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Los Angeles Transit Needs Taxpayers' Money to Rebuild

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is asking voters to pay a half-cent sales tax longer so he can finish his plans to improve the highway and subway systems quicker.

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If you picture Los Angeles, chances are you’re thinking about movie stars, traffic and smog. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is promoting an ambitious plan to do something about the latter two issues. (Movie stars will, for the time being, remain unchecked.)

Villaraigosa wants to improve the highway system and extend subway and light rail lines from downtown to the ocean and the airport in just 10 years, rather than the expected 30. The only problem is figuring out how to pay for it.

He’s gotten nowhere looking for money from Congress, so now Villaraigosa plans to ask L.A. County voters in November to extend a half-cent sales tax beyond its current expiration date in 2039. That would allow officials to borrow against 50 years of anticipated revenue and come up with $8 billion in a hurry.

The area needs to secure long-term funding for long-term projects, says L.A. Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben. “If we want to move these projects along as rapidly as we would like, we probably need the additional bonding capacity,” he says.

But that argument may not be enough to persuade voters, two-thirds of whom must approve the measure. California’s November ballot is loaded with other possible tax increases. Villaraigosa’s timing is also bad, says L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, because voters were assured just four years ago, when they approved the transportation tax, that it would only be temporary. “We don’t have sufficient evidence to validate the need for a permanent tax,” he says.

It seems like the opposite of the usual problem. Rather than trying to get people to focus on the long-term benefit of spending money upfront, Villaraigosa is selling the idea that half a penny’s worth of taxes 30 years from now will bring jobs and infrastructure improvements right away.

Transportation remains a constant concern for Angelenos, says Jaime Regalado, who directs the public affairs institute at California State University, Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Villaraigosa’s attempt to address the issue and secure his legacy as mayor could easily end in disappointment. “It’s all very political and it’s all up to guesswork as to whether it will really happen now,” Regalado says.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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