L.A. mayor undaunted as transit tax measure lags

Carla Gonzalez chants during a demonstration against Measure J in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)

With a county transit tax measure he backed teetering between failure and approval, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Wednesday he will go “back to the toolbox” if necessary to accelerate several projects, including a subway to the Westside.

The sales tax extension proposal, Measure J, came up just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, with 100% of precincts reporting. The vote tally Wednesday was 1,367,357 votes or 64.72% in support and 35.28% against, according to the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder.

But there were close to 800,000 outstanding vote-by-mail and provisional ballots that had not been counted, election officials said.

Villaraigosa has made transportation improvements a centerpiece of his mayoral legacy as he reaches the end of eight years in office. He tried to put a positive face on the results at a news conference Wednesday. “We learned that 65% of county voters want a fast-track completion of one of the most ambitious regional transportation plans in the country,” he said, noting there was still a possibility of reaching a two-thirds majority.

“I’m hopeful, but this isn’t my first election; I’m also realistic,” he said. If the measure fails, “We’re going back to the toolbox. We have some very innovative ideas about how we can accelerate transportation funding in this state.”


Measure J would extend a 30-year half-cent transportation tax voters originally passed in 2008 another three decades until 2069. Proponents say it would allow them to borrow against future tax revenues and use that money to speed up transit projects and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in a down economy.

Critics say the money would help expand the county’s rail network at the expense of bus riders, who use the transit system in far larger numbers.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, a major supporter of Measure J, said Tuesday’s results dealt “a major setback” to transportation advocates who hoped to take advantage of low interest rates and cheaper construction costs to extend rail lines.

“This was an opportunity to move forward and save money, and we just won’t be able to do that,” Toebben said.

Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A., said the mayor’s legacy isn’t likely to be tarnished if Measure J fails. “It will be seen by some as a noble attempt to pass a very difficult measure,” Regalado said. “I don’t think it’s going to spell doom and gloom for the mayor, though.”

“The more personal thing for [Villaraigosa] is he won’t get to leave something in place as large as Measure J, that would have helped enormously to carry out some of his transportation desires,” Regalado said.

Proponents said several factors may have depressed Measure J support, including lower voter turnout than in 2008, when President Obama’s initial candidacy drew larger crowds to the polls.

Also, allies in organized labor were directing much of their campaign effort toward state measures that affected government spending and how union dues could be used, backers said. And Villaraigosa said voters may have been confused by Measure J’s language, thinking that it was a new levy rather than a tax extension.

Opponents said that if Measure J fails, it will be because voters saw through the Yes on J campaign.

“Despite the big-bucks campaign of distortions, the voters defeated this special interest tax,” said County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who is also chairman of Metro’s Board of Directors.

Sunyoung Yang of the Bus Riders Union, which campaigned against Measure J, said in a news release Wednesday that Metro’s “record of disdain for the civil rights of the county’s working class Black and Latino majority, and Measure J’s heavy emphasis on corporate boondoggle rail and highway projects simply did not warrant giving the agency more money.”

She said Tuesday’s vote could force a needed shift in the debate over how to allocate Metro funds “with racial equality, social justice, and a good transit policy for all at the core.”

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.