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Subway Money: Fat Era Ends, and L.A.'s Got to Go to Work

New planning and unity are needed as U.S. funding ebbs

September 15, 1996

Here's a message for everyone interested in the development of mass transit in Southern California. The days of easy money here for huge urban mass transit projects that once commanded more than a fourth of all annual federal transportation funding are over. Los Angeles, the last of the megalopolises to seek a major subway system, is caught in the middle. The sooner this is realized the better.

Just a couple of fiscal years ago, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority received $163 million for rail projects in the federal transportation appropriations bill. That may sound like small potatoes for a multibillion-dollar subway project, but it amounted to 26% of all federal "new start" funding in fiscal 1995. This is the money that keeps such long-term building projects on schedule.

The wake-up call came last fiscal year, when Los Angeles got $85 million in federal funds, or just 12% of the national total. Unfortunately, a long line of people just hit the snooze bar and went back to sleep. Who do we mean? Everyone from our representatives in the U.S. Senate and House to regional and local transit and elected officials.

The proof came last week when House and Senate conferees agreed on just $70 million for Los Angeles Metro Rail in fiscal 1997. That's a mere 44% of what the MTA wanted in its effort to keep its shaky 20-year plan on course. The response? Recriminations and spin control.

"The adverse publicity in Los Angeles has been very harmful to getting more funding," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told reporters. A bit more depth than that is required. Was Los Angeles adverse publicity--a long litany of misadventures in construction, finance and leadership--also responsible for the Senate wanting to slash funding for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Airport Extension from $51 million to just $20 million?

The MTA has come to rely on the notion that Washington will fund half of the subway project here. Not good enough. There is only a soft timetable for that guarantee, if it indeed turns out to be a guarantee. It was within Congress' power to divert money to other projects and shove Los Angeles down on the list of priorities, and this is what it just did.

Meanwhile, it doesn't take a high-priced lobbyist (the MTA has no shortage of those) to see that mass transit funding took a big turn toward the old pork barrel this time around. The Republican-controlled House and Senate largely ignored President Clinton's proposal for full funding for Los Angeles and instead set its own priorities among projects nationwide. The House even wanted to give $2 million for reconstruction of the New Orleans Desire Streetcar Line (made famous by the Tennessee Williams play "A Streetcar Named Desire").

It all boils down to a dearth of California congressional influence, and the inability of local officials to see that Los Angeles is suffering the death of a thousand cuts in national transportation funding. This situation calls for a tight and convincing long-term plan by Los Angeles that pays less attention to parochial political influence and whose district will get a rail stop. Members of Congress are already playing that game, and they own the marbles.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MTA Rail Funding

What the president and Congress proposed and the conference result.

In millions

White House: $158.9

House: $90

Senate: $55

Conference Commmittee: $70

Source: U.S. Congress

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