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Getting nowhere fast on new mass transit projects

June 04, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Been stuck in traffic lately? Hoping for a way out? Want more mass transit?

In case you missed the news, the board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority recently raised its fares to help balance its books. A day later, MTA chief Roger Snoble told The Times the agency hopes to have enough money to finish two light rail lines under construction and avoid service cutbacks.

As for future mass transit projects, Snoble said, those may have to wait until the MTA can find the money.


What do the years 1968, 1974 and 1976 have in common?

They were years that mass transit projects and accompanying tax increases got voted down in Los Angeles County.

It wasn't until 1980 and 1990 that county voters approved sales tax increases of a half-cent apiece to fund transportation improvements.

Those included starting a rail system from scratch, with the last of the streetcars having shut down in 1963.

The most remarkable thing about it is that as residents and newspapers griped about traffic, various transit systems -- including subways and monorails -- had been proposed in traffic-choked Los Angeles going back to the 1920s.

Until recently, each went nowhere.

And how does that compare to San Francisco?

Voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties in 1962 approved a $792-million bond issue to start building the BART rail system to connect San Francisco to the East Bay.

There were the inevitable setbacks and funding shortages, but the system opened in 1972 and by 1977 had carried 100 million passengers.

Isn't traffic still hideous in the Bay Area?

Yes, but at least there are alternatives to sitting in it.

The city of San Francisco also has light rail, buses and streetcars, and there is commuter rail in the S.F.-San Jose corridor.

So what's next in Southern California?

MTA spokesman Marc Littman said the agency looks to have about $6 billion to spend on transportation projects from now until 2030.

That doesn't appear to be enough to pay for all of the transit and road projects people are pushing, including the subway to the sea, a new busway for Canoga Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, an extension of the Alameda Corridor from the port and several key freeway projects.

One big moment will come this summer when the MTA board is scheduled to adopt a long-range plan that prioritizes projects. That should be a food fight of the highest order.

The fact that quietly has emerged is that funding for transit is drying up. The feds, for example, will typically pay only for half of some rail projects, and the $19.9-billion transportation bond passed by California voters in November probably will be spent throughout the state.

In other words, if the public wants a big mass transit system, the public is going to have to pay more for it.

"Public transportation is local transportation, and the quality of it is decided by the people who live there," said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Assn. "If you want a good system in your community, you and others need to make the decision to invest in it."

The office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has conducted polls to test voter sentiment about a possible ballot measure to fundmore mass transit. But he hasn't proposed anything.

That should tell you what the polls show. Most tax increases need two-thirds approval from voters, a threshold difficult to reach and the reason mass transit in Los Angeles still is a losing proposition.

The historical footnote?

Only 61.2% of voters approved the original bond for BART. But that was after the state Legislature in 1957 lowered the approval threshold from two-thirds to 60%.

Will Los Angeles be getting some new parking meters soon?


The City Council on Wednesday gave the nod to the city's transit agency to begin purchasing a few thousand meters.

What else happened at Wednesday's council meeting?

A young woman named Shakita McCray stepped to the lectern during public testimony. Her brother, Michael Johnson, had been shot dead Aug. 29 on West 54th Street, and Councilman Bernard C. Parks was proposing a $50,000 reward for information leading to the killers.

McCray, with dignity, briefly asked the council for any help it could provide. Then she sat down, a couple of rows behind four of the top brass of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Not one of the four -- including Chief William J. Bratton -- turned around and said anything to McCray. Not even something like, "We're trying to solve the case."

How did this column's proposal to solve the housing crisis go over with readers?

Like a bad piece of fish, in some cases.

To quickly review, our idea was to require each of Los Angeles' 15 council districts to rezone two miles of commercial corridors for residential buildings no taller than four stories.

As an example, we ran a very unflattering photo of Lincoln Boulevard in Venice and suggested it might be a good place to build some housing and make Lincoln look a little better.

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