Los Angeles County voters have a major decision to make about investing in regional transportation for a 21st century economy. The proposed Measure M sales tax increase for transportation will probably succeed or fail by a slim margin, which magnifies the significance of the self-defeating opposition from some southern county leaders.
Measure M promises to bring sorely needed investment in transportation infrastructure throughout the region. With a half-cent sales tax increase, it would generate $860 million per year in 2017 dollars, which would help fund local street improvements, freeway and bridge repairs, bus and rail transit, commuter rail, as well as affordable fares for student, senior and disabled passengers.
Unlike past sales tax measures, county officials used a bottom-up process to develop Measure M, with local leaders throughout the county identifying their most pressing transportation needs. That process gave rise to the list of projects included in Measure M, as well as its "local return" formulas, which were necessary to get sufficient political support.
The challenge for proponents of Measure M now is that they need two-thirds of voters to approve it, a threshold required by the state Constitution for this type of local initiative. Getting that much buy-in from a county as large and diverse as Los Angeles is a tall order. A similar measure in 2012 failed by less than 16,000 votes out of almost 2.9 million cast.
Although polling data has been fairly promising, leaders in the southern part of the county, including the Gateway and South Bay cities, could succeed in spiking the measure.
Officials in cities such as Torrance, Signal Hill, and Carson have come out in opposition to Measure M, arguing that their constituents won't receive a "fair share" of the benefits and that their preferred projects are too far down the priority list. For example, they complain that improvements to the 405 Freeway, the Green Line extension from Redondo Beach to Torrance, and the planned light-rail extension through southeast County to downtown won't actually happen for decades.
While these leaders understandably would like more guaranteed dollars and faster timetables, Gateway and South Bay cities will actually receive substantial return on the tax in terms of local road, transit and freeway funds. Local transit agencies will receive new funding, cities will have money for freeway upgrades if they choose to prioritize them, and their resident seniors, students and disabled passengers will receive discount fares. , if Measure M passes, project timetables could be accelerated with innovative financing methods, such as through public-private partnerships.
Residents of southern L.A. County are of course part of the greater region of Los Angeles — whether they work, visit, or shop in other parts of the county. Regional travel data from 2014 show that almost half of all peak period commutes from the Gateway and South Bay regions are bound for other parts of the county. These residents will benefit from mobility improvements throughout L.A. — not just the projects in their backyard. They'll certainly stand to gain from some of the proposed signature projects, such as rail access to LAX and multiple countywide bus rapid transit lines.
Local leaders are within their rights when they advocate for their constituents. But L.A.'s success as a metropolis lives and dies by its ability to function as a whole, rather than a collection of isolated, feuding cities.
Parochial infighting led to narrow losses on similar proposed sales tax measures in the 1960s and 1970s, which caused Los Angeles to miss out on funding opportunities that enabled cities such as San Francisco and Washington to launch their rail systems decades before L.A.'s Metro — and at lower cost. Measure M could face the same fate, unless voters throughout the region decide to tackle their common transportation needs together.
Ethan N. Elkind researches and writes on environmental law and policy with a joint appointment at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law. He is the author of "Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City."