Tim Rutten: Villaraigosa’s transportation innovation

In politics, as in commerce, there are times when you have to grow to survive.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa believes that’s the case with his 30/10 transportation initiative, which is why he’s in Washington on Wednesday arguing for a national version of the plan that its improbably bipartisan backers are calling America Fast Forward.

Essentially, 30/10 proposes using federal loans to leverage the half-cent sales tax increase to which 67.9% of Los Angeles County residents agreed when they passed Measure R. Those loans, which would be secured by the sales tax revenues, would allow the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build the 12 transit projects specified in the measure in a single decade rather than over three as originally anticipated. America Fast Forward makes that sort of partnership available to any local government that launches a similar funding initiative.

From the start, 30/10 won the support of the Obama administration and most of the key congressional Democrats involved in making transportation policy, particularly Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif). The midterm elections, however, not only brought the Republicans to power in the House but also changed the conceptual landscape when it comes to federal spending initiatives: Anything resembling an earmark is beyond the pale; any new spending is suspect.


Like most of the country’s mayors, Villaraigosa is keenly aware of local government’s simultaneous need to create jobs and invest in future growth. He has used that shared sentiment — along with President Obama’s observation that 30/10 provides a national template — to build a bipartisan coalition behind America Fast Forward. In an era when bipartisanship is notoriously elusive, this proposal already has been endorsed by both Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

“We knew we had to go national,” Villaraigosa said in an interview Monday. “We’ve also won the support of 105 mayors — 20% of them Republicans — because they understand the prospect of getting federal assistance through the traditional channels is now remote. As mayors, we know we need to take innovative steps to get access to private capital and to leverage our local funding through new partnerships with Washington. That can be accomplished by changes in existing federal transportation bond programs and an expansion of TIFIA [the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act].

“This is a program that puts people to work now at little cost, since 98% of the federal dollars would be repaid from local sources. This is more than a step we’re proposing; it’s a leap forward. There’s nothing in the country that’s as exciting right now, because America Fast Forward is doable, even in this divided, partisan environment.”

The original 30/10 proposal’s advantages for Los Angeles County always have been clear. What’s striking is how well they translate onto the national stage. According to a study done recently by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., congressional passage of America Fast Forward would create 918,300 jobs paying $50.8 billion in wages. That translates into $5.8 billion in state and local tax revenues and $10.6 billion for Washington. Not a bad return on a secure investment.

In an email Tuesday, Boxer expressed her support for taking 30/10 national. “Los Angeles has been a leader in developing a way to leverage funds — and leveraging is crucial in these tough economic times,” she wrote. “By using Los Angeles’ initiative as a model, we can create jobs, reduce pollution and ease traffic congestion across the nation. This is the kind of initiative that I believe the House and Senate can work together on.”

America Fast Forward also addresses an issue that has begun to loom large in the minds of transit policymakers on both sides of the aisle: The country’s surface transportation system is increasingly inadequate, and what we have is crumbling. In testimony this month to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Geoffrey S. Yarema, who advises transit districts across the nation, pointed out that the revenues from the Highway Transportation Fund “will fund through 2035 only 44% of the federal share needed to maintain the current system and only 36% of the federal share needed for system improvements. Moreover, since 2008, the federal government has had to infuse approximately $34.5 billion in general fund money to keep the HTF afloat. Neither further general fund transfers nor gas tax increases are tenable in the current political environment.”

True, but the sort of innovation incorporated in America Fast Forward most surely is.