Congress set to OK bill that would help fund L.A. transit projects

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks during a news conference at the Culver City Expo Line station last week.
(Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times)

As he seeks to build a legacy as a big-project transportation mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday made gains at home and in Washington in his efforts to speed expansion of the Los Angeles region’s transit system.

Congress is expected as early as Friday to approve a long-awaited transportation bill that includes a measure sought by Villaraigosa during at least two years of lobbying federal officials.

The bill would expand a federal loan program that could provide the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority with at least $350 million over the next two years and $3.3 billion more in the future for transit projects.

A report by House-Senate negotiators said the expanded loan program would help communities “leverage their transportation resources and stretch federal dollars further than they have been stretched before.”

During a Metro Board of Directors meeting Thursday, Villaraigosa celebrated the inclusion of his “America Fast Forward” initiative in the proposed bill.

“We went together and we knocked on those doors, we got more than 200 mayors behind America Fast Forward,” he said. “When we double the size of this rail system, we’re going to transform this county.”

If the measure becomes law, Metro is expected to be among the first to apply to the U.S. Transportation secretary for a chunk of nearly $17 billion in loans expected to be made available nationally under an expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.

“The staff is prepared to move with dispatch,” said Raffi Hamparian, Metro director of federal affairs, predicting movement “within a matter of months.”

But the loans, which Metro proposes to repay from a half-cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2008, won’t be enough for the mayor to deliver on his goal of building a dozen transit lines in 10 years instead of 30.

So on Thursday, Villaraigosa was back to lobbying, this time at the Metro board to place on the November ballot a measure to indefinitely extend the half-cent sales tax beyond its current 2039 expiration.

The board passed the measure 10 to 3, but limited the proposed extension to 30 years.

It must also be approved by the Board of Supervisors and the Legislature before it can be placed on the ballot.

If that happens and voters approve it, officials plan to borrow against those future revenues to help expedite construction of the transit projects.

The rare bipartisan congressional support for Villaraigosa’s initiative — the name America Fast Forward appears in the 599-page bill — is likely to burnish the mayor’s national image as he contemplates his future once his City Hall tenure ends next year.

When he first proposed expanding a federal loan program, in the midst of a determined congressional drive to reduce Washington’s red ink, “everybody laughed us out of their offices,” he said in 2010.

But Villaraigosa built support for his initiative by portraying it as creative financing that could serve as a national model for creating jobs and reducing traffic congestion and emissions.

Simon reported from Washington and Bloomekatz reported from Los Angeles.