Proposal to Extend Measure R: Lots of Unanswered Questions

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - After years of fighting for matching funds and loans from Washington, Sacramento and even foreign sources, Mayor Villaraigosa and other transit/transportation proponents are turning to both present and future LA City and County voters to fund our long overdue transit and freeway projects.  The main challenge for these transportation leaders is to come up with a plan to raise revenue in an era of increasing fiscal conservatism among voters.

I am probably one of the more fiscally conservative writers for CityWatch, but I doubt I’m the only person who wants to plan, fund and build the Measure R projects during my lifetime.  However, the recent California election results showed that Wisconsin isn’t the only state moving to the fiscal right—California is also moving rightwards fiscally while remaining otherwise a politically liberal state.

Conservatism isn’t just for conservatives anymore, which should be an expected result of our never-ending economic downturn—both Democratic San Jose as well as Republican San Diego voted for public sector pension/benefit reform, and the tobacco tax initiative was also defeated at the polls (albeit by a small margin, but a loss is still a loss).

Although I rarely agree with the more liberal LA Times editorial board, it’s hard to disagree with their concerns about the proposal to extend the Measure R half-cent sales tax indefinitely—often referred to as “Measure R+”—despite a shared desire to get the Measure R rail projects build within the next decade.

It’s a shame that first a Democratic, and now increasingly-Republican Congress couldn’t come up with a renewal of a matching seven-year transportation budget, but spending future transit-construction funds today for projects that should have happened years ago is always risky, and handing any group of politicians a blank check is pretty much financial suicide.  

However, with construction material costs and labor costs much cheaper during our economic downturn, there is no better time to build.  And these projects would play a major role in the economic future of LA County (and, for that matter, the Californian economy).

Years before Measure R was proposed, transit advocates derived a list of road and rail projects entitled “How LA County Saves Itself”, and whether it worked its way through the political world or whether the political world independently came to the same conclusion, Measure R was passed because it was both technically and politically vetted, and it worked.

Unfortunately, its more recent offspring … Measure R+ … remains at this time too nebulous and lacking in detail for voters to latch onto for this November election.  And while the 11,000 riders each day that the new Expo Light Rail Line transports is an excellent start for a line that has only now reached the western terminus of its first phase, it’s still too early to lionize its success as a reason to extend the half-cent Measure R indefinitely.

There are operational problems—normally and usually unavoidable—in the new line, which irks even transit advocates, but at this time it’s hard not to conclude that the main complaint Westsiders have about this line is that it will only be extended west to West Los Angeles and Santa Monica in 2015-16.

And it should be noted that, during an extraordinarily-bad budget era, Metro is building a transportation system that integrates its own mass transit with local bus operators throughout Southern California, Metrolink and Amtrak.  Yet it’s clear that the MetroRail network will be the central trunk of its operations, and essential for all bus lines to function well.  So it’s clear that key rail lines must be expedited … but giving the Metro Board a blank check is hardly the right way to do that.

Much of the reason Measure R is still popular with the voters is that there is no perceived bait-and-switch such as that which exists for the California High-Speed Rail project, which is increasingly unpopular with voters and is even a source of conflict between members of the California Democratic political leadership in Sacramento.

In contrast, Measure R is a clean and accurate list of transit and freeway projects to be funded and built by increased sales taxes that expire in 2039.

What we don’t have with the newly-proposed Measure R+, however, is an equally clean and accurate list to show voters what this new measure would fund should it be passed by the voters.  It’s obvious that the Wilshire Subway would be expedited, but the timetable of other worthy projects such as the Downtown Light Rail Connector, the Crenshaw/Green Line extension to LAX, and the Foothill Gold Line remains uncertain.

And there are reasonable concerns from non-Los Angeles political leaders as to what their voters would get from a passed Measure R+.  In particular, the San Gabriel Valley political leadership is upset that a Metro funding of the Foothill Gold Line to Claremont/Montclair hasn’t been promised by Metro, and this is a project which enjoys as much local popularity in the San Gabriel Valley as does the Expo Line for the Westside and Mid-City.  Measure R+ needs this region’s support to pass.

It also needs the Mid-City’s support to pass, but the desire of many who live there to create a tunnel portion of the Crenshaw Light Rail Line by Leimert Park—despite the rejection of this tunnel as unnecessary by Metro engineers, and too cost-ineffective for the sum of $2-300 million—calls into question whether an indefinitely-extended Measure R+ would increase the demand for the extra money for this tunnel instead of for other planned tunnels (which enjoy more engineering support) to extend the Crenshaw Line underground to the Wilshire Subway, LAX and the Green Line.

And would the money from Measure R+ guarantee an expedited Downtown Light Rail Connector (another tunnel under Downtown L.A. to link all four light rail lines converging downtown to each other), or a Westside-San Fernando Valley rail project (probably yet another tunnel below the Sepulveda Pass to connect Metrolink and the Orange Line Busway in the Valley to the future Westside Expo and Wilshire/Purple Lines)?

The questions outnumber any stated public answers by Metro, Mayor Villaraigosa, or any other major transportation agency or figure.  What will we be able to fund if we extend Measure R just 20 years?  30 years?  Will there be a balanced effort to make sure the eastern portions of the county get more projects expedited to ensure those regions’ vote as well?  

Measure R was indeed measured—it was transparent, geographically and politically balanced to please all parties and all blocs of voters (with the exception of a few curmudgeons).  If Measure R+ is to succeed as well in an increasingly anti-tax, fiscally-conservative political climate, then it must be as transparent and balanced (in other words, measured!) if it is to pass as well.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us.   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) –cw

Tags: Ken Alpern, transportation, transit, Los Angeles, Measure B, Measure B Extension, conservatives, LA County

Vol 10 Issue 51
Pub: June 26, 2012