Los Angeles Metro's Measure R
Overview of Measure R
Los Angeles, California has embarked on an aggressive transit expansion plan, thanks to voter approval of Measure R and Mayor Villargosa's advocacy on behalf of his "30 - 10" plan , a plan that would see all of Measure R's projects built in 10 years rather than up to 30 years from now.
Metro Measure R was a 0.5% increase in the Los Angeles County Sales Tax rate for thirty years passed in November 2008 with the state required 2/3 approval from voters. Although the vote benefited from fortuitous timing - right before the recession really intensified - the fact that Los Angeles voters, traditionally viewed by the rest of the country as unwilling to get out of their cars for anything, approved a sales tax increase for transit was and continues to be astonishing.
In fact, not all Measure R projects are transit related; a significant number are for highways, a necessary inclusion that helped smooth passage in suburban and rural parts of Los Angeles county where voters may not perceive themselves as benefiting from new subway and light rail lines.
At the time, Measure R was expected to generate $40 billion over thirty years; as a result of the recession the Measure is now expected to only generate $36 billion. Here are how the Measure R projects break down:
- Transit Capital (new light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit projects) 39.4%
- Highway Capital (new carpool lanes, an extension of I-710, and other projects) 19.7%
- Transit Operations (including a discount Metro fare freeze until 2013) 24.6%
- Local Return (for cities to spend on anything transportation related) 14.8%
- Administration of Measure R 1.5%
The key to passage of Measure R was the inclusion of many different kinds of projects, including highway projects. Although many transit proponents decried the need to include them, it is probable that if Measure R was an all transit program, like FasTracks in Denver, then it would not have passed, judging from the low rate of support for the Measure in its final form in parts of the county far from the dense bases of downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Century City. If the Highway Capital portion of Measure R was necessary for the suburban vote, then the Transit Operations section was essential for lowering opposition from the Bus Riders Union, a militant organization that hates rail and successfully forced Metro into a consent decree as a result of a lawsuit that forced Metro to add a significant amount of bus service to reduce perceived overcrowding. The Local Return section was important to allow individual cities to spend money on local projects that might have otherwise been overlooked.
Current Status of Measure R
Transit enthusiasts in southern California will no doubt measure the progress of Measure R by the seemingly constant notification of meeting regarding updates to Measure R projects in various stages in the planning process. In order of how far along the pipeline they are, here are the Measure R transit project statuses as of April 1, 2011 (please refer to my page on the Federal New Starts program to learn more about the different stages of rapid transit project planning): Canoga Orange Line extension, under construction; Gold Line extension to Claremont, preliminary engineering (which is ironic, considering that the northeastern section of Los Angeles County was the most against Measure R and their pet project gets built first); Westside Subway Extension and Downtown Regional Connector, both approved to go into the final environmental impact statement phase, joining Expo Line Phase II to Santa Monica and the Crenshaw Corridor line linking the LAX area to the Expo Line; South Bay Green Line Extension and Gold Line Extension towards Whittier, draft environmental impact statement; West Santa Ana Branch corridor, alternatives analysis; all other transit projects, initial planning.
Apart from the transit capital projects, of interest to public transportation professionals and enthusiasts are the transit operations and local return funding sections of Measure R. While both of these sections are meant to provide additional bus service, the reality of the California state budget situation has meant that Measure R funds dedicated to bus service improvements have instead been used to replace State Transit Assistance funding that was cut back in order to cut the state budget deficit. Metro's bus service has taken an even bigger hit due to the fact that Measure R Transit Operations funding has had to be used to backfill operating deficits caused by the Bus Rider Union's consent decree forcing Metro to pay for additional bus service it could not afford. Of course, this fact is not discussed much, for if the average voter wondered why Metro was cutting bus service by 12% after they had voted for improved transit they would probably be less likely to support improved transit at the ballot box in the future. Eventually I estimate that when the economy recovers a small amount of money will be available for improved bus service.
What Happens if Measure R Revenues Fall Short?
Measure R project funding was allocated based on the understanding that the total amount available would be $40 billion. But the recession has caused the total revenue estimate to be lowered from $40 billion to $36 billion. If there is not enough money to build everything, then will some projects be cut entirely or other projects be scaled back? How will the Mayor's "30-10" plan, now also known as "Fast Forward America", affect the answer to the above question? Some of these projects rely on Federal New Starts Program funding, which the Republican Party would like to gut. What will happen to the Measure R projects which rely on federal funding if the federal funding does not materialize?
Consider some of the following facts. If the "30-10" plan does not happen, then one of the final projects to be completed will be the Westside Subway Extension. If there is not enough funding to complete it, then the subway may only open to Century City or even Fairfax, which would be ironic considering that the subway extension was arguably the project that sold Measure R the best to voters. The Westside Subway also relies on New Starts program funding. If the "30-10" plan does in fact happen, and the federal government loans Metro the entire projected proceeds from Measure R, now estimated at $36 billion, what will happen if the proceeds end up being less than $36 billion? Will Metro have to cover the remainder from other revenue, perhaps requiring a fare increase or service reduction, will the state step in and cover it, or will the federal government just forgive the loan?
All of these are excellent questions of which nobody knows the answers. I suspect it would be likely that Metro would ask for an extension of the Measure R sales tax and then use the initial proceeds to backfill any revenue deficiencies, but if that failed I predict that some of the lesser projects will be eliminated. My instinct says that all projects currently in the final environmental impact statement or above will get built, but ones that are not as far along as that may be in trouble.