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Sales Tax for MTA Could Face '04 Vote

Davis gets a bill allowing placement on the ballot. The half-cent increase would raise billions for transit projects but needs a two-thirds approval.

October 06, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Assuming that it receives final state approval this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will probably ask Los Angeles County voters to adopt a new half-cent sales tax that would raise billions of dollars for buses, light rail lines and a costly subway extension, among other projects.

The MTA board has not yet decided whether to put the issue on the ballot, but key officials -- including Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and board Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky -- said the move was likely, possibly next year but perhaps not until 2005 or 2006.

In the final days of the state legislative session last month, lawmakers voted to give the MTA authority to put the tax measure before voters. Gov. Gray Davis or his successor in Tuesday's recall election has until Oct. 12 to sign or veto the bill, although no action would be the same as approval.

The levy, which would require two-thirds approval from voters, would raise the sales tax in most of the county to 8.75%. The increase would last 6 1/2 years before going off the books and would raise more than $4 billion, according to estimates.

MTA officials say it would pave the way for one of the busiest periods of transportation construction in the region's history, paying for a three-mile extension of the Red Line subway; a light rail line between downtown and Santa Monica; an extension of the Gold Line; a north-south busway for the San Fernando Valley; and new freeway lanes, sound walls, buses and trains. MTA officials say they could finish the construction within about 10 years.

The most vocal supporters of the bill on the 13-member MTA board are Yaroslavsky, who is also a county supervisor; Hahn; Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke; and Los Angeles Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. They all said they thought the tax increase would go before voters -- if not next year, then by 2006.

Even opponents of the measure acknowledge that the board is likely to embrace it.

"I don't think we have the votes to stop it," said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member who believes that subway construction is a waste of money. "I just don't feel confident there's any way to get in front of this thing."

The MTA already has two half-cent sales taxes that raise more than $1 billion a year. When they were approved by voters in 1980 and 1990, officials also promised an array of transit projects. Some of those have never been built.

Voters barely approved the 1990 tax, which needed only a simple majority. Passing muster this time, with the two-thirds approval now required, will be extremely difficult, officials said.

"It's a hail Mary pass," Yaroslavsky said. "But we have to take this opportunity. This is the one thing we can do to jump-start an integrated transit system" and to ensure that "a system comes together in our lifetime."

Yaroslavsky said the odds could change significantly if the Legislature approved bills to reduce the threshold for countywide tax increases to 50%.

If the proposed tax is approved, planners say, the transportation landscape in L.A. County will be transformed after 10 years of construction.

From downtown Los Angeles, train riders would be able to take light rail to Santa Monica and the subway to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Bus passengers would be able to crisscross the Valley in landscaped bus-only lanes. Motorists would have fewer freeway bottlenecks across the region.

Critics are already lining up. Some say the MTA, with its history of mismanagement, can't be trusted to spend the tax money wisely. The Bus Riders Union advocacy group argues that the tax would only hurt the pocketbooks of the people who rely on transit the most -- the poor.

And others say there's no assurance that the MTA would have enough money to run all of the new buses and trains. The sales tax measure doesn't include money for operations, and the MTA barely has enough money to keep its current fleet of buses and trains going.

That opens the door for major problems, said Martin Wachs, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies. "I would be extremely reluctant about it if there's nothing for operations," he said. "How are they going to run this system?"

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Paving the way for future projects

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is laying groundwork for a vote on a new half-cent sales tax, which would raise billions of dollars for projects. Here are the highlights:

*--* Cost, in millions Exposition Boulevard light rail transit project $925 Metro Red Line extension to Fairfax Avenue $900 Interstate 5 capacity enhancements (three projects) $627 Sound walls, grade separations and other $550 improvements Metro Gold Line (Pasadena to Irwindale) $328 Dedicated busway on Crenshaw from Wilshire $236 Boulevard to LAX Metro Center Connector $160 Clean-fuel buses* $150 Interstate 5/Carmenita Road interchange $138 San Fernando Valley north-south dedicated busway $101

*--*

* The first priority for the expenditure of these funds shall be satisfaction by the MTA of the requirements of the consent decree between the MTA and the Labor Community and Strategy Center, et al., including the purchase of the entire number of buses required to comply with the decree.

Source: Senate Bill 314

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