The Right Track for Transportation

In financing big transportation projects, Los Angeles shows that it’s learned lessons from debacles of the past.
by | September 29, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

There are encouraging signs from Los Angeles that local officials have learned some transportation infrastructure financing lessons over the last 20 years. Now the question is whether the federal government has.

Two decades ago In Boston, an environmental group filed suit claiming that new transit projects had to be built to offset the air-quality impacts from the increased traffic that the "Big Dig" highway project would support. It wasn't clear that the project would actually harm air quality, but what was clear even then was that if improved air quality is the goal, building new transit lines is about the most expensive way to get there. One analyst calculated that the same benefits could have been achieved by buying 200 Toyota Priuses to replace existing gas-guzzlers—for 1 percent of the cost of building the 14 new projects.

Still, state officials agreed to a settlement with the environmental group that required all 14 projects to be built. The problem was that there was no new revenue to pay for any of them.

Twenty years later, the results are predictable. A few projects are still under construction, but the Boston area's transit authority has already amassed $8.6 billion in debt and a $4.5 billion maintenance backlog. After years of pushing them off into the future, annual debt payments will top $500 million by 2016. The drive is on for another fare hike to keep the agency afloat.

Thankfully, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seems to have learned the lessons of this and other 20th-century transportation debacles. Under his "30/10" plan, 12 mass-transit projects that normally would take 30 years to build would be completed within 10. And most important, there is a way to pay for it. In 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, which increased the county sales tax by 0.5 percent and committed the projected $40 billion in additional revenue over the next 30 years to transportation upgrades.

On an annual basis, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates that the plan will result in 77 million more transit boardings, 10.3 million fewer gallons of gasoline being used and 191 million fewer vehicle miles traveled. No one is claiming it as the primary rationale for the projects, but there also would be air-quality benefits.

Measure R reflects another lesson learned. Rather than treating each mode and its advocates as a silo, the proceeds will fund rail, bus, bus rapid transit and highway improvements. Transportation customers don't think in terms of roads vs. transit; they just want to get where they're going in a safe and reliable manner.

I've already weighed in on the importance of maintenance and focusing on the life-cycle costs of transportation assets. Here too, 30/10 and the overall transportation plan to be funded by Measure R say all the right things.

The catch is that making 30/10 a reality will require a change in federal law to allow the feds to lend L.A. County money up front, to be repaid from dedicated Measure R revenue.

Mayor Villaraigosa and L.A. County have stepped up to reverse the traditional transportation funding balance. Instead of 80 percent of infrastructure project funding coming from the federal government, local taxpayers would bear 80 percent of the cost of Measure R and the 30/10 projects. Providing the up-front money needed to get those improvements off the ground is a deal you'd think the feds would be happy to make.