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Road Sage

Levy for roads gains traction

Members of the L.A. business and labor communities say they may back a sales tax to reduce gridlock.

June 12, 2008|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

With gasoline prices skyrocketing, key members of the Los Angeles business community are beginning to throw their political weight behind a sales tax increase to pay for more road and mass transit projects, including the beginning of the subway to the sea.

David Fleming, chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, told me Tuesday that as a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member he intends to vote to move the sales tax forward toward the November ballot. He just wants assurances that the money won't be raided later for some other government purpose.

Fleming, a partner at the giant Latham & Watkins law firm, is former chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and lives in the San Fernando Valley. He was one of many business leaders that met Wednesday at the City Club in downtown Los Angeles to discuss the prospective sales tax.

Fleming was appointed to the MTA board by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to build the subway to the sea. If Fleming is a bellwether on support for the sales tax in the business community or the mayor's office, that could translate into serious financial and political backing for a campaign that must ultimately win two-thirds voter support.

"We did a poll of our members in the business federation and asked them what are the three things you want us to work on," Fleming said. "We expected them to say taxes and regulation, but the No. 1 issue was congestion."

It's a sign that a coalition for a sales tax increase appears to be forming. Another twist is that Maria Elena Durazo, the secretary-treasurer of the influential Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, is also on record saying she may back such a tax because transportation improvements would help union members get around and probably provide construction jobs.

A bill in the Legislature would have to pass to allow L.A. County to take the issue to voters this year. And a majority of the MTA board would have to approve the tax measure."I don't think there's any question the majority of the board" would support it, Fleming said. "But we have to craft it in such a way that the public is going to understand it and support it."

There's been a fascinating technical race in the last few years as companies compete to give motorists real-time traffic information. The idea is that if motorists know there's heavy traffic ahead, they may divert to a less-congested route.

The makers of in-car GPS systems and cellphones have been aggressively working on this. And, yes, radio traffic reporters try to provide motorists with that kind of information. But as most people know, radio traffic reports tend to be short -- and if they don't say anything about the road you're driving on, then you're often stuck in the wasteland of AM radio until the next report.

Now Caltrans District 7, which covers L.A. and Ventura counties, is getting into the act. The agency earlier this week announced that it's putting four message signs on Southland freeways that will compare travel times to the same destination on different routes. The signs activate June 23.

Existing signs only tell you how long a trip on one freeway is expected to take. Compare that to one of the new signs that will be on the southbound 5 in Sun Valley. That sign will tell motorists the time it will take to travel to downtown L.A. on the southbound 5 and the southbound 170. So, if it's 40 minutes on the five and 20 minutes on the 170 (unlikely as that may be), motorists can switch freeways.

"We're very confident that putting this information in commuters' hands will be a valuable tool," said Jeanne Bonfilio, a Caltrans spokeswoman.

It sounds neat, although it raises an obvious question: What happens if too many motorists heed the signs and overcrowd a previously uncrowded freeway?

Bonfilio said that is a possibility, but that also assumes that everyone traveling on the freeway is going to the same place. Rather, she said, the hope is to even the flows among different freeways.

The other three signs will be located:

* On the eastbound 10 in El Monte, advising motorists of travel times to the 57 Freeway via the 10 or the 60.

* On the westbound 10 in Baldwin Park, advising motorists of travel times to downtown L.A. via the 10 or the 60.

* On the westbound 60 near the City of Industry, advising motorists of travel times to downtown L.A. via the 60 or the 10.

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Steve Hymon writes The Times' blog about Southern California traffic and transportation in real time.

Check it out at latimes.com/bottleneck

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