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L.A. County transit officials plan to put sales tax measure on ballot

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Transportation officials in Los Angeles County plan to offer a ballot measure next fall or in 2016 that would raise the county's sales tax by half a cent or extend the life of Measure R, the levy voters approved in 2008.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and multiple advocacy groups say more transportation money would help expand the region's fledgling rail network, improve complementary service on bus lines, and speed construction and repairs on rail lines and highways.

"We need to have a system that works for us," said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "We need to maintain it, to bring it up to par, to expand it."

Metro staff officials say the ballot measure would either create a new tax that would raise the overall rate in Los Angeles County to 9.5% or extend Measure R's half-cent levy beyond its 2039 expiration date.

Similar proposals have found success in the past: Taxes approved in 1980 and 1990 paid for many of the county's carpool lanes and the first three modern rail lines. Measure R will partially fund a dozen rail projects, doubling the number of Metro train stations.

Last year, a proposal to extend Measure R failed by about 2 percentage points, in part because coastal Los Angeles County cities did not support it, a Times analysis showed. Some elected officials from those areas had complained that the city of Los Angeles received the lion's share of Measure R projects.

Metro has hired a Washington firm to poll hundreds of county residents on two tax proposals. Councils of government have drafted lists of projects they would like to see.

"There will never be enough money, obviously," said Karen Heit, the transportation deputy for the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, which includes Cerritos, Downey and Long Beach. "But to have a say in how the funds should be divided is huge."

Still at issue is whether the measure will go to the ballot in 2014 or 2016, but Metro planning staff members prefer not to rush. Some are concerned that the measure could compete with a $3-billion street repair bond proposed by two Los Angeles City Council members, which could go to voters in 2014.

The presidential election in 2016 will ensure higher voter turnout, Metro planning staff wrote in a memo to the board. Waiting two years would give the agency more time to work with subregions and drum up voter support.

By some measures, a new sales tax could raise more than $100 billion. Some projects that were partially funded by Measure R may see more money, including a rail link to Los Angeles International Airport. About $330 million of the estimated $1.5 billion needed to complete the line has been secured.

Other projects being considered include improvements to eight freeways, subsidies for senior and student transit fares, and a transit and freeway tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, according to Metro's ballot measure concepts.

Denny Zane, executive director of transit advocacy group Move LA, said he hopes a portion of the money will go toward making the ports more environmentally friendly, including building infrastructure to support electric trucks. He said Move LA is also eyeing improvements to Metrolink service and bicycle lanes.

The legwork for the effort coincides with a push in Sacramento to reduce the 67% voter threshold for such measures. Former assemblyman, and current Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield recently proposed a constitutional amendment that would reduce the voter threshold for infrastructure bonds to 55%.

Adding another sales tax would allow Metro to perhaps finish some new projects within a decade.

An extension of Measure R would make money available after 2039. However, Metro says it would help agencies pay down debt, freeing up other funding for other projects.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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