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Road Sage

Villaraigosa wants sales tax hike for transit

Proposal for a countywide half-cent increase would go before voters in November.

June 26, 2008|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said for the first time Wednesday that he would like to ask voters in November to consider a half-cent sales-tax increase in Los Angeles County to pay for more road and mass transit projects.

"I'd like to get a sales-tax initiative on the ballot, but we have to build a consensus on that first. I'm working on that as we speak," the mayor said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
MTA board: An article in Thursday's California section about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's call for a sales tax increase for transportation said the mayor had the power to appoint four members to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. The mayor can appoint three board members; he occupies the fourth seat.

An increase would raise the sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, which would tie the county with several other localities that have the highest sales tax in the state.

The idea of a November transportation tax has been gaining ground with rising gas prices and increasing public pressure for new transit lines, including the Wilshire Boulevard "subway to the sea" and an extension of the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley.

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

Villaraigosa has made building a Wilshire Boulevard subway a top priority of his administration. But his efforts have made little headway largely because of the $5-billion to $7-billion price tag. Congress last year lifted a longtime ban on tunnel work under Wilshire -- but getting money to build a subway remains a major problem.

Even if a tax goes on the ballot, it remains unclear whether it would pass. Some elected officials in the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere have questioned whether the benefits of a subway are worth the costs. Transportation officials are considering a variety of new rail lines elsewhere, including extending the Gold Line, a second phase of the Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica, and a new line along Crenshaw Boulevard.

I caught up with the mayor on the Red Line subway, which he was riding to North Hollywood for an MTA news conference on new rapid-bus routes.

"We're going to need to pass a half-cent sales tax initiative if we want to build a subway to the sea," the mayor said. "I'm trying to get everybody on the same page in this county, which isn't always easy."

It is estimated that such an increase would raise $30 billion to $40 billion over the next three decades. In the world of highways and mass transit, that's not a ton of money -- the MTA says it has $60 billion worth of projects it would like to build in the county. But it would give L.A. County spending power it doesn't have and mean that the county wouldn't have to beg the state and federal governments for money.

In a related development in Sacramento, two Senate committees this week voted to approve Assemblyman Mike Feuer's bill, which authorizes the MTA and the county to put the sales tax question to voters. The Los Angeles Democrat's bill, AB 2321, still must be considered by the full Senate. It has already won initial approval from the Assembly.

Such an increase would also require approval of two-thirds of voters, a hurdle that is never easy to clear.

Two recent polls have been commissioned on the proposed increase. The MTA, using the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, asked 1,400 likely voters if they would go for it, and 63% said they would -- a number that jumped to 73% after respondents were told more about it. Another poll, commissioned by the transit advocacy group MoveL.A. and conducted by Goodwin Simon Victoria Research, found that 69% of voters would go for a tax increase on the condition that it went to a slew of road-related improvements and some mass transit projects.

The MTA board -- on which Villaraigosa and four of his appointees sit -- is scheduled to vote today on whether to draft language for the sales tax ballot measure. That, of course, will be a telling vote.

The board is also scheduled to consider the MTA's long-range plan. That has been the center of a feud between proponents of the Expo Line on the Westside and proponents of a Gold Line extension deeper into the San Gabriel Valley.

Villaraigosa and other sources have indicated they probably won't vote on a plan today. Instead, they'll wait to see if the sales tax proposal makes it to the ballot.

Others, such as the influential county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, are playing it close to the vest. While saying that he's leaning toward the sales tax, Yaroslavsky said Wednesday evening that "the devil is in the details" and he will vote for the tax only if there are protections in place to ensure that the money is spent on what is promised to voters.

--

Let's start with a baseball analogy: Two of the five Los Angeles City Council members who sit on the council's transportation committee actually showed up for Wednesday's meeting to discuss restoring bus service to Dodger Stadium.

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