Sat, Sep

City Hall Will Get Its Money for Road Improvements, But First Voters Need a “Complete Streets” Plan

STREET TAX … ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE - Councilmembers Mitch Englander and Joe Buscaino are to be commended for calling the City’s attention to the sorry state of Los Angeles’ transportation infrastructure. The size of their proposed property tax and bond measure--$3 billion--makes clear the scope of the problem. However, the City Council acted wisely in not placing this measure on the upcoming May 2013 ballot. 


While much attention has been given to the lack of outreach to neighborhood councils and others, a more significant problem is that the proposal did not make clear how the $3 billion would be spent. Los Angeles voters are unwilling to write a blank check to City Hall, buy will support a comprehensive transportation infrastructure plan that includes asking Angelenos to pay higher taxes.  

Mayor Villaraigosa has suggested that the property tax and infrastructure bond measure should be placed on the November 2014 ballot. That timing could be ideal. 

The Department of City Planning has been working on a long-range plan that will establish goals, policies and programs for Los Angeles’ transportation system. That document—formally the Mobility Element of the General Plan--will include a strategy for how the City can best meet its current and future capital improvements, operations, and maintenance obligations in a holistic and sustainable way. 

The Mobility Element is on track to be presented to the City Council in summer of next year. That means that City Hall could go to the voters in November 2014 with a request for funding that is designed to address a wide range of transportation needs beyond a sole focus on the condition of our streets. 

Los Angeles voters have demonstrated a willingness to pay higher taxes for transportation improvements when they are presented with a well-thought-out plan for how that money will be spent. In 2008, 72.4% of Los Angeles voters supported Measure R’s half-cent sales tax increase. 

Measure R has funded and will fund projects throughout LA County benefiting motorists, transit users, bicyclists and pedestrians. The project list included in the ballot measure allowed voters in all parts of the County to see how they would benefit, and the measure passed handily. 

Last November, Measure J (which would have extended the half-cent sales tax to facilitate bond financing and acceleration of Measure R projects) fell a hair short of the required two-thirds majority in LA County as a whole; within the City of Los Angeles, nearly 71% of voters supported the measure, well over the two-thirds majority required. 

By tying a property tax measure to a new and comprehensive Mobility Element, our elected officials can ensure that we do more than repair a road system that was largely designed and constructed to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding auto-centric city. Instead, we can fund and build a transportation system to meet the needs of the 21st century.   

While the condition of our streets is deplorable, the same is true of other elements of the transportation system. The new Mobility Element will replace the existing Transportation Element, which was drafted in the mid-1990s and is woefully out of date. Since adoption of the Transportation Element, Los Angeles has planned for and/or implemented massive investments in public transit there has been an explosion of bicycling and adoption of the 2010 Bike Plan; public health and economic development experts have placed a renewed emphasis on walkable neighborhoods. 

And, yes, in many parts of the City, traffic congestion has gotten worse. In all parts of the City, streets and sidewalks continue to crumble. 

The Planning Department has engaged in substantial outreach in developing the Mobility Element, and no one can legitimately complain that they have not been given an opportunity to participate. For example, the Planning Department sent "Great Streets, Great Neighborhoods" activity kits to every neighborhood council, and many other community groups June 2012.  One-quarter of these groups completed and returned the kits. Given the difficulty that neighborhood councils can have in taking action, that is a remarkable rate of participation. 

Planning has also engaged a wide range of other stakeholders in developing the Mobility Element. These include: pedestrian and bicycle advocates (the City’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committees, the LA County Bicycle Coalition, and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership; transit providers  (Metro, Culver City Transit, Big Blue Bus, Foothill Transit) and transit advocates (Transit Coalition, the Bus Riders Union); taxi drivers, UPS, academics from UCLA, USC and other institutions; and many more.  They have coordinated their efforts with other City departments, including Transportation, Public Works, the Port of Los Angeles and LA World Airports. They have included business interests and environmental groups. 

The Planning Department’s comprehensive approach is the only way to ensure that an infrastructure bond measure meets the needs of all Angelenos. Our focus should be on moving people, not cars. While most people still travel by car, a large and increasing portion of trips are made on transit, bicycles or foot. 

Even when we plan for all modes of transportation, the lion’s share of attention will be given to the condition of our streets. Most Los Angeles transit ridership is on buses. Poor road conditions wreak havoc on transit providers, requiring them to spend more than necessary on maintenance and repair. More frequent breakdowns make it hard to provide reliable, consistent service; and rough pavement can make riding the bus miserable. 

An infrastructure improvement plan that focuses on streets with transit service, will allow transit operators to focus on running buses instead of fixing them.  That benefits motorists in two important ways. First, transit corridors tend to be streets that are most heavily used by motorists, too. More reliable and more comfortable buses mean more transit riders, which means fewer drivers clogging our roads. At rush hour today, a relative handful of buses carry as many people along Wilshire Boulevard buses as all the cars. Better transit can mean less congested streets for motorists. 

Bike advocates would like to see a robust network of off-road bike paths, such as along the LA River and storm drainage channels. But, like transit, the vast majority of bicycling will occur on the same city streets used by motorists, because we all live, work, eat and play in the same places. 

Poor road conditions are more hazardous to bicyclists than motorists, causing flat tires and crashes. Because bicyclists ride to the right side of the road where pavement conditions are worst, they weave a lot, which makes it harder for bicyclists and motorists to share the road.  Many bicyclists “take the lane,” especially at night, because they can’t be sure that the right edge of the roadway is safe.  

About 40% of all trips in Los Angeles are short, bikeable trips.  Implementation of the 2010 Bike Plan will increase bicycling, and shift many car trips to bike trips. As with transit, motorists benefit from a robust infrastructure funding strategy that implements the 2010 Bike Plan. 

The City Council should continue to support the Planning Department’s efforts to develop a new Mobility Element that meets the needs of all users of Los Angeles’ streets and sidewalks. They should make sure this effort receives the resources and support from other City departments necessary to keep it on track for adoption by the summer of 2014 and ensure that it includes an implementation schedule and funding strategy that is achievable and measurable.  

Then, and only then, should City Hall ask Los Angeles voters for the tax dollars necessary to restore our transportation system to greatness.  


(Jeff Jacobberger received his Master of Planning degree from USC and works as a transportation planner.  He has served as Chair of the Mid City West Community Council and drafted the original Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Water and Power and Neighborhood Councils.)





Vol 11 Issue 8

Pub: Jan 25, 2013