Last week, as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was preparing to unveil a plan to increase the sales tax and double the size of the region's rail system, commuters in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., were experiencing what can happen when public transit grows without the money or the commitment by public officials to maintain the network.
The D.C. Metro was shut down entirely for a day so employees could inspect and repair power cables after a fire in a tunnel. A year earlier, a passenger died and several others were sickened when a train filled with smoke in a tunnel, prompting complaints that the agency had underfunded and ignored basic system maintenance. In the San Francisco area, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) took part of a rail line out of service after mysterious power surges disabled some 50 train cars. Even BART officials acknowledge the agency was too focused on expanding rail into the suburbs and not on maintaining the existing system, which is nearing the end of its useful life.
To its credit, Metro is attempting to avoid that mistake with its proposed sales tax hike. Metro's board of directors is expected to vote in June on whether to put a new tax increase for transportation on the November ballot. The plan would extend the existing Measure R half-cent sales tax for two more decades, and it would add another half-cent to the sales tax for a combined 1 cent tax rate for transportation until 2057. The program would generate $120 billion over 40 years that could pay for three dozen mass transit and highway projects, as well as fund bike lanes, pothole repairs and paratransit for the disabled. It would also boost funding for bus operations, which are typically the first services cut whenever Metro's finances get tight.
The plan would also, for the first time, set aside money specifically for maintenance. Metro's staff has called for putting 2% of the sales tax revenue, or $2.4 billion over four decades, into a State of Good Repair program. That's important because Metro's system has begun showing its age and has a growing backlog of infrastructure repairs. Yet, there is currently no dedicated funding for regular maintenance, which has led to service interruptions and delays on some of the older lines, particularly the almost 26-year-old Blue Line between downtown and Long Beach. And the need for regular maintenance will only increase as Metro's existing lines age and the new lines begin operation.
The State of Good Repair program is a significant improvement, but Metro's report acknowledges that the new money won't be enough to actually keep the full system in good repair. By 2025-30, the agency won't have enough money to cover maintenance needs and the funding gap will grow to roughly $400 million by the end of the program. That could leave Los Angeles County with a vastly expanded system that is prone to breakdowns and service delays — just like in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.
It doesn't have to be this way. Metro's board of directors ought to make clear now, before voters consider the sales tax proposal, that they intend to fully fund the maintenance and operation of the system even if that means delaying or trimming back some of the other initiatives. The reality is that Metro doesn't collect nearly enough money from riders to cover the expense of operating and maintaining the system. The agency has one of the lowest fare-box recovery rates in the nation: Riders pay only about 26% of the cost of the system, with the rest covered by state fuel taxes and local sales taxes. As Metro builds more rail lines to serve the needs of the region, the expense will grow but not the ability to raise fares without affecting ridership.
Los Angeles County politicians have been jockeying over how to get the most projects built the soonest in their districts. They should not ignore the fact that it will take a lot of money to maintain those shiny new lines for future riders.