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Can L.A. afford an indefinite tax for transit?

Extending Measure R's sales tax increase to speed up planned public transit projects could create financial problems down the road.

June 22, 2012
  • A Gold Line train makes a stop at the Pico/Aliso station. The Los Angeles County MTA is considering a ballot measure to extend the Measure R sales tax indefinitely.
A Gold Line train makes a stop at the Pico/Aliso station. The Los Angeles… (Los Angeles Times )

Four years ago Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase whose proceeds pay for improvements to public transit and highways. The tax, which sunsets in 2039, has already resulted in about a dozen projects completed or under construction, including the second phase of the Expo Line light-rail link that will bring trains deep into the congested Westside for the first time since the death of the old Red Car network. But many local transit leaders don't think the work is happening fast enough.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has made accelerating the Measure R projects a top priority for his final year in office, but his campaign to persuade Congress to loan the money to build 30 years worth of projects in the next 10 years isn't going well. With partisan infighting stalling the federal transportation bill and little appetite for experimentation in Washington, L.A. voters may be on their own if they want a more functional transit network in the near future.

Villaraigosa has proposed a ballot measure in November asking voters to eliminate the sunset date on Measure R — meaning the tax would continue to be levied indefinitely after 2039, only to expire when voters decide they want to end it. This would allow the MTA to borrow against expected future tax revenues so it could accelerate the construction of Measure R projects. On June 28, the MTA board is scheduled to vote on whether to put such a measure, which would require a two-thirds majority vote for approval, on the ballot.

The benefits of the proposal are straightforward: Once the Measure R projects are finished, L.A.'s disjointed and illogical transit network will be far more integrated and attractive, linking the Westside, the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley, Central and South L.A. in a system that provides a genuine alternative to driving. Getting that finished sooner will have economic and quality-of-life benefits for the entire county, even for people who don't ride buses or trains. It's cheaper to build now than later because of inflation and the rising cost of construction materials, and interest rates are extraordinarily low, making it a great time to borrow money. The acceleration would also provide hundreds of thousands of construction jobs.

Yet to approve the measure would also be to hand transit planners a blank check that would hobble future generations with debt. There are no guarantees that the MTA would stop borrowing when the listed Measure R projects are completed — in fact, there's nothing to stop it from borrowing against expected tax revenues many decades into the future, meaning that in 50 years, L.A. residents might find themselves with serious new transportation needs but no money to pay for them because their tax money is still paying off the debt from today's construction. It's true that they'll also still be enjoying the benefits of the infrastructure already built, but the open-ended nature of limitless taxing and borrowing created by the tax extension is worrisome.

We don't know at this point whether we would endorse the measure if it were placed on the ballot in its current form. There are serious questions to be asked between now and Nov. 6, and we're looking forward to hearing the answers from the MTA. They will help determine whether the proposed tax extension deserves support.

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