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30/10 is too good to wait

On Monday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sen. Barbara Boxer will convene a closed-door discussion with local and national transit experts on how to push forward the nation’s most important public works initiative.

That’s Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan, which proposes leveraging the half-cent sales tax increase Los Angeles County residents agreed to in passing Measure R with federal guarantees and loans secured by future tax revenues. Those guarantees and loans would allow the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build the 12 crucial projects specified in the measure in just 10 years rather than the projected 30. Measure R will generate $40 billion in local tax revenue, of which 35% will go for the construction of the dozen rail lines and busways.

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has been the most enthusiastic congressional backer of 30/10, which also has President Obama’s strong support along with that of California’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, and nearly all of the region’s Democratic lawmakers. The initiative is at a crucial point: Language has been drafted for a pair of bills — or amendments to other legislation — that will make available a combination of municipal bonds with federally guaranteed interest rates and secured loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, a law originally passed in 1998 that financed construction of the Alameda Corridor rail line.

Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega, Villaraigosa’s point man for transit, said this week that he thinks passage is possible in this Congress. “Ultimately,” he said, “we’re hoping for bipartisan support and even sponsorship. Historically, for example, [Reps.] David Dreier [R-San Dimas] and Jerry Lewis [R-Redlands] have been very supportive of public transit.”

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One of the points Villaraigosa plans to emphasize at Monday’s roundtable is that nothing being proposed under 30/10 alters or eliminates existing federal transit programs. Instead, it would create a way for Washington to offer assistance to local governments wanting to accelerate construction schedules for projects that have already secured funding from local sources, such as Measure R.

That’s the prospect Obama had in mind when he called 30/10 a template for transit expansion nationally. It’s also why the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted recently to urge Congress to pass whatever legislation is required to make the initiative a reality.

The debate over those measures ought to keep in mind that there are budgetary benefits at stake for Washington as well as for local transit agencies. As De la Vega wrote in a memo this week summing up the status of 30/10: “Today, local government can seek up to 80% of project funding from the U.S. 30/10 flips this around so that local government contributes a much higher percentage of total project funding.”

In Southern California, the effect would be particularly salutary. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimates that the 12 projects assisted by 30/10 will create 166,000 jobs. With the state’s unemployment rate at 12.3% — third highest in the nation — and the well-paying construction trades among the hardest hit, that could be a lifeline.

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According to current estimates, accelerating the Measure R construction schedule will cut the 12 projects’ overall construction costs to $14 billion from $18 billion. De la Vega believes the ultimate savings might be much larger. In an interview this week, he pointed out that, because the recession and credit crunch have brought most construction work to a halt, bids now being taken for transit projects — for example, the Gold Line extension — are coming in at 15% to 30% under original estimates.

Like the Alameda Corridor, 30/10 is a classic public infrastructure initiative, one that addresses urgent needs (in this case, joblessness and gridlock) by creating a springboard for future private sector growth. The next Congress may be an even more bitterly divided and irrationally partisan body, one in which even projects such as this one, with its obvious contribution to the common good, will face an uncertain future.

That’s why it’s imperative that the bills or amendments enabling 30/10 get bipartisan sponsorship and support and quick passage in this Congress. The opportunity is too great and the potential benefits too large and obvious for this initiative to be allowed to slip into legislative limbo.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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