After Tuesday’s election, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could have a tougher time securing federal aid for his plan to accelerate a dozen local transit projects, including the much-heralded Westside subway extension. That’s because the Republican majority sweeping into the House has pledged to rein in government spending.
Although Villaraigosa has enjoyed the support of many fellow Democrats in Washington for his so-called 30/10 plan, a number of California’s congressional Republicans have been wary, at best, of sending Los Angeles more federal funding when the federal budget is covered in red ink.
“With this year’s deficit at $1.3 trillion, and next year’s projected to be a trillion dollars or more, it’s going to be extremely difficult to convince Congress to increase spending for anything,” said Jim Specht, deputy chief of staff to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who could return as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) said he is open to hearing Los Angeles officials make their case, but added: “We have got to reduce a lot of spending…. The people just voted, we believe, get this deficit and this debt under control.”
Villaraigosa has acknowledged that “we’ve got our work cut out for us” if congressional sentiments shift.
The mayor hopes he can convince lawmakers that his plan would not only benefit taxpayers but also serve as a template for creating transit options and generating jobs in other places, perhaps even in their own districts.
“My hope is we’re going to be able to convince them that this is the only way for us to address our infrastructure needs, particularly when their priority is cutting the deficit,” Villaraigosa said.
He still has a lot going for him. The Obama administration is enthusiastic about his initiative. Another key supporter, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate committee that will write the next big transportation bill, survived a tough electoral challenge. And Florida Republican John Mica, who is in line to chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, considers the mayor’s proposal the kind of innovative financing that should be explored, according to an aide.
Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan seeks federal loans and subsidies to build a dozen projects in 10 years, instead of the 30 years envisioned when Los Angeles County voters passed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax for transportation, in 2008. Included in those plans are a long-sought rail extension to Los Angeles International Airport, a Gold Line light-rail extension through the San Gabriel Valley and busways in the San Fernando Valley.
Another project is the 9.5-mile subway extension that would run along the Wilshire Corridor from the Purple Line’s Wilshire-Western station to the Veterans Affairs’ West Los Angeles Medical Center. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board selected that alignment last week.
Although the bulk of the funding will come from Measure R, MTA is also applying for federal grants. If even more federal assistance can be obtained under the 30/10 plan, the subway might be completed by 2022, instead of 2036.
Besides the 30/10 plan, federal funding could be in jeopardy for a $43-billion high-speed rail system that would link Southern California and the Bay Area. Already, the federal government has approved almost $3 billion for the project, including $2.25 billion in economic stimulus funds.
Jeffrey Barker, deputy executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the Obama administration has signaled a strong commitment to bullet-train projects. But, he added, “we’re going to wait and see what shuffles out.” Plans to secure nearly $20 billion in federal aid could be “kind of a tall order” no matter who controls Congress.
Villaraigosa has assured federal officials that much of the money they advance for local transit projects will be repaid from the $40 billion projected to be generated over the next 30 years from Measure R.
The cost to the U.S. Treasury of the Los Angeles proposal, which includes getting the federal government to pay the interest on a new kind of transportation bond, is projected at $2 billion over 10 years. MTA officials have proposed a broader program that would provide money to other regions, making the county’s proposal more appealing to lawmakers from other places.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), a supporter of the 30/10 initiative, said he expects the plan to be a tougher sell in a Republican-controlled House.
But he said Los Angeles has an important selling point: “The voters of L.A. thought these projects were so good, they agreed to tax themselves to pay for them. This is no bridge to nowhere,” he said, referring to an Alaska project that became a national symbol of excessive federal spending.
On the other hand, the Los Angeles proposal will face obstacles “at a time when there are rather extraordinary transit needs around the country, particularly in the rehabilitation of the existing systems, some of which are teetering on the brink of collapse,” said Ronald D. Utt of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Still, a number of Congress watchers note that transportation spending has historically enjoyed bipartisan support and that Republicans have a long tradition of supporting infrastructure development, from the transcontinental railroad to the interstate highway system.
“In a big-picture way, L.A.'s general thrust toward financing assistance, which is more cost-effective to the federal government than conventional grant funding, is very much in step with controlling federal spending,” said David Seltzer, a principal at Mercator Advisors, a consulting firm that advises organizations on infrastructure financing issues and was recently hired by MTA.
Republicans also could be open to creative financing ideas, especially if business groups and officials from other cities get behind them.
“The kinds of things that the mayor of Los Angeles wants to do, a lot of other mayors would like to do,” said Jack Schenendorf, a former chief of staff to Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who now works as a transportation lobbyist. “It’s not just Democrats who are going to beat down the doors of Congress.”