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Road Sage

Half-cent L.A. County transit tax faces a hard road

Among hurdles, it needs a companion bill and a two-thirds majority vote.

July 26, 2008|Steve Hymon and Jennifer Oldham | Times staff writers

It may be only half a penny, but from the looks of things on Friday, an effort to raise sales taxes in Los Angeles County to pay for a slew of mass transit projects and road improvements will probably be a heated contest this fall.

On Thursday, the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to put a half-cent sales tax hike on the Nov. 4 ballot. The Legislature still must approve a companion bill, but proponents are already planning a fall campaign for the tax, which they say could raise from $30 billion to $40 billion for new rail lines and to fix freeway bottlenecks.

At the gas pump, however, the sales tax proved to be a tough sell. Among motorists interviewed by The Times, a typical response came from Henry Gonzalez, a 19-year-old biology major who was boarding an Orange Line bus in North Hollywood.

"I honestly would not vote for it," said Gonzalez, who added that he started taking the bus to summer school at Valley College recently, paying $13 a week in fares compared to $95 a week to drive his car from Westlake to chemistry class.

The problem, he said, is that the new sales tax would unfairly place the burden on lower-income workers who rely on mass transit to get around town.

But other San Fernando Valley residents said they would gladly support such a tax hike, citing positive experiences on mass transit in other cities that eclipsed the mishmash of systems in Los Angeles, which often leave residents unable to get where they need to be in a timely manner.

"I'm a big believer in public transportation," said Jamie Tarlove as she topped off her gleaming black Honda Pilot with $75 in gas at a Chevron station in Sherman Oaks. Saying she just returned from a vacation in New York with her family, the schoolteacher recounted how her clan took the subway everywhere.

"I feel sorry for all the housekeepers on the corner who have to wait for a bus on Sundays," she added, saying she often drove her housekeeper home rather than asking her to take the bus.

She also expressed surprise that part of the money from a tax increase would be used to finance Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "subway to the sea," saying that she thought the new system was "already a done deal."

The sales tax, however, is no sure thing. If it makes the ballot, it will have to secure two-thirds approval for passage -- often a high hurdle -- and it will hardly be the only tax voters face at the polls.

Voters in some parts of the city and county will probably see three taxes backed by Villaraigosa. Besides the sales tax, there will be an annual $36-per-parcel tax to pay for more gang programs in Los Angeles, and there could be a Los Angeles Unified School District bond.

Two weeks ago, Villaraigosa's pollster, Washington D.C.-based Feldman Group, asked voters to say whether they would support bond measures ranging from $3.2 billion to $6 billion to $10 billion. The poll showed that a $10-billion school bond would secure the 55% needed for passage from district voters, as would the smaller bond measures.

L.A. Unified is set to vote later this month on whether to move forward with that bond.

The mayor's office is likely to oversee the campaign for the transportation sales tax, which supporters hope to call Measure R -- the R standing for traffic relief. The thinking is that the campaign will cost $5 million to $8 million, placing a heavy focus on those who already take mass transit and younger voters who, pollsters believe, are sympathetic to mass transit and are expected to turn out to vote for Sen. Barack Obama.

Maria Elena Durazo, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, appeared before the MTA board on Thursday to say that 25 of the unions under the federation's umbrella wanted to see the sales tax go to the ballot.

Durazo said that although the federation is normally leery of sales taxes because they are regressive -- that is, they hit everyone with the same tax rate without regard to income levels -- this one was different.

"It's jobs," Durazo said, "but it's more than that. It's about how do you get to your job. . . . If there was not a sense of urgency on this, our people wouldn't be for it."

MTA board member David Fleming, an appointee of the mayor with long ties to the business community, said that he expected area firms to donate to the campaign.

"When we did polling of our members at the business federation, I was surprised to see that the No. 1 issue was not taxes or regulation. It was traffic," said Fleming, the chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation and an attorney at Latham & Watkins.

"It has to do with delivery of goods and services and getting employees to work on time."

Meanwhile, some potential opposition began taking shape on Friday.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich said through a spokesman that he may ask the Board of Supervisors to put a measure on the November ballot that would require sales tax money to be spent in proportion to where it is raised in the county.

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