Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E., Ana Maria Lima
For too many years cities have been paying for transportation projects with their hands out to Congress, lobbying for dollars even as funding bills grow moss stuck in the sluggish legislative process. It’s time to stop all the bellyaching! There are good reasons to push for funding, but sitting back and waiting for the federal government to cough up the money isn’t going to fix infrastructure very quickly. There is however, an excellent model of innovative transportation funding that we can all learn from if we look to our friends on the West Coast, where Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is championing the 30/10 Initiative. His funding plan to extend light rail, subway and rapid bus lines promises to change the face of his city and the rest of Los Angeles County. With the support of Congress, the initiative has the potential to be one of the most transformative transportation programs for cities since President Dwight D. Eisenhower fathered the Interstate Highway System.
The 30/10 Initiative is essentially a plan to use funds raised through a half-cent sales tax increase to secure federal loans for transit projects to pay for 30 years worth of construction in 10 years (hence 30/10). The first part of the plan, known as Measure R, required a public referendum whereby a two-thirds majority vote was needed to levy the tax. Mayor Villaraigosa launched a herculean lobbying effort convincing 68% of the voters to pass the tax and improve the Los Angeles transportation network. The mayor was successful because he pushed for a countywide plan, rather than one focused his city or a particular county neighborhood. The vote showed that Angelenos, tired of bottlenecks, recognize the need for transportation improvements and are willing to tax themselves for transit, not roads, to get there – no small feat in the region known as the car capital of the world. But the projected 30-year construction plan for the transit projects wasn’t fast enough for the mayor, so he proposed the 30/10 Initiative to leverage the tax revenues in order to build a dozen critical transit projects in a decade rather than the projected 30 years.
This bold initiative promises to revitalize Los Angeles, create jobs, reduce greenhouse gases and traffic congestion, and save money. The plan has won over important supporters including California’s United States Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. During the mayor’s campaign for Measure R, he put together a broad coalition of business, labor and environmental leaders, a testament to the initiative’s broad appeal. Officials estimate some 166,000 jobs will be created by the projects, a promising lifeline in this sour economy. By speeding up the construction schedule, officials have estimated they can cut the construction costs to $14 billion from $18 billion, and the savings could be higher. With construction work at a snail’s pace right now, bids are coming in at 5 percent to 25 percent below original estimates, according to transportation officials. And when it comes to the environment, the project’s annual impact on traffic and pollution could be dramatic according to official estimates: 77 million more transit passengers; 521,000 fewer pounds of mobile source pollution emissions; 10.3 million fewer gallons of gasoline used and 191 million fewer vehicle miles traveled.
To properly appreciate Mayor Villaraigosa’s vision calls for a trip back in time. His city, now famous for its highways and car culture, was once considered a transit Mecca. In the early half of the 1900s, the Pacific Electric Railway’s “Red Car” system of streetcars, light rail and buses connected Los Angeles to Southern California cities in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. The system inspired some memorable dialogue in the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” when a child asked the character Eddie Valiant “Hey, mister. Ain’t you got a car?” to which Valiant replies: “Who needs a car in L.A.? We have the best public transportation system in the world.” That famous system, however, was slowly dismantled, and tracks paved over to make way for superhighways where people could travel faster in their cars, until there were so many vehicles, the city became infamous for its traffic jams.
Today, some may wax poetic about the Red Cars of yesteryear, but Villaraigosa isn’t exactly lobbying for a journey back to the future. His ideas for transit are rooted in his experiences growing up poor with a single mother and taking public mass transportation, by rail and bus, to get around the city. Later in life, during his three campaigns for mayor, he would crisscross his congested city, becoming even more familiar with the transportation system. He sits on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which recently posted his comments from a city hall meeting where the mayor, who has three years left in his term, indicated that the 30/10 Initiative could become his legacy. “I’ve got three years left, I’m not going out on a cot here,” the mayor said. “I want to go out on a train.”
Among the dozen projects that would be on the fast track include light rail extensions to Los Angeles International Airport; a long-envisioned subway extension to the city’s Westside providing a high-capacity, high-speed alternative for the 300,000 people who travel to the L.A.’s “second downtown” every day from throughout the county; the Crenshaw Corridor light rail line; a Metro Green Line extension in the South Bay; an Eastside extension of the Metro Gold Line from East Los Angeles; and transit projects serving the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valley.
The mayor has done a terrific job building support for such a creative plan. Now it’s Congress’ turn to come up with a novel way to help fund it. There’s no reason to hesitate. The mayor’s bold plan is a bargain and comes at a time when transportation funds are dwindling due to a reduction in gas tax revenues. Under the mayor’s initiative, the Measure R sales tax would generate $5.8 billion over the next decade, but another $8.8 billion is needed for the total cost of the 12 projects. The mayor wants to use the future sales tax revenue as collateral for low interest loans or long-term bonds, and then repay those debts over the next two decades. One way Congress can step up is to support a national infrastructure bank to make federally funded low-cost loans available to local governments for transportation projects. President Barack Obama recently revived the idea as part of his plan to spend $50 billion next year on highways, airport and railway construction. What better project to invest in than the 30/10 Initiative? This is a county that is trying to help itself! Another way Congress can step up, a potentially faster way considering the opposition that the infrastructure bank idea is up against, is to support the use of Build America bonds for Los Angeles’ transit projects. These special municipal bonds, created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, provide a federal subsidy of 35% of the interest paid on the bonds to the issuer.
The 30/10 Initiative may be a gamble, but it’s one worth taking. Los Angeles has the opportunity to create a new model of transit funding as our country careens toward a crossroads on transportation. Metro areas that are car-centric risk eventually choking themselves to death, both economically and environmentally. As Christopher Steiner discussed in his new book, “$20 per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better,” gas prices are bound to rise dramatically based on a gas supply and demand relationship where demand is directly tied to the size of the middle class. The world’s middle class is expected to quadruple by 2020 largely due to China’s emergence into the consumption world. Gas prices may quadruple themselves to $20/gallon by 2020. Cities that have modern mass transportation transit infrastructure in place are sure to have a competitive edge in the future. We applaud Mayor Villaraigosa’s efforts to make sure Los Angeles is among them and to track the way for a new model to get there.