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Vote no only if you love traffic

Measure R and Proposition 1A offer viable transportation solutions

November 02, 2008|DAVID LAZARUS

How livable do you want both Los Angeles and California to be in the years ahead? On Tuesday, you can have your say.

Two ballot items -- Measure R and Proposition 1A -- will, if approved, redefine transportation in L.A. and throughout the state, giving us viable alternatives to our cars and helping wean us from our oil jones.

But it won't be cheap. It'll almost certainly cost many billions of dollars more than the roughly $50 billion foreseen by the two initiatives.

"Budgets are set to make projects more palatable to the electorate," said James Moore, a professor of urban planning and civil engineering at USC. "I always multiply by a factor of two or three."

But you know what? Even if these projects topped $200 billion, they'd still be a wise investment in our future. More on that in a moment.

First the local angle -- Measure R. It would impose a half-cent sales tax increase in L.A. County in order to raise during its 30-year life span $30 billion to $40 billion, depending on how consumery Southern Californians feel over the next three decades.

Those funds would be parceled out to a slew of transportation projects, including an extension of the Green Line light rail to Los Angeles International Airport and a widening of the traffic-choked 5 Freeway near where L.A. bumps fists with the O.C.

But the biggie on the Measure R wish list is making some progress on the long-delayed Subway to the Sea. About $4 billion would be dedicated to extending the Purple Line from its terminus at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue to Westwood.

The remaining five miles to the shore would come later.

As a Westside resident, I'm astonished that there's no way to get around town that doesn't include rubber and a road. I take the bus to work as often as possible, but it's inconvenient and still leaves me stuck in traffic.

Marnie O'Brien Primmer is executive director of Mobility 21, a Southern California transportation advocacy group. She lives in Costa Mesa and works downtown.

"The other day, it took me 2 1/2 hours to get to work," Primmer told me. "Things are pretty bad."

Until we offer people a viable alternative to their cars that also gets them off the road, we aren't doing enough to improve the quality of life of local residents. Subways, monorails, jet packs -- take your pick. I go with subways.

Then there's Proposition 1A, which would authorize about $10 billion in borrowing as a down payment for a $45-billion, 800-mile high-speed rail network. The first phase would link L.A. with the Bay Area.

Beginning in 2020, California's bullet trains would zoom along at speeds up to 220 miles per hour and, according to proponents, would allow travelers to get from Union Station to downtown San Francisco in less than three hours.

I don't buy any of that. With a project of this scope, it seems silly to think it can be built for anywhere close to $45 billion. Just paying off Proposition 1A's bonds with interest over the next 30 years would cost nearly $20 billion, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office.

And that under-three-hour travel time seems to anticipate not having to cross a single road or make a single stop. Ask Amtrak how feasible that sounds.

Nevertheless, California's population is projected to grow 30% during the next two decades to 50 million. People are going to need to move around. We can either invest in more roads and more cars, or we can invest in rail.

A high-speed rail system is a natural and worthy goal for a state of California's size and economic power, and represents precisely the sort of project we should be focusing on after our first bitter taste of gas topping $4 a gallon.

I used to live in Japan and frequently rode the country's bullet trains. It's a great way to travel -- fast, quiet, comfortable. And any time you get the munchies, you can stop one of the women who push carts up and down the aisle selling boxed lunches and snacks.

But would it work here?

"There's a risk that a bullet train could turn into a white elephant," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. "It doesn't make sense in a lot of ways. Nobody knows what ridership would be. But we've got to do something."

California in general and L.A. in particular should have started investing in rail projects decades ago. With each passing year, our transportation, congestion and urban-sprawl problems have worsened, and the cost of fixing them has grown exponentially.

This isn't just about commutes. It's about productivity of workers, improving the business climate for employers and, not least, giving Mother Nature a break on the fossil-fuel front.

One thing we should seriously consider in these cash-strapped times is allowing the private sector a much freer hand in building and operating urban transportation systems. Relying almost exclusively on taxpayer money will doom us to a constant (and costly) game of catch-up.

Another thing to bear in mind is that Measure R and Proposition 1A would be very expensive, and many of us who vote in favor of them Tuesday may not be around to enjoy the benefits.

Basically, our generation is getting stuck with the bill for improved living standards for future generations -- just as past generations paid the tab for big-ticket splurges like airports and bridges. That's how it works.

"I'm torn," Sperling said. "As a transportation analyst, I would say it doesn't make sense. There's no business plan to make any of this successful. On the other hand, we're heading toward 50 million people and we want to reduce oil imports. This is one way we can do that.

"Sometimes," he concluded, "you just have to have faith."

See you at the polls.

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David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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