The MTA’s sales-tax boondoggle

Led by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who penned an article recently in The Times, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is proposing a raid on transit riders and taxpayers to fund a network of rail projects and highway expansions. In doing so, the MTA will gut its most successful and cost-effective transit project -- the bus system. The MTA needs two-thirds of voters in November to approve a half-cent sales tax increase on L.A. County residents.

But do you know that you already give the MTA one cent on the dollar for every taxable purchase in L.A. County, which generates $1.4 billion a year? Given its history of mismanagement, cost overruns, attacks on the bus system and punitive fare increases, what possessed the MTA to believe it has the right to ask for more of our money?

And why would the Bus Riders Union, which represents about 500,000 daily MTA bus riders and has its own comprehensive transit plan, oppose a tax for more transportation infrastructure?

* The sales tax is regressive. The rich and the poor have to pay the same amount -- and the poor cannot afford it.

* The increased sales tax would only aggravate the very conditions of racial discrimination -- building rail by raiding the bus system -- that led to the Bus Riders Union’s 1994 lawsuit against the MTA, brought under provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The MTA funds rail projects (subways cost about $350 million a mile to build) that serve development interests and a more white, more affluent ridership. In the meantime, the bus network that serves 500,000 riders every day, or 80% of MTA customers, goes underfunded. Most of these low-income, transit-dependent riders are Latino, black or Asian-Pacific Islander, and more than 60% of them are women. The vast majority of the revenue that would be generated by the increased sales tax would go toward building rail lines and highways. Even the small amount that would be set aside for buses has the arrogant asterisk denoting that if rail projects run out of money, bus funds can be raided.

* The sales tax would generate rail boondoggles. To get elected officials from Los Angeles County to support this tax, each was promised at least one rail line in their district. The MTA admits that its total budget for these projects adds up to about $60 billion, and many experts estimate that it will take at least $80 billion to finish them between 2015 and 2020. So even if the MTA raises $40 billion over the life of the 30-year sales-tax increase, it will probably have to ask taxpayers for more -- combined with fare increases and service cuts.

* The MTA board is out of step with global-warming science and policy. With 20% of the sales-tax funds planned for highways, and the majority for rail, combined with a willful dismantling of the bus system, L.A. will continue to be the most polluted city in the U.S.

What should we do instead of impose a sales-tax increase?

The bus system is the only viable 24/7, countywide system that can get people out of their cars. The MTA has 2,200 buses fueled by compressed natural gas on the streets -- the product of 12 years of struggle by the Bus Riders Union that forced the MTA to get rid of dilapidated diesel buses and invest $2.7 billion in bus improvements. If the MTA doubled its fleet from the present 2,200 buses to 4,400, added bus-only lanes and ran more bus lines on freeways, it could dramatically reduce auto ridership, get affluent “choice riders” out of their cars, reduce bus overcrowding and create a seamless set of bus connections. Encouraged by imminent $5-a-gallon gas and popular support to curtail personal auto use to address the global-warming crisis, bus ridership could rise by 10% a year and double in less than nine years.

It would cost only $733 million to purchase the additional 2,200 buses, which could be here in 12 to 18 months and run for at least 12 years. Operating them for a decade would cost just $3.7 billion. All in all, a first-class bus system with no fare increases or service cuts would cost the MTA less than $5 billion, and it could be done without additional sales taxes.

Instead, the MTA proposes a sales-tax increase to build up to $80 billion in rail and highway projects. This raises fiscal mismanagement and racial discrimination to an indictable level. Right out of a Charles Dickens or Richard Wright novel, the MTA asks bus riders to support rail projects, the poor to support the rich, the transit-dependent to support the contractors, and the public to support politicians’ own ambitions

In our organizing, there is a growing backlash against the MTA’s proposed sales tax increase. We already pay federal, Social Security and state income taxes -- in addition to the 8.25% local sales tax. The MTA’s half-cent increase won’t make the ballot unless the Legislature approves it. Ask Assemblyman Michael Feuer, sponsor of AB 2321, and Assembly Speaker Assembly Karen Bass to reject the MTA bill, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto it if it passes the Legislature.

If the sales-tax increase gets on the ballot in November, a landslide rejection by the electorate would send a loud message to Schwarzenegger, the Legislature and the MTA to cut costly rail and highway projects, live within their means and prioritize the doubling of the county’s bus fleet. A transit-rider revolt on the same ballot as the 2008 presidential election may convince a President Obama that some of his influential supporters on the MTA board need a dose of tough love.

Defeating the sales-tax increase could trigger a progressive movement for government accountability, a fair use of existing tax revenues and a unique view from the left that the government already has enough of our money. The best way for government to raise funds for social programs is to reduce funding for prisons and highways, the military budget and the runaway money train to fund new programs. It is from this perspective that the government already has enough of our money.

Eric Mann is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. Manuel Criollo is the lead organizer of the Bus Riders Union.

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