgraded. So, expect to be stuck with the projects we start with. 

Yes, this is bad implementation. Metro is telling the Valley that we should be happy with slower, less-efficient transit. Metro’s Red and Purple Lines are light-rail subways operating in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the Westside. Metro’s Blue, Gold, and Expo Lines are ground-level rail running from downtown to Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Azusa, with a few routes even having dedicated rights-of-way. And, the Valley is supposed to be thrilled with slow busways running through busy intersections. We’re not. And, neither are other parts of the County that Measure M is shortchanging. 

Vote NO – Give Metro two years to fix the implementation problems in their plan. 

Long-Term Pubic Commitment Is Weak 

When Metro began planning for Measure M many years ago, they started with a 40-year sales tax increase built around a 40-year bottom-up plan. The tax would generate more than $120 billion over the plan’s 40-year period, and Metro would spend this on critical highway and transit projects. So far, so good! But, in July, when Metro realized that they needed to accelerate many project schedules to attract voters, Measure M became a forever tax that never ends. Here’s the catch: Metro changed to a forever tax but didn’t commit to a future bottom-up public planning process once their 40-year plan is finished. 

The Measure M Ordinance – the document that implements the ballot measure – has no specific provisions for detailed public involvement in another bottom-up process to select the next set of projects after 2057. Sure, that seems like a long time from now for some of us, but not for our children and grandchildren. Don’t they deserve a commitment that Metro will keep them involved? Metro is committing taxpayers to a forever tax without a forever plan – and that’s a serious flaw. 

Decisions about public funding of projects should be made by the public, not politicians. 

Vote NO – Give Metro two years to develop a commitment to public participation in future planning and correct the other weaknesses in their plan.

 

(Bob Anderson is a board member of the Sherman Oaks Homeowner Association. He can be reached at Bobhillsideordinance@roadrunner.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

Tags: Bob Anderson, Sherman Oaks Homeowner Association, Measure M, Metro, SF Valley transportation