Transit tax measure fuels debate over price of fares
Television commercials for Los Angeles County’s Measure J offer images of gleaming subway cars and a clear promise: If voters pass the 30-year tax extension, fares will remain low for passengers 62 and older.
But with Tuesday’s election just days away, some transit riders — as well as the chairman of the county transportation agency behind the proposal — contend it would have the opposite result for most riders. Measure J would extend the life of an existing transit tax from 2039 to 2069, providing money to speed completion of at least six rail projects by 2024, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s long-sought subway extension to the Westside.
Foes of Measure J question that strategy, saying the cost of operating so many new lines ahead of schedule will leave the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority no choice but to dramatically hike fares, reduce bus lines or both. Measure J sets aside 35% of the new tax revenue for rail and other transit construction projects, compared with 5% for rail operations.
“Most of the money [in Measure J] is going for construction and leaves comparatively little to operate the [rail] system,” said Sunyoung Yang, lead organizer for the Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group.
County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who serves on Metro’s 13-member board, said backers of Measure J have an obligation to disclose whether fares will rise in the next four years. If it passes and fares go up anyway, voters will feel “misled, rooked, snookered,” he said.
“This is a pocketbook issue. And the … question is, are you really going to extend my taxes and then come back and increase my fare?” he said.
Metro officials have been responding to critics in sharply different ways. The agency’s top executive, Art Leahy, said he is not inclined to recommend a fare increase next year but would not promise there would be no fare hikes after that. “I wouldn’t offer such a guarantee. Not only that, [you] know what I’m pretty sure is going to happen? I bet The Times raises the price of a newspaper.”
Villaraigosa’s high-level transit advisor, Richard Katz, went dramatically in the other direction, arguing that Measure J will do so much to boost ridership and stimulate the economy that fares hikes won’t be needed for 57 years. That’s because Measure J’s accelerated construction schedule would pump tens of billions of dollars into the economy, he said.
“Based on the revenue that I think will come in, I don’t think we’ll need a fare increase through the life of Measure J,” which expires in 2069, said Katz, who also serves on Metro’s board.
Measure J was put on the ballot to extend the life of Measure R, which was passed in 2008 and imposed a half-cent levy on each dollar spent on taxable sales.
Measure R expires in 2039. If Measure J passes, Metro will be able to borrow now against some of the $90 billion in taxes anticipated between 2039 and 2069 to secure new opening dates for various Measure R projects. Those include a downtown subway link in 2019, a rail extension to the South Bay in 2020 and the subway to the Westside in 2022.
Opponents of Measure J point to a Metro report in April that warned that service levels would be financially “unsustainable” by 2017 as the agency’s transportation network expands. That document did not factor in the accelerated schedule envisioned under Measure J. And it offered possible strategies for dealing with the problem, including 10% fare hikes every other year until 2021 and a move to charge passengers more the farther they travel.
Katz downplayed the April report, saying it was prepared by “bean counters” who relied on “extremely conservative” financial assumptions. But Yang, the bus union activist, said the document is one of the reasons her group doesn’t trust other assertions from Metro about fares. “The only thing I can be sure of is what [Metro] has put on paper. So I would go with the document… which says when they hit 2017, they’re going to face a major crisis,” she said.
Villaraigosa’s office declined to comment. But David Yale, Metro’s executive officer for countywide planning and development, conceded that more rail lines will lead to higher operating costs — and higher fares for some riders. However, he argued that fares would remain low, in part because of increased ridership.
“We’re going to be building ... 100 stations in the next 10 years. So that’s going to raise revenue,” he said.
Metro officials contend that their fares are already lower than in many cities around the globe, including New York City, San Francisco, Barcelona and Hong Kong. Ticket prices will remain low, they said, as Metro pursues other budget strategies, such as securing more advertising revenue and keeping employee salary costs low.
The recent anxiety over bus and rail fares is in part the legacy of Measure R. Looking to reassure bus riders, Villaraigosa and other transit officials wrote that measure to include a moratorium on fare increases for students, seniors and disabled passengers. That moratorium is set to expire in June.
As it campaigns against Measure J, the Bus Riders Union has also cited Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan, a policy document updated in 2009. That plan calls for a fare hike every two years until ticket income covers 33% of the agency’s transit operations.
Tony Bell, spokesman for county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, said Metro has failed to inform the public how it would achieve that goal while also operating new, costly rail lines. “This is one of the reasons why, when [Metro] says that Measure J will ‘keep lower fares for seniors, students, disabled’ that it is really misleading,” said Bell, whose boss is also Metro’s board chairman.
Metro officials said they have raised fares only three times in the last 17 years — and have already skipped the hike spelled out in the long-range plan for this year. Meanwhile, Katz suggested that the plan would be reevaluated if Measure J passes.
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