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A transit dead-end

Soaring gas prices and a corresponding increase in transit ridership make a proposed Los Angeles County sales tax measure to fund transportation projects timelier than ever. Yet a mindless political fracas may prevent voters from getting a chance to weigh in on it.

The Legislature has until Aug. 8 to approve the initiative for the November ballot. That process should be fairly simple because an identical bill allowing a sales tax initiative in L.A. County was approved five years ago. It called for a tax hike of half a cent on every dollar in sales, and listed the projects to be funded with the proceeds. Even though it was OKd by the state, the initiative never made it onto the ballot, so all lawmakers have to do now is change the dates and extend the term of the tax -- the original bill said it would be collected for just 6 1/2 years, and the new version, AB 2321 from Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), calls for 30 years.

Yet nothing is simple when politicians and large sums of money are involved. What looked fine in 2003 now looks like discrimination to a group of state lawmakers from the Eastside. They fret that because the bill calls for funding an extension of the Purple Line subway to the Westside, there would be little money left for their districts. Meanwhile, officials in cities to the southeast don’t see enough cash heading in their direction. Some want the money to be divided evenly by region, regardless of ridership demand.

Heading the parochial charge is County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who recently sent a letter to San Gabriel Valley legislators laying out her problems with Feuer’s bill. She complains that it unfairly reverses L.A. County’s 1998 ban on using sales tax funds for subway construction and that it would allocate $4.2 billion to the Purple Line, meaning the Westside would get more than 40% of the $10 billion allocated to rail projects.

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She’s wrong on both counts. The 1998 ban applied only to the existing sales tax, not the proposed half-cent increase, and the bill requires that just $900 million be spent on the subway. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, of which Molina is a member, gets to decide whether to devote additional funds to the Purple Line.

What Molina and the other obstructionists fail to grasp is that if the sales tax measure doesn’t end up on the ballot, everybody loses, including their constituents. A better public transit system would reduce traffic and pollution for all Angelenos and provide an alternative for low-income residents who can’t afford to fill their gas tanks. The projects in Feuer’s bill would cover areas where the need is greatest. Sales tax hikes aren’t a great way to pay for public transit, but voters deserve a chance to decide whether mobility is worth the cost.


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