Readers who follow local transit issues are likely familiar with the Measure R raft of funding and probably are also aware that Metro is pursuing a similarly structured measure to appear on November’s ballot. Nonetheless, I’m going to attempt to provide a somewhat comprehensive background of the current ballot measure under consideration (and what it could mean for Los Angeles), as a reference point for anyone who is just joining us over the course of what is bound to be a very eventful year. I will make every effort to keep this post updated as more information appears.
First things first, what was Measure R?
Measure R, passed by the voters of LA County in 2008, is a half-cent sales tax which will generate revenue for Metro until 2039. With a life-of-tax revenue estimated at $40 billion, the passage of Measure R marked a major change in fortune for Metro and allowed them to be much more aggressive in pursuing the projects in their Long Range Transportation Plan. Today, two rail extensions are on the verge of opening to the public and an additional three are under construction. This is a far cry from where the agency was at the beginning of the century, when there was a $20 billion funding shortfall for the agency’s top priority projects.
Los Angeles County had not passed a sales tax for the transit since the 1990s when the 66.7% supermajority requirement to approve new local taxes began to apply to the Transportation Authority. Measure R was not expected to succeed. That it survived long enough to make the ballot is creditable in large part to the group Move LA, which coordinated a winning coalition of regional politicians, business and labor interests to voice support for additional transportation dollars. In November of 2008, as we know, Measure R did pass, with 67.22% of voters approving. As stipulated by the expenditure plan, 35% of its proceeds will be budgeted for new transit project construction, 20% for highway construction, 25% for bus and rail operations, 10% for Metrolink and Metrorail Operations and Maintenance, and 15% to be returned as grants to the cities of LA County on a per capita basis. 12 major transit projects are being funded in total or in part by the tax over a 30 year time frame.
Whoa, 30 years is a long time to wait!
That’s true, and it’s exactly what former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa thought. The city, county and Metro worked hard after Measure R to determine how it could clip the extended wait for certain projects. These included support for a Federal program of low interest infrastructure loans and the first Measure R update, Measure J. Low interest loans from the Federal Government allow Metro to build now and begin operations on capital projects that they already have a dedicated funding stream for, but for which the money may not be available for years or decades. These loans are in play already for Metro’s under construction projects, but not at a level which would have allowed for the acceleration of planned second and third decade Measure R projects. Measure J was another means of accomplishing the same end. Doubling the length of the Measure R tax to last until 2069, it would have given the Transportation Authority additional leverage to finance expedited completion of the most expensive Measure R projects. However, in 2012, with a backbreaking 66.11% of voters in approval, Measure J failed to meet the incredibly high bar of passage for a sales tax at the ballot box. There are reasons, and legal precedents, to consider the 2/3 supermajority an unreasonable standard. Nonetheless, that standard is likely to remain in play for the foreseeable future.
So what’s happening now? And what is Measure “R2”?
Measure J demonstrated to local officials that there was essentially no margin for error in future attempts at establishing funding streams for rail expansion. J’s oft-cited fatal flaw was that it did not fund any new projects, giving it a deja vu sensation for voters who had just approved funding to these same projects 4 years earlier. Perhaps equally important was voter turnout. The Nays picked up just .8% more votes for Measure J than they had for Measure R, whereas the Yeas diminished in number by over 7% from R to J and fewer ballots were cast overall. The loss, such as it was, did not dissuade local officials from believing that there existed enough support countywide to get the right measure passed. J just wasn’t that measure. The intervening 3 years have seen a variety of groups come together to determine how to craft a measure that would fund not only the timely completion of Measure R projects, but a variety of other items on Metro’s wishlist as the agency works toward developing the newest iteration of its Long Range Transportation Plan. Measure “R2” still does not have a formal identifier, but it is very much conceived as a sequel to the original broad coalition approach that got Measure R across the finish line. Like all sequels, Measure “R2” is eager, maybe even overeager, to give the people what they want. Although, it still hasn’t been formally adopted for the November ballot, a draft expenditure plan for the ballot measure will likely be released at the beginning of March.
At the moment, Measure “R2” is envision as an “extend and augment” tax which would add an extra 18 years to the life of R the First and implement an additional half-cent sales tax with a 30 year life. This tax, Metro believes, could generate in excess of $120 billion.
What can I expect Measure “R2” to fund?
Well, first things first you can expect it to be overly deferential to the car owners of Los Angeles. Whatever progress L.A. County may have made, Metro has shown no stomach whatsoever for bringing the gospel of transit-for-its-own-sake to the people. This is a fine line to walk: some concessions to the pro-car lobby may be necessary to reach 66.7% of the vote, but too many concessions could and should be considered counterproductive and enough to possibly turn a good tax into a bad one. Los Angeles does not need more freeways, it does not need more roads. But it does badly need funds for bus and rail transit. Los Angeles, as Jessica Meaney from local nonprofit Investing in Place has pointed out, generates about 3/4 of the funds it spends on transportation locally. Voters have been extremely generous with their tax dollars, and they should expect Metro to craft a ballot measure in such a way that it funds the best and most badly needed projects with as little excess as possible.
Having said all that, several Measure R capital projects were not funded at a level that could get them fully operational. Existing projects which stand to benefit are: The East San Fernando Valley Corridor (which is currently being pushed as a Light Rail line along Van Nuys Boulevard), LRT along the West Santa Ana Branch of the old Pacific Electric Railway, LRT through the Sepulveda Pass connecting the SFV to Westwood, The Eastside Gold Line extension in two branches to South El Monte and Whittier, the Green Line South Bay extension, and the Airport-Metro Connector. Some of these projects are more deserving than others, but it is a safe bet that all will be funded to levels sufficient to get them finished so that Metro can fulfill the promise that it made voters in 2008.
Other projects that appear to have some traction are: The continuation of the Foothill Gold Line from Azusa to Montclair in San Bernardino County, a Northward extension of the Crenshaw line through Mid-City and up to Hollywood, a possible (though questionably reasoned) conversion of the Orange Line to LRT, and Bus Rapid Transit projects on Vermont, Lincoln, and connecting North Hollywood to Pasadena.
Metro has been collecting comments from stakeholders throughout the county and is preparing a draft expenditure plan for release in the next several weeks. This marks the culmination of a years-long process. Although the Metro Board will not make the final decision on the ballot measure until the Summer, we’re talking about a potentially titanic sum of money that is going to set off major battles among the County’s subregions and interest groups. There is much left to be decided, and nothing has yet been finalized. In the coming weeks though we will get our first real idea of the what, when and how of the things that Metro believes it can get done with Measure “R2”. In the intervening time, we’ll be talking some more about which projects have the most potential, and what I think transit riders and advocates should expect of a successful Measure “R2”.
If you have any questions, please comment them here and I’ll do my best to answer.