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Transit held hostage

If you’ve been having a hard time following the murky political melodramas over the proposed half-cent county sales tax increase to fund more public transportation, you shouldn’t blame yourself. You’ve probably been making the naive citizen’s basic mistake of considering the question on its merits.

Silly you.

None of this is really about alleviating the ever-worsening traffic that is strangling the region’s economic growth and rendering daily life unlivable. Nor is it about whether it’s a good idea to raise the most regressive tax government can impose in order to construct an extension of the subway down Wilshire Boulevard from Western Avenue to the sea, or build a light-rail line along Exposition Boulevard to Santa Monica, or start any of the other crucial projects the Metropolitan Transportation Authority proposes to fund with this levy.

No, this whole backroom knife fight is about the things that really count in our dysfunctional local politics: outdated but reflexive geographic animosities -- Eastside versus Westside, San Gabriel Valley versus city of L.A. -- and petty personal feuds between and among politicians.

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The animosity starts on the county Board of Supervisors. Despite the fact that the MTA board decisively voted to attach a specific set of projects -- such as the subway to the sea -- to the ballot proposition authorizing the sales tax hike, Eastside and San Gabriel Valley lawmakers, notably Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Gloria Molina and a raft of small-city mayors, still are waging a guerrilla war on behalf of their pet projects. They’re opposing the tax measure, rallying under the banner of equity, but is there any justice in their case?

Antonovich and Molina have found a novel way of framing the issue, arguing that transit dollars ought to be allocated on a roughly per capita basis rather than to specific projects. It’s a superficially appealing idea, but they also want to exclude from that calculation the billions of dollars that already have been spent to improve the movement of goods -- and not incidentally relieve surface street congestion -- out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, along the Alameda Corridor and its feeder rail lines, and through the San Gabriel Valley.

Beyond that, although public transportation is inadequate everywhere in Southern California, it’s less inadequate on the Eastside and in the San Gabriel Valley than elsewhere, because the region already has the Gold Line and its Eastside extension, Amtrak service, the El Monte Busway and regular bus lines. The region also happens to have three east-west freeways and two-and-a-half running north-south. The Westside has bus service and two freeways, the 10 and the 405.

From there, things get personal. Molina has nourished a transit grudge against Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the Westside, since 1998, when he pushed through Proposition A, a ballot measure that halted sales tax funding of the subway. Molina wanted an Eastside extension of the underground system and opposed Proposition A, though her district approved it by nearly 2 to 1. (Paradoxically, the Eastside ended up a winner; it got the extension of the Gold Line light-rail instead of a subway, which meant more transit for less money.)

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Why Antonovich and Molina (and Supervisor Don Knabe) voted to put the sales tax proposal on the November ballot but to oppose it may seem mystifying -- but no more so than what’s happening in Sacramento.

There, the Legislature needs to pass Westside Assemblyman Mike Feuer’s bill raising the limit on L.A.'s sales tax or it won’t matter what the voters decide in November. One of the things holding that measure up is an intramural Eastside feud between state Sen. Gil Cedillo and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The two went to Roosevelt High together, then on to UCLA and the People’s College of Law and into jobs with organized labor before entering politics. Somewhere along the line, they fell out. Villaraigosa is the subway to the sea’s biggest cheerleader, so Cedillo is demanding that the bill also include money earmarked for his pet project, the extension of the 710 Freeway through South Pasadena. There’s also bad blood between Molina and another Eastside lawmaker, state Sen. Gloria Romero, so they’re competing to force the addition of funding to extend the Gold Line to the city of Whittier.

What makes all this sweaty infighting particularly grating is that early polling shows that, despite the economy, if the half-cent sales tax increase were on the ballot tomorrow, more than 70% of the county’s voters would approve it. That won’t matter if Sacramento passes a bill laden with earmarks the MTA board hasn’t approved, because that would trigger a “poison pill” provision that kills the whole proposition.

So, $40 billion in vital infrastructure investment and the people’s good sense are being held hostage by a handful of pols’ brain-dead rancor.

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Welcome to L.A.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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