Anti-Subway Funding Measure Wins Easily
Los Angeles County voters Tuesday declared an end to the subway era in Los Angeles by approving a sweeping ballot measure to outlaw use of transit sales tax money for construction of new underground rail lines.
With 40% of Los Angeles County’s precincts counted, the anti-subway initiative was passing with 69.2% of the vote.
The passage of Proposition A means that construction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $5-billion subway will end once Metro Rail reaches the San Fernando Valley in the year 2000.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sponsored the ballot initiative, said the victory should “liberate the MTA” from its preoccupation with the subway.
“The people have sent an unmistakably clear signal to the MTA board and the political powers of Los Angeles to change course,” Yaroslavsky said. “They don’t want continued pursuit of a $300-million-a-mile subway.”
Instead, the voters are demanding that the transit agency pursue “serious alternatives to more subway construction,” Yaroslavsky said. “They want a mass transit system in their lifetime.”
Yaroslavsky, a longtime subway backer turned anti-subway crusader, Yaroslavsky said there are more affordable ways to provide mass transit in the sprawling county, including light-rail lines, exclusive busways and expanded bus service.
The measure would eliminate the financial underpinnings of future subway projects by prohibiting use of the county’s 1% transit sales tax to plan, design, build or operate any new subways.
It would not prevent the state and federal governments from paying for more subway construction. Nor would it prevent extension of the rail system at ground level or on an elevated structure.
Yaroslavsky’s approach was seen by Latino and African American lawmakers as denying subway extensions to the Eastside and Mid-City, while ensuring completion of the subway to his district.
Opponents of the ballot measure, led by Supervisor Gloria Molina, portrayed it as too extreme. They argued that Los Angeles could ill afford to eliminate the subway option as a means of combating worsening traffic congestion.
Molina told a campaign rally outside the MTA’s towering headquarters last week that the measure would jeopardize the right of communities like Boyle Heights to determine what sort of mass transit is appropriate for their area.
Metro Rail’s strongest advocate in Congress, Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles), said the initiative was too drastic. Dixon said the MTA should not be denied the right to expand the subway system simply because of the agency’s past difficulties.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said the initiative represented “the worst type of policymaking” because it would shackle the MTA’s hands and deny the Eastside residents “the best option for transportation in their area.”
But Becerra and other opponents worried that the county’s voters were fed up with the MTA and would send the transit agency a message and pass Proposition A.
Their efforts to fight the initiative were made more difficult because Yaroslavsky packaged his “MTA Reform and Accountability Act” as a vote of no confidence in the transit agency.
Yaroslavsky reminded voters that the MTA had amassed $7 billion in debt, including interest, mostly by building the subway, two light-rail lines and its lavish high-rise headquarters. Payments on the debt are now the MTA’s largest single expense, more than the salaries of its employees.
In January, the agency’s financial problems forced a halt to work on the Eastside and Mid-City subway lines. Work on a light-rail link from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena also was stopped, although a new transit agency will take over the project next year.
From the beginning, the subway project was plagued by construction debacles, from a tunnel fire underneath the Hollywood Freeway to a giant sinkhole that consumed part of Hollywood Boulevard. Cost overruns became commonplace, tunnel walls were not built to the required thickness, and construction accidents killed three workers.
A few MTA officials and associates were sentenced to federal prison on corruption charges and a board member, Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre, is still under investigation.
The state’s toughest conflict-of-interest law was enacted to prevent MTA board members from receiving more than $10 in campaign contributions from contractors, lobbyists and companies seeking transit agency business.
Ballot Lacked Opposing Argument
Against this backdrop, subway backers on the MTA board tried but failed at the last minute to place a competing measure on the ballot. Uncertain how to fight the Yaroslavsky initiative, subway supporters failed to even submit an argument against the proposition for the voters’ pamphlet.
During the campaign, they struggled to oppose Proposition A while also trying to distance themselves from the MTA’s performance on the subway project.
The campaign against the measure was waged by a loose coalition of Eastside activists, construction trade unions and the Sierra Club, which staged weekly marches from Boyle Heights to the MTA’s headquarters.
Yaroslavsky won the backing of the Bus Riders Union, which switched sides and endorsed his measure. The group said eliminating future subways would free up money to meet a federal court order to reduce overcrowding and improve service on the nation’s second-largest bus system.
Proposition A would make it easier to use transit sales tax money to build light-rail lines or busways along abandoned railroad rights of way. The measure would require an annual independent audit of the MTA’s sales tax spending and would create a five-member citizens oversight committee to monitor such expenditures.
Yaroslavsky used funds from his supervisorial campaign to underwrite most of the $410,000-plus cost of gathering signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot and win its passage.
In the final week before the election, Yaroslavsky sent slate cards urging county voters to join in reforming the MTA. “Stop the $300-million-per-mile subway,” he said. “Expand light rail and buses to serve all of L.A. County.”
In the city of Los Angeles, three bond measures and a special tax on the ballot required a two-thirds approval to pass, and only the zoo improvement proposal was clearly above that level in early returns.
A $178.3-million library bond, which would pay for construction of four branches and remodeling or renovation of 28 others, was just above the two-thirds margin. Falling way short of the needed two-thirds was a bond measure for renovations and other new projects at Exposition Park. And a controversial special tax to repair city sidewalks was losing substantially.
Three charter amendments were winning majorities in early returns. Proposition HH , which came under attack in City Hall in the last week, was expected to face the toughest odds among the proposed amendments, which needed a simple majority to pass. With a quarter of the precincts reporting, HH was just under the 50% required for passage. The measure would grant wider authority to the City Council and the mayor over quasi-independent agencies such as the Water and Power, Airport and Harbor departments.