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U.S. officials eager to climb aboard Villaraigosa's L.A. transit plan

Even some lawmakers from other states see merit in the Los Angeles mayor's idea for massive federal loans to ease congestion and create jobs.

March 29, 2010|By Richard Simon

Reporting from Washington — Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bid to secure federal funds for fast-track expansion of the Los Angeles region's transit system is gaining support from Washington officials who say it could serve as a national model for speeding economic recovery and reducing pollution and traffic congestion.

The Obama administration and influential members of Congress are exploring ways to aid the car-clogged city with a federal loan, economic stimulus funds or other assistance so it can build 12 transit lines in 10 years instead of 30.

"Everyone who has ever driven in L.A. knows that more and better transit in that region is a must, and the sooner it's in place, the better," said Roy Kienitz, the undersecretary for policy in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Although political challenges lie ahead that could be as daunting as navigating the L.A. freeways at rush hour, the mayor's plan has drawn the enthusiasm of not only California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein but lawmakers from other states.

"My colleagues really like this," said Boxer, who is well-positioned to help as chairwoman of the Senate committee that will write the next big transportation bill. "We think this is really a model for everywhere."

Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee, was also eager to aid the mayor. "I'll do everything I can to help him," he said.

The federal government gives loans for transportation projects, but rarely has it provided assistance on the scale that Villaraigosa is seeking. Legislation will probably be needed.

While mayoral aides are working to determine how much federal funding they will need, Villaraigosa recently said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority faced a gap of up to $8.8 billion if it was to accelerate a 78-mile expansion of the region's 102-mile network of rail lines and buses in operation or under construction.

Besides the mayor's pet subway extension to the Westside, other projects he hopes to speed up include a long-sought rail extension to Los Angeles International Airport, a Crenshaw Boulevard line, a Gold Line extension through the San Gabriel Valley and busways in the San Fernando Valley.

Villaraigosa said that any money Washington advanced to L.A. would be repaid from the $40 billion projected to be generated over the next 30 years from a half-cent sales tax approved by county voters last year -- a selling point that has resonated with lawmakers.

"A lot of legislators are responding to the fact that we're not just asking for a handout from D.C.," Villaraigosa blogged after a recent trip to Washington.

The mayor has spoken with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the White House about his plan.

Of the $8.8-billion gap, most would come from a combination of private financing and bonds, such as Build America Bonds, established in the economic recovery bill to cut interest costs for local and state infrastructure projects.

At least $500 million to $750 million in federal aid would be needed starting in three years, said MTA board member Richard Katz.

If the MTA simply sold bonds at conventional rates, it wouldn't be able to afford to build all 12 projects, he said.

In a recent appearance before Boxer's public works committee, Villaraigosa said there was a national interest in expediting the projects in order to produce jobs and environmental benefits sooner.

The growing attention to his plan is a turnaround from a few months ago when, according to Villaraigosa, "everybody laughed us out of their offices."

The proposal has gained notice among Villaraigosa's fellow Democrats in Washington who are eager to create jobs in what is shaping up to be a tough November election.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House subcommittee on highways and transit, has become among the most enthusiastic supporters.

And Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, will consider incorporating ways to aid Los Angeles and other cities as his panel writes the new transportation bill, spokesman Jim Berard said.

Kienitz, the undersecretary of transportation, said the mayor's plan could serve as a template for other regions eager to expand transit networks, including Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Houston.

Still, much political uncertainty remains.

"Unfortunately, there's no current mechanism in law that would allow the federal government to loan L.A. or anyone else that much money upfront and have it paid back over so many years," Berard said.

The mayor's efforts come amid increasing political anxiety in Washington over the massive federal budget deficit, notwithstanding his assurances that a federal loan would be repaid.

"We are always leery of promises that are too good to be true," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, expressing concern about the risk to taxpayers if there are cost overruns.

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