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Now the funding begins

Nearly a month after the Nov. 4 election, the results have been certified and the final counts on three tight local ballot measures are at last known, and there is good news to report all around. And now that voters and vote counters have done their jobs, public officials will have to get busy doing theirs.

With the passage of Measure R, Los Angeles County residents agreed to hike the sales tax by half a cent to pay for a variety of transportation projects, including an expansion of the subway to the Westside. In Beverly Hills, where Measure H was approved by just 129 votes, construction can now proceed on a glamorous hotel and condominium project near the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. And in the city of Los Angeles, voters wisely turned down Measure A, a parcel-tax hike that would have paid for untested gang-prevention programs.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose successful backing of Measure R has brought him closer to fulfilling his promises to upgrade L.A.'s transit system, has wasted little time since its passage; on Thursday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved his motion to develop plans to improve bus service using the new tax money, which the county will begin to collect in July. Yet the mayor’s plans may be undermined if he and the rest of the MTA board don’t get their financial house in order.

The MTA is projecting a $134-million deficit for the fiscal year that starts in July. Though Measure R will bring in additional money for operations, it won’t take care of the agency’s fundamental structural deficit, which exists mainly because transit fares are so low that they cover only 28% of operating expenses. There’s a way to fix the deficit without raising fares, but it requires the MTA board to cut inefficiencies -- such as bus lines that are used by only a handful of riders. So far, it has lacked the political courage to do so. Unless that changes, voters will see less bang for their sales-tax buck.

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Beverly Hills’ Measure H also demands further action from political leaders. Opponents of the initiative, which will allow the owners of the Beverly Hilton to replace the hotel with a high-rise Waldorf-Astoria and two luxury condo towers, said it would worsen the neighborhood’s rush-hour gridlock. They had a point, but the project is just one of many that will worsen traffic on the Westside, and the only practical way to relieve the pressure is by extending the subway at least as far as Westwood.

The Measure R funds will help get that done, but not without a hefty dose of federal funding. Fortunately, Los Angeles has representatives in Congress capable of obtaining it, notably Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), recently named chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. They should make the subway a high priority.

Finally, voters sent the best possible signal on Measure A: They rejected it, but only by a tiny margin. Because it was a tax hike, it required a two-thirds vote for approval, but received just 66.27%.

Measure A was put on the ballot by politicians who calculated that the presidential race would drive liberal voters who favor tax increases for social programs to the polls. Yet the programs it would have funded would have supported a new gang initiative whose effectiveness hasn’t been evaluated, and the city has a shameful history of wasting money on questionable anti-gang projects. The close vote showed that Angelenos are willing to tax themselves to keep kids out of gangs, but many doubtless wanted to see more evidence that their money would be spent wisely. If the city returns to voters with a well-thought-out package of programs that have been proved to succeed, there’s every reason to think they’ll open their wallets.


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