Monday, October 27, 2008

Yes on Measure R!

It's a political season. What can I say?

I already posted about prop 8 a few days ago. Now I'd like to talk about another important proposal on the ballot for L.A. County. It may seem more logistical in nature than the civil rights being addressed in Prop 8, but I think it can potentially be just as important to Southern California's future.

Measure R is a 0.5% sales tax increase for L.A. County. It would increase our sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, and generate about $40 Billion over the next 30 years. Unlike other sources of public transit funding, this money would be forbidden to be used for anything other than public transit in L.A. County, and a committee of retired judges from throughout the county would provide oversight to make sure the funds were not being diverted by the county OR the state of California to other projects (which has been a problem with public transit funds in the past).
Click here for the short, impartial summary of what Measure R provides over at
Or here for Metro's information guide on Measure R.

Ridership of each of the metro rail lines and of bus services has increased by around 10% in the past year. That is a major increase, likely originally caused by the rise in gas prices over the past year. Those figures are based on comparing September 2007 ridership numbers to September 2008, after gas prices had already started to go down again; so it's possible that people have established some gas-saving habits that they are now wary of changing. This is encouraging news, at least to me. Driving our cars less will help to solve so many problems: environmental, economical, geopolitical, you name it!

Measure R would do too many things for me to talk about in this post, though the highlights include finally building a subway under the uber-congested Wilshire Boulevard to UCLA, where 70,000 people arrive and leave every day. There's also the extension of the Gold Line at both ends (one into East L.A., the other through the San Gabriel Valley), the extension of the Exposition light rail (which is currently being built from Downtown L.A. to Culver City) all the way to Santa Monica, the building of Green Line connection to LAX, and various highway, bridge, rail, bus, bike and traffic light improvement projects throughout the county.

Instead of just listing all the things that Measure R would do, however, I thought I'd address the three main arguments against it I've heard made by a variety of people and organizations.


Arguments against Measure R:
1.) "It unfairly puts the tax burden on the poor and lower class, while many of the benefits will go to the middle and upper classes! "

Measure R is a sales tax increase, which means that anyone in the county who purchases goods and services incurring sales tax will be contributing to this transportation fund. Now, let's think about those poor people in the lower classes: what are they spending their money on? At the most basic level of subsistence, they are paying for food, rent, and transportation. Well, there is no sales tax on food if it is purchased at grocery stores and markets, no sales tax on rent, and improving transportation access for all is exactly what Measure R is trying to do. Many of the poor and lower class take the bus because it is cheaper than driving, and Measure R includes a statute that will freeze the current fares for a few years longer than was originally planned (without R, the fares will go up in 2010), and keep the bus and rail fares for seniors, students, and the disabled from increasing before 2015.

Now let's think about the middle and upper classes; what are they buying? Meals out at restaurants (where sales tax IS incurred), electronics, flat-panel TV's, cellphones, maybe a new car, etc. They are contributing more to the transit fund because they are participating more in the sales economy, and that's because they can afford to spend more money on sales taxable items. A sales tax does not affect everyone equally across the board: it draws more money from those who can afford to pay more.

And, what's more, how does Measure R benefit only the middle and upper class? This is a claim I've seen made by a few organizations, chief among them the Bus Rider's Union (BRU), which is so pro bus that they oppose any contribution to public transit that is not a bus system. They are vehemently anti-rail, and anti-Measure R because: "The MTA funds rail projects (subways cost about $350 million a mile to build) that serve development interests and a more white, more affluent ridership not low-income, transit-dependent riders that are Latino, black or Asian-Pacific Islander, and more than 60% of them are women." --BRU and Strategy Center website

Ok, first of all, I posit that whatever members of the bus rider's union wrote that sentence have never set foot on the metro rail system. I've been on the blue line every week or so, riding between Downtown L.A. and Long Beach. If you're going to characterize the people on that train as "white and affluent", you're blind. I am usually one of only two or three "white" people in my train car, while the other 50 - 80 or so people are decidedly not.

It's true that trains are usually built along corridors that serve development interests, but that's usually because those corridors have already naturally grown to have high population density, and the rail would best serve the population by traveling in that particular area. This is the case for Wilshire Blvd, where the subway will be expanded.

Also, if you are in the upper class of L.A. ("white and affluent"), you have probably never set foot on a bus or rail line, and 65% of the funding appropriation in Measure R is for mass transit (buses and rail). Another 20% is highway expansions and improvements such as car pool lanes, and 15% goes to the individual cities to be used for light synchronizations and road maintenance. So only 35% of the funding in R is going to benefit the upper class who drive their cars on the freeways instead of using rail or bus. I wouldn't call that primarily benefiting the middle and upper class. Besides, buses need to travel on the roads and highways just like personal cars do, and so bus-riders would also benefit from that 35% as well.

2.)"We should have increased income tax, gasoline taxes or traffic congestion fees to fund the MTA, not a sales tax!"

Why not an income tax increase? Because income tax is a state revenue. One of the major plusses about Measure R is that it ensures that California doesn't raid these public transit funds to cover budget shortfalls due to mismanagement. The state has done this in the past, but Measure R money would be safe, as it can legally only be used for public transit in L.A. county. If we decided to raise money for L.A. public transit by raising the state income tax, there would be nothing that we could do to prevent the state from dipping into that L.A. transit money for use elsewhere in the state. And why should people in Eureka be paying extra income tax for public transit in L.A. county, anyway?

Why not a gas tax increase, vehicle registration fee increase, or congestion fee? Each of those things would be great if they could actually happen. I challenge someone to try and get a measure to increase those fees or taxes on the ballot. My prediction: it will not happen. Most of the people in this county drive, and everyone is looking for the cheapest gas price they can find. I highly doubt that people who are so worried about having cheaper gas are going to vote to increase their gas price. People tend to see sales tax as the most egalitarian of the types of tax: Everybody pays. To quote the L.A. Times editorial:

"We'd rather see these projects funded by motorists, via higher vehicle registration fees or gas taxes. That would properly place the burden of relieving our traffic and smog problems on those who cause them. Sales taxes, by contrast, hurt low-income people the most and do nothing to discourage driving. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only politically tenable course. Tax increases require a two-thirds vote for approval, and polls show that the sales tax is the only funding source that comes close to reaching that level of public acceptance."--L.A. Times

So, if we want this public transit funding, the sales tax is the most likely way to get it. If we reject Measure R, it's unlikely that the same plan with a different funding source will be approved. This is an opportunity we shouldn't miss. And, besides, this is a city that has up-to-now embraced the car and the freeway system. We can't simply quit our cars cold turkey! For many people there currently is no bus or rail service that offers convenient service to or from their area, and driving really is the only option. Those people should not be penalized with higher car expenses when the current transit system is unable to meet their needs.

3.) "It doesn't proportion the funding equally according to population! Region X has Y percent of the population of L.A. County, but only gets Z percent of the funding!" or "It doesn't do anything for the San Gabriel Valley!" or "It doesn't do anything for Long Beach!"

First of all, as a general philosophy: devoting money to public transportation corridors is a strategic endeavor. It involves evaluating the population density, concentration of residential areas, concentration of businesses providing jobs for those residents, and then finding the bus or rail route that will provide the highest ridership at the lowest cost. At any given time a sizable portion of the money needs to go into the highest priority transit corridor. The benefits then reach throughout the county, as the reason those corridors have such high population density is due to people from other parts of the county commuting in there to go to work. Even if a commuter from suburbia will never take public transit, the traffic on the freeway they're driving on will improve as other people do opt to use the bus or rail line.

Hence, the decision of where to distribute the rail lines and transit corridors has to be based on population density and need, not spread throughout the county equally. Still, I'll argue that most parts of the county, including the San Gabriel Valley, would be getting plenty if Measure R passes.

You can see for yourself what projects will be funded, according to region, here:

The San Gabriel Valley (SGV) leadership has decided to take a stand and demand some pork from the county. They have their hearts set on an extension of the Gold Line all the way to Ontario Airport. Since Measure R does not include enough funding appropriation to do this, they are taking stances against it. Never mind that the Wilshire subway project will serve an area with far greater population density, to which many SGV residents need to commute anyway. Never mind that the Gold Line currently has the lowest ridership numbers of any of the metro rail lines, and has consistently been below ridership projections since it was completed. Never mind that the SGV will lose the opportunity for lots of other project funding if Measure R fails. Never mind that Measure R ACTUALLY INCLUDES funding for the "Foothill Extension" of the Gold Line, which will extend it from Sierra Madre all the way to Montclair, AND funding for the completion and maintenance of the "East Side Extension of the Gold Line, which is on time to open next year. They want an even higher priority for the Gold Line. This is unreasonable, greedy, and parochial.

Let's look at what the SGV will lose if R does not pass (you can check these for yourself in the Measure R info section of MTA's website), and thanks to Ken Alpern who summarized these points in a comment on the Bottleneck Blog:

-- Improvements to the 10, 60, 210, 605, 710 and freeways

-- The Alameda Corridor East grade separations, which would gets lots of trucks off the 60 and 10 freeways while keep SGV residents from having to stop at rail crossings as often.

-- Foothill Gold Line extension toward Clairemont

-- Eastside Gold Line extension BEYOND the Atlantic station (which will open next year), to stations farther east.

-- The Downtown Light Rail Connector which will allow Gold-line trains to connect directly to the Blue Line

-- Improved Metrolink service for the SGV area

-- Local bus service funding for the individual cities

-- The Wilshire subway extension to UCLA, which will have SGV residents as its second-highest ridership constituency

Regarding that last point about the subway: 22% of the people expected to ride the Subway to the Sea are residents of the San Gabriel Valley. They are the next highest constituency of projected riders after west side residents, who will make up only 36% of the ridership. Those figures are based on a ridership study done by the MTA to determine which parts of the county will benefit from a Wilshire Subway. It's on page 25 of the linked presentation:

Public transit project funding should not be appropriated according to population size. It is population DENSITY that matters. East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) are a large percentage of L.A. County, it's true. But they are spread out over an enormous area compared to West L.A., downtown, and even the San Fernando Valley. We would have to build many more rail lines, branching out in many directions, in order to provide improved access for most of the SGV. The reason the MTA is targeting projects like the "Subway to the Sea" under Wilshire Blvd, or a Green line LAX connector, or the downtown light rail connector, is that those projects would help far more people than the Gold line extension to Ontario, and so they are of higher priority.

The L.A. Times, the L.A. Daily News and the South Bay Daily Breeze newspapers have all published editorials in support of Measure R, while the Long Beach Press Telegram and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune oppose it.

I was so annoyed at the Long Beach Press Telegram's editorial that I left a comment about it on their website. For one thing, their opposition to Measure R seems hypocritical: Two previous countywide half-cent sales tax increases passed in the 1980's and 1990's, respectively. The funds generated from them went to build the blue line from downtown to Long Beach and the red line from downtown to North Hollywood, respectively. That means that, back in the 1980's, West siders were apparently happy to vote for a countywide sales tax increase that gave Long Beach a great public transit rail line. . . and now the Press Telegram is urging its readers not to return the favor? Sure, Long Beach has it's rail line, thanks to the residents of the rest of the county; why should it bother helping out other parts of the county now?

4.) "Now is not the time for a tax increase!"

Yes, the economy is bad. But it turns out that big investment in public infrastructure projects during hard economic times is probably not such a bad idea. Paul Krugman, who just won the Nobel Prize in Economics, says that now is a good time to invest in infrastructure. He says "The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling." We have plenty of old roads and bridges in L.A. and throughout the country that need repair. A good dose of government spending ala the New Deal and Works Projects Administration might be just what the doctor ordered. The Golden Gate Bridge was financed by a bond measure during the great depression, and there it is still benefitting the Bay area some 80 years later. And a sales tax increase is better than a bond measure because we won't have to pay double the cost in interest.

A good public transit system is a sound investment that will improve the lives of people in this city for decades, even centuries to come. Keep in mind that the first train of the London "tube" subway system began operating in 1863, and now that city, which is arguably just as sprawled out area-wise as Los Angeles, has one of the best public transit systems on Earth.

Wrapping things up:

What bothers me most about the opposition to R is this "try again next election" mentality. How much do you want to bet that whatever other distribution of funds is proposed at the next election, there will be just as many communities crying out that it is unfair? Sure, there are details in this measure that I don't think are perfect. But it's a comprehensive public transit measure, chalk full of language and details. OF COURSE some people are going to have problems with someparts of it. Sure, we could reject it this time and hope they put together another plan next election, but it's likely that another group of people will dislike some details about THAT plan, so maybe they'll say "try again next election". And this goes on until suddenly 10 more years have gone by and we're still arguing over the details when we could have had a new rail line built by then.

This passing the buck on to the next election is one of the reasons why, 20 years after the subway to the sea was first conceived, construction has still not begun. Sure, we can keep passing on good public transit for this city because we don't like this or that detail in the bill, while L.A. County's population continues to grow (expected 30% rise by 2030), and our roads get more and more congested, and commute times get longer and longer, and less and less tourists will want to come here because there is no easy way to get around town.

Or we can take some responsibility for our future and make a commitment to better public transit, and a better county for our children and our grandchildren; and we don't have to wait until the "next election". We can do this now.

So, if you live in L.A. County, when you have your ballot in front of you ask yourself this: Do you want Los Angeles to have a great public transit system like other great cities do? (Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., London, Paris) Then why would you vote no on R? If it's because of some minor detail in the plan, ask yourself if that minor detail is important enough to delay these great projects even further into the future; to keep this city chained to it's car-based, smog-creating, oil-guzzling, time-wasting freeway infrastructure even longer. Let's quit wasting time and do the right thing.

Vote yes on Measure R!


Tommaso Sciortino said...

My friend once said that when judging LA you take all the good stuff on the one hand and weigh it against the traffic: that's the only bad thing worth noting. Being able to get around LA without a car would really be a boon for business, as well as livability.

Speaking as an inhabitant of the public transit friendly Bay Area I can say that it would really be money well spent.

Regan said...

I am voting Yes!