Gas prices are up, traffic is down, and mass transit ridership has gone through the roof.
With all those issues on the table, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meets today with a big decision on its plate: Should voters be asked in November to raise the sales tax in Los Angeles County by a half-cent on the dollar for the next three decades to pay for $30 billion in mass transit and road projects?
Proponents think they have enough MTA board votes to get it done. But because members of the board and other officials have been arguing over how best to spend that money, the parochial fighting may tank the whole effort.
If the sales tax is approved by voters, how would the money be spent?
The increase would raise the sales tax to 8.75% and be in effect for 30 years. The money generated, however, could be higher or lower than $30 billion depending on future spending habits of county residents.
Thirteen mass transit projects and 16 road projects would split the pot (see the chart). There would also be about $6 billion to be shared by all the cities in the county for their own projects.
Would all the projects be completed with this money?
No. And this is an important point. The spending plan that the MTA has put together shows the estimated construction costs in 2008 dollars, even though inflation would probably boost the price tag because the work would unfold over many years. Even now, most of the projects on the list would still need state, federal and possibly private money to be finished.
It's also important to note that the sales tax revenues do not all show up at once -- they would flow into local coffers over the next three decades.
Why so many projects?
Politics. A sales tax increase needs two-thirds support by voters to pass, and many local officials believe the only way to achieve that is to spread the benefits around. L.A. County covers 4,084 square miles and has more than 10 million people -- making it the most populated county in the nation, with a host of transportation needs.
Is the sales tax definitely going to make the fall ballot?
No. If the 13-member MTA board votes to go forward with the proposal today -- and it appears that the seven votes necessary are there to do so -- the Legislature still must approve a bill, AB 2321, that would allow the county to take the measure to voters.
Various elected officials, particularly those representing the San Gabriel Valley, have complained that their regions might not get their fair share of projects from the sales tax, and they want assurances that a Gold Line extension would be funded immediately.
In particular, they want the board to give the Gold Line $80 million now so they can begin seeking more than $300 million in federal money.
Five members of Congress representing the San Gabriel Valley dispatched a letter to MTA board members demanding that they give the seed money. The board declined to do so when a similar request was made last month.
MTA board member John Fasana, who is also a Duarte councilman, is the co-sponsor (with County Supervisor Mike Antonovich) of a motion that will be considered by the board today to give that $80 million to the Gold Line.
Fasana said Wednesday he can't support the sales tax plan as written because it leaves too many questions unanswered. "I've got some concerns about equity," Fasana told me. "My [other] issue is that some of these projects will get built and some won't."
Another of his concerns: where the money goes if a project such as the 710 tunnel falls through. Does it go to the subway? The Gold Line? A black hole?
Fasana also said he could support the plan if amendments to the sales tax proposal are approved today.
What are supporters saying about this push-back?
"I'm not surprised by the parochialism -- to a large extent, people are elected to deliver for their district," said MTA board member Richard Katz, a former Assembly member. "I get that part, but I don't think people fully comprehend what benefits their district."
His point: Because many people commute such great distances in the county, projects everywhere have an effect on their immediate area -- a commuter in Claremont, for example, could take Metrolink to a Westside job.
Roger Snoble, the MTA's chief executive, has argued that the sales tax is the best chance for L.A. County to get billions of dollars for road and rail construction. "Without it" -- the money -- "it's extremely bleak," Snoble told the California Transportation Commission on Wednesday. "And we won't be adding much capacity to the system."
Steve Hymon writes The Times' Bottleneck blog about Southern California traffic and transportation in real time. Check it out at www.latimes.com/bottleneck.
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A $30-billion half-cent-on- the-dollar sales tax proposal being considered today by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board includes these projects as now planned:
* $7.9 billion for countywide bus operations
* $6 billion to cities for transportation needs
* $4 billion for Westside subway extension
* $1.1 billion for Metrolink operations
* $1 billion for transit along the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass*
* $971 million for Crenshaw Boulevard light rail or busway
* $925 million for Expo Line light rail to Santa Monica
* $735 million for Gold Line from Pasadena to Claremont
* $906 million for interchange improvements on the 405, 110, 105 and 91 freeways in the South Bay
* $780 million for a 710 Freeway tunnel under South Pasadena
* $590 million for 605 Freeway interchange improvements
* $590 million for 710 Freeway improvements in south L.A. County
* $400 million for Alameda Corridor East street crossing separations
* $250 million for countywide sound wall expansion
* Funding would begin in 2030, with completion in 2038.
Steve Hymon writes The Times' blog about Southern California traffic in real time at