» Mayor of nation’s second-largest city fights to advance city’s transit planning… by twenty years. It’s a job that necessitates a national infrastructure bank that does not yet exist.
Forget that old cliché about Los Angeles. It’s not the old highway-obsessed metropolis it used to be. In fact, as L.A. matures, it’s densifying, shedding its abhorrence towards public transportation.
The region already has one of the most ambitious transit expansion plans in the country; a new light rail line to East L.A. opened last year, the Expo light rail line from downtown to Culver City is under construction, and dozens of other routes are in planning throughout Los Angeles County. The passage in November 2008 of Measure R, an additional half-cent sales tax for transit, means that these projects aren’t just conjectural.
But L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has always been a strong proponent of new rail and bus lines, isn’t satisfied by the thirty-year timetable that will be required to complete the projects lined up for $13.7 billion in local funding. (Measure R would also fund $27 billion in transit operations, maintenance, and roads projects.) Current financial assumptions indicate that the Mayor’s highest priority–an extension of the Westside subway (Purple Line) to Westwood–wouldn’t be complete until 2032. A fixed guideway link along I-405 between the San Fernando Valley and UCLA would have to wait until 2038.
For Mr. Villaraigosa, this situation isn’t feasible: he wants his subway as soon as possible, rather than force his city’s inhabitants to spend decades more in congestion. But over ten years, Measure R is only expected to bring in about $3 billion for transit capital projects–enough to build the first phase of the subway, but nothing else. Because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority represents L.A. County’s ten million inhabitants, not just the city’s four million, prioritizing a line that would provide service to a tiny percentage of the region’s overall geographic area would not be politically feasible.
In October last year, the mayor suggested an alternative: ask the federal government to loan Metro billions of dollars to complete the majority of the county’s transit projects, in the city and out, in ten years, rather then thirty. The transit authority would then pay Washington back for twenty more years as revenues from Measure R trickled in.
The 30/10 proposal would allow Metro to construct the full Westside extension, but also two easterly extensions of the Gold Line, two new branches for the Green Line, several busways in San Fernando Valley, a link along I-405, and new light rail lines downtown, along Crenshaw Boulevard, to Santa Monica, and via the West Santa Ana branch corridor. The West Santa Ana branch corridor would be served by commuter rail. All by 2020.
It was a brilliant solution to an intractable political problem by ensuring the extension of transit in corridors everywhere in the county within a tight time frame. The fight over which lines to prioritize would simply not have to happen.
This “big bang” strategy would not only dramatically improve the city’s public transportation system by opening rapid transit lines to areas of the county previously ignored, but also act as a stimulus for hundreds of thousands of construction workers currently out of work. But who in Washington would be ready to make such a deal? How serious was the mayor anyhow?
Considering the Mayor’s schedule over the past several weeks, it appears he’s dead-set on the proposal. Last week, he went to Washington to garner the support of several members of Congress, and got it, including from influential Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who is currently running for reelection, announced that she would support the effort. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood signaled that he was open to the opportunity in a meeting in Los Angeles last month.
If the city is able to move forward on the 30/10 project, it will set quite an intriguing precedent for the dozens of other cities across the country currently considering major transit expansion proposals. The multi-billion-dollar bridge loan Mr. Villaraigosa hopes to have handed over to Metro would be a unique solution to a problem caused by limited short-term revenues. And it implies that Washington should get into the game of agreeing to act as an investment bank for municipalities that can guarantee a source of income over the long term.
If anything, L.A.’s proposal is the best example yet of a project that could really take advantage of a national infrastructure bank, which could provide low-interest loans to governmental agencies to pursue major projects of future importance. The bank would be able to rely on Measure R as an assurance that it will eventually get its money back, and L.A. will be able to benefit from a quick advancement of its rail and bus systems, creating a veritable rapid transit network that in the United States would rival only New York’s in route length.
But the national infrastructure bank does not yet exist. Nor does the Federal Transit Administration have the funds or mandate to pursue a similar policy. So, unless Congress acts on its own, Los Angeles’ transit plans will continue to be relegated to a thirty-year timetable.
Today, with one senator blocking funding for the Department of Transportation and 2,000 workers currently furloughed, it seems unlikely that politicians in Washington will be able to get their together well enough to fund transit at standard levels, let alone sponsor a national infrastructure bank.
That’s a disappointment, since the twelve projects Mayor Villaraigosa has selected for investment would each contribute to the creation of a strong transit system in America’s second city, something that’s been sorely lacking for decades.
Update, 21 March: The Source revealed last week the Mayor’s plan for the 30/10 project, demonstrating the planned expenditures as well as expected completion dates for each of the projects, as shown in the updated map above. Here are the basics:
- Current long-range transportation plan assumes $18.3 billion in transit expenditures over 30 years. 65% of funds would come from Measure R, with 23% from New Starts and 12% from other sources.
- The 30/10 Initiative would allow total expenditures to be reduced to $14.7 billion because of avoided inflation, since projects would be completed in ten years, twenty years ahead of schedule. More cost savings could also be possible because of a cheaper construction market.
- Of that $14.7 billion, $5.8 billion is expected to be available from existing sources, with around $8.8 billion still necessary, which could be provided through a loan from the federal government.
- Measure R would then pay back its $8.8 billion in debts for projects completed between 2010 and 2020 with $10.4 billion in tax revenue received between 2020 and 2040.