Red lining on transit

The Times’ editorial board hasn’t been kind to local politicians who have tried to thwart MTA rail projects.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should have seen this one coming. After voting to keep the half-cent sales tax increase approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority off the November ballot, The Times' editorial board on Wednesday let 'em have it:
It would be nice to think that the politicians involved in this fight were acting to protect their constituents, yet it's impossible to see how preventing voters from making their own decisions is in anybody's interest. Moreover, lawmakers have been granting broad concessions to the likes of Cedillo and County Supervisor Gloria Molina in an attempt to win their support for the measure, guaranteeing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transportation construction in their districts. Yet the holdouts insist that the allocation of the sales tax money is unfair, in part because it would fund at least a portion of the proposed "subway to the sea" on the Westside. Molina, for one, wails that the Westside gets a subway while her Eastside district only gets a light-rail line.

Grow up, people. The projects that would win funding under Measure R were identified years ago as the best way to make L.A.'s public transit system function as efficiently as possible. If the allocation doesn't guarantee 100% regional fairness, that's because ridership demand isn't spread evenly across the county -- and besides, residents tend to travel throughout the county, meaning everybody benefits no matter where they live. It's voters who should rule on Measure R, not a handful of turf-obsessed supervisors and state lawmakers.

Past editorial boards had similar reactions in the 1980s and 90s to attempts by L.A.-area pols to stop transit projects. In 1985, when Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) proposed a ban on federal funds for subway construction in West L.A., the paper's editors expressed their dismay in a September 11, 1985 editorial. Note the board's bullish outlook on the MTA's ability to handle all the complexities of building a subway:
The House of Representatives will vote, perhaps today, on the transportation bill that includes $130 million to start building Metro Rail, and commits the federal government to pay $400 million more to assure that the first segment of the subway, 4.4 miles of line between Union Station and Alvarado Street, is completed. That vote is a key step in giving this region a modern mass-transit system. That is why it is so disturbing to find Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles)--one of the most influential and, normally, one of the more thoughtful members of the state delegation--raising such a misinformed ruckus over the subway's safety.

Waxman claims that his concern stems from the gas explosion earlier this year at a clothing store near 3rd Street and Fairfax, in the heart of his Westside district. An investigation linked that blast to a buildup of methane in soil beneath the area, which is along the second phase of the Metro Rail route. Waxman wants absolute assurances that it is safe to build and operate a subway in the area, and threatens to personally hold up money for Metro Rail until he has them.

He is either getting bad advice about Metro Rail's engineering or is playing political games for some mysterious reason of his own that has nothing to do with safety. The technicians planning Metro Rail have been aware of the potential hazards of building and operating a subway in Los Angeles from the very start, and have contingency plans for every foreseeable eventuality--not just for buildups of methane gas in the sandy subsoil around the La Brea Tar Pits, but also for earthquakes. They are using the same planning and engineering precautions that any tunneling or construction project in Los Angeles, whether a high-rise building or a storm drain, must meet. Even the authors of the only engineering report that Waxman can cite to support his new position say that he is misusing their findings, and insist that the subway can be built safely.

Metro Rail is the most studied and discussed building project in Los Angeles history, and city leaders long ago reached a consensus that the subway must be built. Waxman should either get back on board or out of the way.

Thirteen years later, with Red Line construction in Hollywood causing massive sinkholes on major thoroughfares, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky pushed a ballot initiative to forever forbid the use of transit sales tax money for future subway construction. The measure passed, but not before The Times encouraged voters to reject it in an October 20, 1998 editorial. This time, however, the board was less deferential to MTA planners:
Even though this newspaper has long criticized the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for poor management and reckless spending, we oppose Proposition A on the Los Angeles County ballot in the November election. That's the measure--inspired by Zev Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor and MTA board member--that would forever forbid the use of county transit sales tax money for subway construction beyond the Red Line link to North Hollywood.

Proposition A, which would also set up annual audits and a citizen oversight panel, has obvious appeal: no more sinkholes or $300-million-a-mile boondoggles. Merchants would never again face slow financial ruin from construction snafus on their streets. Bus riders could drop their fight against underground rail.

But the ballot box is a poor conduit for such a far-reaching and permanent decision. Circumstances change. Miracles do sometimes happen. Los Angeles might get through a year without any natural disasters. The Los Angeles Dodgers might win the pennant. And the MTA just might get its finances in order. If the MTA eventually does do so, it should have every transit option available to it, including subways....

Los Angeles does not need Proposition A to keep the MTA and its board in check. In its rigidity and permanence it is the sort of measure that gives ballot initiatives a bad name. Vote no on Proposition A and keep the county's future transit options open.