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MTA to Seek State OK for Bond Package

September 26, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Trying to solve a budget crunch that threatens its long-range plans, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted Thursday to seek state approval for a $215-million bond package that would pay for projects such as street widenings and a long-sought carpool lane in Palmdale.

The vote at the agency's monthly board meeting came as MTA officials castigated their Washington lobbyists for failing to bring in enough federal money, and a key board member expressed concern that there might not be enough money from Washington to build a planned light-rail link to East Los Angeles.

The MTA said the bond money would help it build 18 projects that the agency considers key to easing what transit experts have called the nation's worst traffic congestion. The board gave MTA administrators the go-ahead to seek California Transportation Commission approval for the plan, which would allow the bond sale by the end of this year.

When the budget crisis hit Sacramento this year, state transportation officials cut deeply into MTA funding, and planners at the agency said they would have to shelve scores of projects for two years or more. The agency devised a deal with the state in April that allowed the MTA to front more than $300 million for big-ticket transit projects like a 14-mile San Fernando Valley busway, which is now under construction. The state is supposed to pay the money back when its finances are healthy.

With state funding over the next several years uncertain, the MTA says that it needs the bond money to start building long-planned, smaller-scale projects.

Those include road widening near the Playa Vista development in West Los Angeles and freeway lane improvements in the San Fernando Valley.

One of the most expensive projects would be a six-mile, $39-million carpool lane for the Antelope Valley Freeway near Palmdale Airport.

Critics questioned the wisdom of a bond package that would require issuance costs of about $2.1 million and annual debt service payments of about $27 million when the agency has said it may trim bus service.

"They are tossing around money on projects on the one hand, and telling people they don't have enough money on the other," said Tom Rubin, a former finance officer for the county's transit agency. Rubin said the agency is reducing several bus routes to save money. It was also recently ordered to buy 117 new buses as part of a federal court order and could be told to order scores more in the coming years, he said.

Also at the MTA meeting Thursday, board members posed heated questions to their federal lobbying team about their performance.

The team is headed by Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm that was hired in January in the hope that it could bring home more money.

The MTA has asked for about $120 million in federal appropriations this year, which it hoped to use for light-rail lines, buses and roadway technology such as signals and meters. So far, Congress has pledged less than $15 million.

Even more important to the MTA, an essential agreement from the federal government to pay half the cost of the MTA's top priority -- a six-mile, $980-million rail line from downtown to East Los Angeles -- hasn't been signed.

MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble said he still hopes that the agreement will be signed within months.

But Los Angeles County Supervisor and MTA board member Gloria Molina said she was "extremely worried."

"I am told the grant agreement is moving forward," she said, "but where is it?"

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