Frustrated by state and federal budget constraints, Los Angeles transit officials are considering asking county voters to approve a temporary half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for new light-rail lines, busways and an extension of the Red Line subway down Wilshire Boulevard.
The tax hike would require legislation in Sacramento, as well as a two-thirds majority vote by the public late next year. If approved, it would generate at least $4.1 billion for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over the six years it would be collected, according to projections.
That infusion of money would accelerate the MTA's building plans and lead to the completion of more than a dozen new transit projects within about 10 years.
The MTA board expects to decide Thursday whether to support the tax hike, which so far has the backing of MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the MTA board.
The MTA already collects two half-cent sales tax levies, approved by voters in 1980 and 1990, that generate more than $1 billion a year. But officials say they need additional revenue to replace money they were expecting from Sacramento before the state budget crunch cut into transportation funding. Without a new revenue source, advocates of the plan say, the MTA would lose the chance to capitalize immediately on the successful opening last month of the 14-mile Gold Line light railway between Pasadena and Los Angeles and its vision of creating a viable transit network would be delayed for years.
Without new revenue, the only major projects likely to be built by 2008 are a 14-mile dedicated busway in the San Fernando Valley and a six-mile light-rail extension to East Los Angeles, officials said.
"Our plan frankly looks pretty stark," Snoble said. "There's just not going to be a whole lot of action on many of these things that need to be done unless there is some new funding source."
Details of the plan are still being worked out by its author, state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), and MTA staff. But MTA analysts say a new tax could allow work to begin on about 16 projects, including freeway improvements, construction of a dedicated busway down Crenshaw Boulevard and the purchase of scores of new buses that Murray said would ensure compliance with a federal court order.
The biggest share of the added tax revenue, about $3 billion, would go to trains. The bill would earmark money to build the Expo Line light railway between Santa Monica and downtown L.A. It would also pay for extending the Gold Line to Claremont and creating a spur through downtown, connecting the Gold Line directly to the L.A.-to-Long Beach Blue Line.
The money also would provide nearly $1 billion for a three-mile extension of the MTA's Red Line subway down Wilshire Boulevard, one of the nation's most crowded corridors, to Fairfax Avenue.
That would extend the subway close to popular destinations such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Park La Brea apartments and the Grove shopping center.
The projects being considered are all on MTA planning lists, though some have not been top priorities. For example, the Gold Line spur though downtown, while an important link for the railway, has never been on the agency's front burner.
Observers say the tax hike proposal could be a forerunner of a wave of similar budget-enhancing requests by California transit agencies, as each part of the state struggles to cope with funding cuts.
One such move is underway in the Bay Area, where state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda) is sponsoring a bill that would add an additional $1 toll on most of his region's bridges and provide millions to extend the BART rail system.
For the sales tax measure to be put on the ballot in Los Angeles County, the state must adopt legislation allowing an increase in the overall county sales tax, now capped at 8.75%. Most of Los Angeles County currently has an 8.25% sales tax, with only the city of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island at the county threshold.
Snoble, Yaroslavsky and Murray said they favor the tax hike because they are worried about how much money the MTA can expect from Sacramento and Washington over the next several years. Federal and state money accounts for about half the cost of expensive MTA projects. In a budget-balancing move, legislators last month stripped away roughly two-thirds of this year's planned $1.8-billion statewide transportation outlay and many experts predicted additional reductions over the next few years.
MTA analysts say they expect to lose about $500 million in state funding over the next year. If similar cuts continue, the agency says, it stands to lose about $2.3 billion that it was counting on from Sacramento through 2009.
The federal government also is showing signs that it will provide less to the MTA. A House subcommittee recently allocated $10 million for the agency's proposed East Los Angeles light-rail line, although the MTA was seeking about $50 million.