Op-Ed

Why L.A.'s $120-billion transit plan is in danger of tanking

Metro, the Los Angeles region’s transit planning and construction agency, has been on a roll. In recent years three new projects, the Expo Line to Santa Monica, the Gold Line to Azusa and the Orange Line busway to Chatsworth have been built and are now carrying tens of thousands of passengers each day. Three more — the Crenshaw Line to Los Angeles International Airport, the downtown regional connector and the Purple Line extension to the Westside — are under construction.

This momentum is now threatened by an ill-advised bill in the state Legislature, SB 1472, written by Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia). Mendoza believes the Metro board’s structure gives too much power to the city of Los Angeles and too little to outlying parts of the county. He is primarily upset that a project in his southeast district is not Metro’s top priority. His bill is scheduled to be voted on by the full Senate this week.

In 1992, the state Legislature passed the law that created Metro (formally the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) and established its 13-member governing board of directors. The board has four Los Angeles representatives, four council members representing the county’s other 87 cities and the five county supervisors.

This structure was designed to prevent any one faction from imposing its will on the entire board, and it has worked. For Metro to succeed, everyone has to collaborate. Mendoza now proposes to pack the Metro board with eight more members: one new Los Angeles seat, one new Long Beach seat, four additional small city seats and two new members appointed by the Legislature’s leadership in Sacramento. Under this scheme, Los Angeles, with 40% of the county’s population, would have only 24% of the board’s 21 votes, while the outlying cities would more than double their current representation.

As former Metro board members with 30 years of service between us, we know that no board structure is perfect. We also know that if the power on the Metro board isn’t balanced, the small city representatives would be tempted to assert total control over the region’s transit planning and spending decisions. Los Angeles, which is undeniably the region’s economic and employment center, would be made largely irrelevant in Metro’s deliberations. Transit decisions would be based on who had the most political muscle rather than what is in the best interest of the region as a whole.

Mendoza’s power play also endangers a proposed transit tax that Metro is considering placing before the voters this November. To pass, it must win the approval of two-thirds of the voters, a high bar in any election. Bluntly, if the city of Los Angeles is marginalized on Metro’s board, why would its voters support a tax over which their representatives would have little or no say? Without robust support from Los Angeles city voters, no countywide tax can muster 67% support.

The stakes for the Mendoza bill are high. If it passes and is signed into law, it will almost certainly tank Metro’s new tax plan. That would stop this region’s transit progress in its tracks, including the light rail that Mendoza covets for his own district. It would prevent a $120-billion investment in transportation infrastructure, kill tens of thousands of construction jobs, increase air pollution and further frustrate everyone yearning for alternatives to mind-numbing traffic congestion.

Los Angeles County has progressed a long way toward developing a regional transit system. Until now, we have done it without meddling from the state Legislature. Led by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the current Metro Board is attempting to build not simply a transit system, but a consensus on the region’s transportation future. The Mendoza bill threatens all of that. The Legislature should vote this bad idea down, and the governor should veto it if it gets to his desk.

Zev Yaroslavsky is director of the L.A. Initiative at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs; Richard Katz is former chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee and wrote the legislation that created Metro. Both are former members of the Metro board of directors.

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