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How Villaraigosa convinced voters to tax themselves in a recession — and won

How Villaraigosa convinced voters to tax themselves in a recession — and won
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials speak at a news conference on Nov. 4, 2008, to celebrate the surprising victory of the transit tax known as Measure R to pay for rail construction projects. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

"Dream with me," Antonio Villaraigosa urged in his 2005 inaugural address as mayor of Los Angeles, sketching out a vision of a comprehensive public transportation system that could redefine his car-choked city.

But three years later, his most dogged effort to achieve that vision threatened to be more delusion than dream. A brewing economic slowdown tipped into a full-blown crisis weeks before voters were to decide on his plan for a countywide measure that would increase the sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

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Chief among them, the measure would help advance — but not fully fund — a subway heading west from downtown along the heavily trafficked Wilshire corridor — branded by Villaraigosa as the "subway to the sea."

"People were afraid they would go to the bank to try to withdraw money and there wouldn't be any money there," said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles County supervisor who worked closely with Villaraigosa on the proposal, Measure R. "My instincts told me if the bottom is falling out of the economy, the prospects of success for this measure are bottoming out as well."

Despite the burgeoning recession, Measure R succeeded with 67.9% of the vote, narrowly surpassing the two-thirds threshold it needed. The half-cent sales tax hike is expected to bring in about $35 billion over 30 years, primarily for rail and bus programs.

It will be years before the fruits of Measure R are fully borne out. And the modern legacy of transit construction will not be Villaraigosa's alone — 2016's Measure M championed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, builds on Villaraigosa's measure and will pump billions more into transportation projects.


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But in Measure R, Villaraigosa has a signature accomplishment, one that he is pitching to voters as he runs for governor.

"In kindergarten, my sister and I took three buses to get to school. As mayor, I remembered that," he says in one campaign ad, touting the rail lines built during his tenure.

Beyond shiny new transit projects, Villaraigosa said his work to bring transportation improvements to the entire county, not just the city of Los Angeles, offered insight into how he would operate as governor.

It showed, he said, "a willingness to move away from working in silos — the mayor of L.A. just working in L.A. — and instead work in the region. [It showed] bringing people together that didn't agree, who actually were vehemently opposed to a lot of this."

Villaraigosa said the "subway to the sea" campaign promise — first in his failed 2001 mayoral bid and then his successful run in 2005 — was meant to be a stand-in for the broader goal of a comprehensive transit network.

"It was a rhetorical flourish," he said. "People could imagine a subway to the sea."

But John A. Pérez, former Assembly speaker and Villaraigosa's cousin, said the idea of a railway to the beach was etched into family lore: Their grandfather took his two daughters — Pérez's and Villaraigosa's mothers — to the beach on the old Red Car trolley.

"I always believed there was a subconscious attraction to subway to the sea," Pérez said. "It was a modern reinterpretation of what our granddad used to do with our moms."

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But for decades, the concept of a Westside subway was politically fraught. Certain neighborhood groups opposed the proposal and the prospect was further sunk in 1985, when an explosion in the Fairfax district stoked fears over tunneling through the area's methane pockets. Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, who represented West L.A. at the time, wrote a law barring the use of federal dollars to drill those tunnels.

Villaraigosa traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Waxman to remove the federal ban, which was lifted in 2007. But a major hurdle remained — money. With federal and state assistance waning, the funds would have to come from inside Los Angeles. Villaraigosa and his advisors settled on a half-cent sales tax increase as the most viable, but it was hardly a sure bet.

Polling in 2007 and early 2008 hinted that high bar could be cleared. And there was hope that enthusiasm over then-Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy for president would mean high turnout at the polls.

"This was an 'Oh my God' moment," said Denny Zane of Move L.A., an advocacy group that backs transit investment. "The Obama election of 2008 was an election where everybody envisioned there would be a big turnout. Turnout is always a big help if you need two-thirds [support.]"

Before even going to voters, Villaraigosa and allies had to wrangle support from the county Metropolitan Transit Authority, the county Board of Supervisors and even the Legislature, where then-Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) carried a measure to authorize placing it on the ballot.

In each venue, Villaraigosa contended with jockeying from elected officials representing outlying areas of L.A. County, who feared their districts would lose out to the city of Los Angeles.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a Republican who represented the northern part of the county from 1980 until 2016, said the projects outlined in Measure R — named for traffic "relief" — shortchanged most in the county "except for [Villaraigosa's] wealthy constituents in the West L.A. area."

"He was like a child wanting to eat all the chocolates," Antonovich said. "You have to share. What makes it frustrating is he's not talking about [the city's] resources, he's talking about the county's resources. Those people deserve having their needs being met."

Richard Katz, a former assemblyman and transportation advisor to Villaraigosa, said the measure was crafted to win over skeptics.

"They wanted more and more and more — and there are limits," he said. "We tried to do as much as we could to spread it around as best we could."

In addition to the subway, projects funded by the measure include extending the Gold Line from Pasadena farther east into the San Gabriel Valley, improving the Orange bus rapid transit line in the San Fernando Valley and upgrading highways throughout the region. Fifteen percent of the revenue is returned to local governments for projects such as bikeways and left-turn signals.

Another wave of Measure R-funded projects is slated to open soon, including the Crenshaw light-rail line through South L.A. in 2019.

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Villaraigosa was the primary fundraiser for the measure, but neither he nor any other politician appeared in the campaign ads — a purposeful choice.

The ads sold improvements in air quality, easing traffic congestion and the promise of good jobs in the face of a recession. But for Villaraigosa, the measure was motivated by a more lofty impulse: reimagining the city of Los Angeles.

"If you're looking at getting into my head, it was part of my notion that Los Angeles had to move from a city of sprawl to a city of smart growth," he said.

Villaraigosa may not have been the face of the campaign, but the prospect of losing still threatened his political capital.

"Putting it on the ballot, campaigning for it and losing would've been a reflection on his leadership," Yaroslavsky said. "A typical politician would not take that risk."

The measure's narrow victory burnished Villaraigosa's transportation policy credentials, but also carried its own burden. Voters expected to see their tax money quickly translate into new projects.

"That was the perennial question — 'Where's your subway to the sea?'" Villaraigosa said. "As soon as we passed Measure R, they said, 'Where are all the lines you were going to build?'"

Allies credit Villaraigosa for putting muscle into plans that would take years, if not decades, to complete.

"He's picked tough, long-term projects that don't necessarily give him any immediate political bounce," said Russell Goldsmith, chief executive of City National Bank, who served on the mayor's economic development council.

That belies the mayor's impatience to accelerate the benefits he promised. Villaraigosa was a frequent presence in Washington in the years following Measure R, trying to convince the federal government to float the county loans that would be repaid with the tax revenue it generated. The efforts eventually yielded America Fast Forward, an expanded loan program that let local agencies borrow from the federal government to build transportation projects.

The mayor also sought to speed things along by seeking an extension of the 2008 sales tax, which he could use to borrow against those revenues to quickly break ground on more projects. But the campaign for that 2012 initiative, Measure J, raised less money and had a less robust ad campaign. Coupled with the drop in voter turnout that year — compared with 2008 — the measure got 66.1%, just short of a two-thirds majority.

Measure R has fallen short in some ways, as well. Katz said in the initial years, the tax generated $5 billion less than anticipated because of the recession.

As for the plan's most recognizable symbol, Katz said, "We had to change the name of the 'subway to the sea' to the 'subway toward the sea.'"

Measure R funds are primarily helping build that Wilshire corridor subway — the Purple line — from downtown to Beverly Hills and Century City. The planned extension farther west to Westwood will be paid for by Measure M dollars and as-yet unsecured federal dollars.

Part of the reason Measure R cannot fully pay for that project is because of the long list of other commitments required to get countywide support.

"It's the politics of promising something for everybody," said Martin Wachs, professor emeritus of urban planning at UCLA. "Some of the most cost-effective investments are coming relatively late."

Villaraigosa agreed the Westside subway should've seen more investment early on, but explained he "couldn't get support for it outside of L.A."

"Believe me," he added, "I worked hard for that support."

Follow @melmason on Twitter for the latest on California politics.

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