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MTA Seeks to Guarantee State Transit Funds

Officials hope to protect busway and light-rail projects in the face of the budget crisis.

February 06, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Worried that the state's budget crisis threatens their highest priority projects, county transportation officials said Wednesday that they will seek guaranteed funding from Sacramento for a dedicated busway in the San Fernando Valley and a light railway connecting downtown and East Los Angeles.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board also voted to lobby for an increase in transportation revenue, including the possibility of raising the state's 18-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline.

With the state facing a budget shortfall estimated at more than $26 billion by mid-2004, Gov. Gray Davis has proposed cutting $1.7 billion from previously planned transportation spending.

Officials have estimated that the cuts could cost the MTA $500 million in the next year and a half, and could lead to cuts of $2.3 billion by 2009.

Because of the uncertainty, the agency's board said Wednesday, it made sense to draft a new priority list, postponing some plans and seeking to protect others.

The board voted to ask the state to protect $98 million budgeted over the next four years for construction of the 14-mile Chandler busway in the San Fernando Valley, and $27.8 million for the purchase of about 200 buses over the same period. The bus purchase is needed to satisfy terms of a federal agreement calling for better service.

The MTA also wants the state to commit to spending $191 million through 2007 for the six-mile Eastside railway, planned to connect downtown and East Los Angeles.

The agency says that the federal government will pull back on its promise of about $500 million for the project without a renewed state commitment. Losing the federal money would probably kill the railway.

In Sacramento, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), applauded the MTA's decision to refocus its priorities.

"I think what they've done is a good thing, in general," said Murray, adding that he did not know of any other agency in the state that was ready with such a list. "They are being aggressive about their needs. We want them to prioritize things that have broken ground or can break ground very soon. It looks like that's what they are doing."

Groundbreaking on the Chandler busway occurred in January and state money is needed to complete key contracts that will keep construction moving.

MTA officials hope to start construction of the Eastside rail line this year. They hope to sign an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration in August securing funding for the nearly $1-billion project.

As for the prospect of raising gas taxes to help pay for transportation projects, Murray was blunt: "It's not going to happen. It's just not realistic at this point."

MTA officials will now present their priority list to the California Transportation Commission at a meeting later this month.

The agency is particularly concerned about the Eastside railway project. David Yale, MTA director of regional transportation planning, warned in a recent interview that without a new state commitment the project could be deferred, downscaled or even shelved.

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