The Cupboard May Be Bare but LA County is On a Roll

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MOVE LA - Los Angeles County is literally on a roll: two new rail lines opened last year, three are under construction, and utilities are being relocated to start construction on two more.  Yes the defeat of the Measure J ballot measure to extend the sales tax for transportation in LA County together with the loss of redevelopment statewide were blows to our transportation and community development agenda, but both losses have set the stage for something that could be even more powerful. 

 

Measure J won 66.11% of the vote but lost on a technicality — the anti-democratic 2/3 vote requirement for local sales tax measures, which makes every no vote count twice as much as a yes vote. But in fact Measure J was a huge victory, because going forward everyone knows that LA County voters strongly support a transit revolution. And we believe there is real opportunity to work with Congress on the America Fast Forward bond program, a new class of federal tax-credit bonds like those already available for renewable energy projects, new schools and forest conservation. 

It’s important to remember that Measure J was always “Plan B” for accelerating the Measure R transit program. “Plan A” was a combination of what has been re-branded as the America Fast Forward bond program, plus the existing TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan program. The bonds would have raised money up front, and like a home equity line of credit the TIFIA program would provide even more money to finish the job. We have the second loan, but not the first. Now we will work to convince Congress to approve the bonds. 

But perhaps even more importantly, the defeat of Measure J with 66.11% of the vote, and the defeat of a similar transportation sales tax measure in Alameda County with 66.53% — when a 2/3 majority vote is required — has stirred the hearts and minds of state legislators as well as transportation and community leaders. 

These votes would be considered a landslide victory in any place other than California. Several measures either have been or are about to be introduced in the state Legislature to place proposed constitutional amendments before state voters to lower the local voter threshold from 2/3 to 55%. That way local voters can agree to tax themselves in order to build local projects over which they have local control. Such a measure would require only 50% approval from state voters. 

We need to fix this problem. Local government’s cupboard is bare, the purse is empty, and the well has run dry. Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, and its offspring Propositions 218 and 26, have hugely reduced the amount of property tax revenues collected for both state and local government and the 2/3 vote requirements has severely constrained access to other revenues as well.  The several state budget crises over the last couple of decades have caused other funding (including redevelopment funds) that should have gone to local governments to be repurposed as well. 

Someone has to create new funding, financing, and other tools for local governments to build infrastructure and provide essential services. Many of the people who can do this, including California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, will be at Move LA’s fifth annual “transportation conversation” at Union Station in LA on February 1. 

By extending the 30-year Measure R sales tax, which was approved by 67.8% of the voters in 2008, Measure J would have provided local governments with a guaranteed 60-year revenue stream for transportation improvements ranging from potholes to bike lanes, as well as the resources to finance the acceleration of 7 new transit lines and 8 highway improvement projects. It also would have provided a guaranteed 60-year revenue stream for transit operations. 

As if losing some that revenue stream wasn’t bad enough, local governments had previously lost the funding provided by redevelopment —an estimated $1 billion a year for affordable housing as well as funding for a host of community improvements including public space and bike and pedestrian projects. The loss of funding for affordable housing, however, is felt acutely, since it was the primary source of financing for that purpose.   

But there may be a fix for that too, and the people in the room at Union Station on February 1 are working on it. Below are just some of the possible tools that Move LA and our partners are working on with Congress and with the California State Legislature to enable local governments to provide residents with the services and programs they need to ensure quality of life in LA County:

  • A reduced local voter threshold (55%) for approval of taxes or fees for transportation agencies, cities and counties — as is now the case for school bonds;
  • California Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 1, which will re-invent redevelopment by re-deploying tax-increment financing around transit stations to enable local governments to capture some of the value of the expanding transit system; 
  • Using funds from the Air Resources Board’s Cap and Trade program for transit operations, first-mile/last-mile connectivity and affordable housing;
  • The America Fast Forward Bond Program mentioned earlier;
  • Public-private partnerships (P3s) to accelerate the construction of strategic parts of the transit system;
  • An increase in the state vehicle licensing fee (VLF) to provide funds statewide for transportation infrastructure;
  • An increase in vehicle registration surcharge to provide revenues for SB 375 implementation of first-mile-last-mile connections around transit — creating neighborhoods that are walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented;
  • A National Infrastructure Development Bank, and/or a more robust state infrastructure bank (there is one, but it isn’t adequately funded); 

At the end of last year the New York Post speculated in a headline that “Los Angeles is the Future . . . New York, watch your back.”  The authors cited the rapid expansion of LA’s transit system and the creation of walkable neighborhoods, and the explosion of interest and development in walkable and transit-rich downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood. There is walkable mixed-use development traveling all the way up the spine of the subway, which is even as you read this being extended to the Westside. 

We are on the verge of a transit breakthrough and why should we slow down now? The voters are with us, a robust business-labor-environmental-community-civic leadership coalition is in place and growing, and many of the key players are in this room. We have achieved much as a coalition and 2013 is the year in which together we can achieve more!

 

(Denny Zane is the executive director and Gloria Ohland is policy and communications director at MoveLA.org … and occasional contributors to CityWatch.)

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 9

Pub: Jan 29, 2013

 

 

 

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