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Los Angeles is as famous for its traffic congestion as it is for its sunsets and palm trees, and it has paid a steep price, in smog and gridlock, for its love affair with cars. Belated attempts to devise a functional public transit system have run up against a shortage of funding and a steep hike in construction costs, producing only a patchwork of street buses and light-rail lines, as well as a single dedicated busway and a single subway line -- which don't connect well with one another, not to mention with the parts of the county where they're most needed. Measure R would help change that.
The measure would impose a sales tax increase of half a cent on the dollar in Los Angeles County, raising the rate to 8.75% (tying Alameda County for the highest sales tax rate in California). The money would pay for a wide range of transportation projects, including an extension of the subway toward the Westside, light-rail extensions through the San Gabriel Valley, dedicated busways in the San Fernando Valley and a host of highway improvements. Overall, 65% of the money would go to transit, 20% to highways and 15% to cities for such things as fixing potholes and synchronizing traffic signals.
The official opposition to Measure R comes mainly from politicians from far-flung parts of the county who claim that they wouldn't get their fair share of the tax money; they tend to favor a regional distribution scheme in which funds would be split evenly. That's not just parochial, it's naive. A well-designed transportation network relieves bottlenecks in places where demand is greatest, and such high-density corridors aren't evenly distributed on the map. The projects to be funded by Measure R have been well chosen to maximize efficiency and thus give taxpayers the best bang for their bucks regardless of where they live. County residents tend to commute far from their homes, and they would see a traffic benefit even if nothing is built in their neighborhoods; they'd also enjoy improvements in air quality.
Although big cities often use sales taxes to pay for transportation improvements, it's not an ideal method. We'd rather see these projects funded by motorists, via higher vehicle registration fees or gas taxes. That would properly place the burden of relieving our traffic and smog problems on those who cause them. Sales taxes, by contrast, hurt low-income people the most and do nothing to discourage driving. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only politically tenable course. Tax increases require a two-thirds vote for approval, and polls show that the sales tax is the only funding source that comes close to reaching that level of public acceptance.
Measure R's timing is problematic -- voters will be understandably reluctant to approve a tax hike during an economic downturn. Yet, if it fails, it might be many years before another such measure comes along, during which gridlock and pollution will only worsen. L.A. County residents have a chance to turn our Third World transit network into something more befitting a world-class metropolitan area, and they should take it by approving Measure R.