Yaroslavsky Plan Imperils Subway
By announcing that he is launching an initiative campaign to end local funding for Metro Rail subway extensions, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has sent shock waves rolling from East Los Angeles to Wall Street.
Without collecting a single signature to put his proposition on the November ballot, Yaroslavsky may have derailed Los Angeles County’s 20-year-old approach to mass transit.
If it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by county voters, his measure would ban the use of the transit sales tax for any subway construction beyond the North Hollywood line now being completed. That would mark a historic turning away from Los Angeles’ decades-old plan to make a subway system the backbone of a regional transit system.
Yaroslavsky has put Wall Street and bond buyers on notice that any further borrowing by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to finance extension of the subway could be invalidated by the voters this fall. Thus, he has cast a cloud over the MTA’s plan to issue up to $250 million in new debt in coming weeks.
And he has sparked a political fight with prominent African American and Latino politicians, who have strongly supported extension of the subway system to the Eastside and Mid-City.
Veteran Eastside congressman Esteban Torres blasted the initiative as reckless and said if it passes, the MTA would be barred from extending the subway to East Los Angeles despite the potential for high ridership.
“To deny any building of the Red Line Eastside extension is simply ludicrous and just shortsighted,” Torres said.
Supervisor Gloria Molina issued a strongly worded statement saying the initiative does not offer an alternative transit system for residents east of downtown Los Angeles and in the Mid-City area. “All it says is: Tough luck, no subway for you,” Molina said.
“The MTA is corrupt, mismanaged and fails to meet the needs of the county’s transit dependent,” she added. “The initiative wrongly assumes that if subways are stopped, all will be fixed. . . . The bottom line is the agency is rotten at its core.”
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, MTA’s vice chairwoman, accused Yaroslavsky of trying to deny other areas a subway line after having gained one for his district.
Yaroslavsky, who is already looking beyond reelection this June to a possible run for mayor in three years, said the measure is intended to bring some accountability to the MTA.
It would establish a five-member citizen’s oversight committee and require an annual independent audit of how the agency spends the $880 million a year raised from the county’s voter-approved penny-on-the-dollar transit sales tax.
On Monday morning at a news conference with the MTA’s towering headquarters in the distance, Yaroslavsky said he was determined to change the county transit agency’s course.
“This is not just about killing future subway,” he said.
Yaroslavsky said the initiative is an effort to redirect sales tax money that has been going to subway construction to light rail lines, exclusive busways and improved bus service.
And in that effort he quickly won some political allies, particularly those representing areas outside the heart of Los Angeles.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, another MTA board member, endorsed Yaroslavsky’s efforts, saying that the time had come to put an end to the subway. Antonovich compared the $6-billion project to “a flesh-eating disease that has consumed tax dollars and destroyed a cost-effective regional transportation system.”
Glendale Mayor Larry Zarian, an MTA board member, greeted the initiative with cautious optimism. “The idea is appealing to me, but I want to see the details,” Zarian said.
He and other MTA board members and political observers said that if the measure qualifies for the ballot it has a good chance of passing.
“With all the money we have spent and cost overruns, we could have had by now a rail system and bus system that would have tied all of Southern California together,” Zarian said. “I think the voters are pretty well fed up with the cost overruns, and they just may approve it.”
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, chairman of the MTA board, said in a statement that he had not had an opportunity to study the ballot measure, which he described as “a serious issue, which I intend to review thoroughly.”
Riordan said his top priorities since becoming MTA chairman in July have been to get the agency’s troubled finances in order and to encourage efficient bus service for transit dependent riders. “Any proposal that helps the MTA focus on improved bus service is a step in the right direction.”
Supervisor Don Knabe, chairman of the MTA’s construction committee, said he would look at the initiative and “may get on board with it.”
Knabe said he favors building more light rail lines because “we need to go the farthest we can at the least cost. You do that with aboveground solutions not below ground.”
Others were less receptive. “It reminds me of a doctor using an ax when he should have used a scalpel,” said James Cragin, a MTA board member and Gardena council man.
“I’m sure the people have heard enough bad things about MTA that they’ll pass it,” Cragin said. “But you mark my words, in about 10 or 15 years, when we’ve finished widening all the freeways and we’re stuck, people are going to say we’ve got to go back and do these things.”
Eric Mann, head of the Bus Riders Union, which won a federal court order requiring the MTA to reduce overcrowding and improve bus service, expressed concern that the measure could encourage a new fight between light rail and better bus service. “So far, we are not impressed,” Mann said. “I don’t think this is a progressive step forward.”
The vast majority of MTA’s passengers ride its bus system. On an average weekday last month, there were more than 1 million boardings on the bus system, compared with 30,850 subway boardings. The Blue Line from Los Angeles to Long Beach had 47,850 boardings and the Green Line from Norwalk to El Segundo had 20,875.
Ron Tutor, head of Tutor-Saliba Corp., which has built much of the subway, was not happy with the initiative. He said, “I have no comment that could be printed.”
For Wall Street bond rating agencies, the initiative was another sign of the confusion at the MTA.
Peter Bianchini, director of Standard & Poor’s western regional office in San Francisco, said investors and institutions holding MTA bonds should be protected as long as the county’s economy generates sales tax revenues.
But he said the measure “could limit [MTA’s] sale of new debt” if it includes spending for subway extensions. “It seems pretty clear if it passes, they can’t do it.”
Yaroslavsky’s proposal was well received by officials in Pasadena, which would benefit from increased funding available for the now-stalled light rail line from Union Station into that city.
“There is relief that the proposal does not contemplate getting rid of [the] rail system totally in L.A.,” said Pasadena City Manager Cynthia Kurtz. “We’re very glad that [Yaroslavsky] is not thinking of abandoning light rail.”
Kurtz said Pasadena has planned new growth and local transportation around a light rail line. “It is key to the future of Pasadena,” she said. “We have based our whole economic and transportation future on how people travel.”
Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles) said that if the measure passes, “it effectively kills subway for the city of Los Angeles” by depriving it of any local sales tax money. “The federal government will not fund it 100%.”
Supervisor Burke said the MTA needs to retain the flexibility to extend the subway into areas where surface rail lines are not feasible.
She suggested that Yaroslavsky is pushing the measure to advance a planned east-to-west rail line across the San Fernando Valley. The initiative would allow the use of the sales tax money for rail lines at or above ground level.
Yaroslavsky denied such a motive, saying two of the three projects that would be stopped, the Mid-City line and a subway across the valley, are in his district.
In Sacramento, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), a onetime member of the MTA board, said he has been concerned about the agency’s commitment to building a heavy rail system in as dispersed an area as Los Angeles County. “There is no question in my mind that heavy rail is not the best investment of our precious transit resources,” he said.
Villaraigosa said light rail, busways and improved bus service are a better solution to the area’s transportation needs. But he said he is not sure it is appropriate to take the authority to make mass transit decisions away from the MTA board.
The measure may pay dividends for Yaroslavsky, a politically ambitious politician who wants to run for mayor after Riordan leaves office. “It will certainly keep him in the news for a period of time,” said Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum.
The proposal is “an issue he can run on.” Hoffenblum said. “People in Palos Verdes and Diamond Bar and Chatsworth are not interested in funding a subway that has received a lot of bad publicity.”