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L.A. could clash with L.A. County on transit tax measures

PoliticsPublic TransportationTransportation DisastersPublic Transportation DisastersDisasters and AccidentsHighway and Road Transportation

A plan for increasing the sales tax to fix Los Angeles' broken streets is on a collision course with a similar levy being pushed for regional transit projects.

Two weeks ago, the top budget advisor to the Los Angeles City Council said a tax increase is the only way thousands of miles of severely damaged roads and sidewalks will get repaired. A half-cent increase in the sales tax, which would generate $4.5 billion over 15 years, should appear on the November ballot, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said. The proposal will get its first public hearing Wednesday.

But public transit advocates are voicing worries that a city tax increase could jeopardize their proposal for a countywide sales tax increase for transportation projects, one that would go before voters in two years.

The back-to-back measures may undermine support for a second tax increase, said Denny Zane, whose organization Move L.A. is promoting the transit tax concept. "When you need a two-thirds vote," to pass a transportation measure, "you don't really start out with any margin for error," he said.

If voters approve the street repair measure in November, the tax rate within Los Angeles' city limits would jump to 9.5 cents on every $1 of retail sales. Passage of a countywide transit measure, which could raise $90 billion over 45 years, could send the city's rate as high as 10 cents.

Los Angeles is one of 88 cities in the county but has roughly 40% of the county's population, making it a crucial part of the electorate in deciding any regional transportation tax.

Zane's organization held a daylong conference last week on the proposed transit tax, which could not reach the ballot without a vote from the 13-member Metro board. Dozens of speakers outlined the types of projects that could be built, including rail extensions to airports in Los Angeles and Burbank; light rail stretching across the South Bay; and a transit tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass.

Bob Waggoner, a construction union leader who took part in the conference, said winning approval of a countywide transportation tax should take political precedence over a city measure.

"What's certain is that if the city of Los Angeles passes a street measure in November, then there is going to be a problem passing another measure in 2016," said Waggoner, political director of the International Union of Operating Engineers. If the proposed city tax is defeated, it still could create problems, he said. "We come back two years later and [voters say] 'Here we go again, another tax.' And there's another chance of it being voted down."

None of the city's elected officials has come out in favor of a street repair tax, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is one of the Metro board's 13 members. Councilman Mike Bonin, a Garcetti appointee on the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, has come out in favor of a transit tax in 2016. But he declined to comment on the city's street tax proposal.

Another Metro board member, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said the transportation tax measure would offer greater regional benefits in air quality, traffic reduction and economic development. A tax increase for the Metro system, Ridley-Thomas said, would also attract more federal funding than a city streets measure.

"If you're trying to ask the question, where do you get the biggest bang for your buck, then the argument swings pretty forcefully toward" a higher countywide transit tax, he said.

Garcetti has collected polling data on voters' support for the proposal, but his spokesman, Jeff Millman, declined to release the results. He also declined to say where the mayor stands on the possible tax increases. "We're reviewing the proposals," he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Twitter: @laura_nelson

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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