Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will leave office Monday with the distinction as the U.S. mayor who, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, has dramatically altered his city's approach to transportation.
Los Angeles is in the midst of a major expansion of its transit system, which includes subway, light rail and commuter rail lines, that rivals what's being done in any other American city. It's building bike lanes and pursuing a huge bike share program that would make it one of the largest in the nation. It's experiments with congestion tolling are considered on the leading edge of transportation innovation.
In other words, says Denny Zane, L.A.'s got some real transportation "mojo."
Zane, a former Santa Monica mayor, is executive director of Move LA, which advocates for public transportation in Los Angeles County. His organization, which honored Villaraigosa at an event earlier this month, touts a long list of transportation accomplishments during the mayor's eight years in office.
As Zane's organization quite accurately notes, Los Angeles was once seen as "the poster child for urban dystopia." But a renewed focus on transit and bicycling made Villaraigosa the darling of the national transportation community.
"A lot of these things there were [on the East Coast] 20 years ago are just now finding their way to L.A.," says Hilary Norton, executive director of Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic, or FAST, a consortium of business and civic leaders seeking improved transportation options. "But the fact is they did find their way to LA., and they found their way to L.A. under this mayor and his great staff."
On July 1, Villaraigosa leaves that legacy -- along with the keys to the office -- to former city council president Eric Garcetti, who was elected mayor of the nation's second largest city on May 22.
During his tenure, Villraigosa's most significant accomplishment was orchestrating passage of Measure R, the ballot measure L.A. County voters approved in 2008 that provides a half-cent sales tax for 30 years that will raise $40 billion for transportation projects, including new rail and bus rapid transit lines.
"We really had maxed out what could be done with asphalt," says Zane, explaining that transit was a critical component of the city's ability to grow. "I think there was a broad appreciation that building more freeways was a source of the problem, not an opportunity for the solution."
Zane says Measure R passed largely the result of Villaraigosa's ability to make the case for investment to voters. "The question was never would Antonio work to make this happen," Zane says. "The real question was, would the larger politics of community coalition building occur as well."
Villaraigosa, for his part, attributes his success on transportation issues to another one of his qualities: "I bark a lot," he says, "because I expect a lot of myself and the people around me."
As a member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, Villaraigosa helped shape the list of projects that would ultimately be included in the Measure R package. He raised a huge portion of the money put towards the campaign encouraging voters to pass it. And he was the leading public voice advocating for its approval. If he had just one of those things, Zane says, Villaraigosa would have been justified in claiming some of the credit for Measure R's success. Instead, Zane says, "he did them all."
Transit advocates also point to L.A.'s renewed focus on accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists. In a famous incident, Villaraigosa reportedly injured his elbow after being cut off by a taxi while biking in 2010; since then he's pushed for improved conditions for bicycles.
Under Villraigosa's leadership, the city rolled out a 30-year, 1,680 mile bicycle master plan and vastly accelerated the rate at which Los Angeles. -- a city historically unfriendly toward biking -- built bike lanes. The city is in the early phases of working with a private operator that's unrolling a bike share system that has 4,000 bikes, which would make it one of the largest in the country.
The city also garnered national attention last year when Los Angeles got its first taste of congestion pricing via the new Metro ExpressLanes. The project was supported with federal grant money originally given to New York City but returned when politics stalled their efforts.
Under the initiative, two highways' HOV lanes were retrofitted into HOT lanes. Carpoolers can use the lanes for free, but solo drivers pay for transponders that allow them to pay dynamic tolls based on congestion levels. The idea is that the lanes provide drivers a way to escape congestion, for a price. Meanwhile, those lanes get more frequent transit than before, and the money raised by tolls is used to expand bus lines. The project is a joint effort between Metro and Caltrans, but Villaraigosa played an instrumental role in securing the federal grant that helped start it.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles city got a flurry of media attention after the mayor announced the city had finally completed the decades-long process of adding the last of its 4,398 traffic signals into a high-tech system designed to measure traffic conditions and adjust traffic signal timing in order to minimize congestion.
The final phase of the project was funded largely by $150 million in money from a 2006 state transportation bonds; Villaraigosa negotiated to get that piece of the package included in the project list.
Villaraigosa also touts small changes he's encouraged that have had a big impact on easing congestion. Those include stopping some construction during rush hour, increasing the number of traffic officers at key intersections, towing cars parked on busy streets during rush hour, and increasing the number of left-hand turn signals.
Norton, of FAST, say all those efforts in recent years are especially critical in a place like Los Angeles, where efficient transportation isn't just an issue of convenience, it's a matter of economics. The hours Angelenos spent stuck in traffic causes huge financial drains due to lost productivity, and anything to combat that is considered valuable.
Villaraigosa's most significant transportation legacy, however, could very well be the fact that his impact will be felt well beyond Los Angeles. Last year's federal highway bill, MAP-21, included a big expansion of the federal TIFIA program, which provides federal loans, credit lines and loan guarantees for transportation projects. Villaraigosa had been one of the loudest advocates for expanding the program and making it more flexible. His reasons weren't selfless -- he hoped to utilize the expansion of the federal program to help with his own local transit projects -- but the expansion will undoubtedly be a boon for states and cities across the country seeking transportation financing.
The program will be expanded from $122 million annually to $1 billion annually, and it can now help finance up to 49 percent of a projects' costs, up from 33 percent. "Initially, it was very difficult getting Congress and the fellow mayors behind it because people were looking for grants," Villaraigosa says. "But (then) I convinced everyone that, at a time of deficits and debt, when there was very little new money, we needed to think out of the box to access loan programs that incentivizes cities like ours to put up their own money."
Villaraigosa's exit from the mayor's office comes at a time when many assumed he was a likely choice to succeed Ray LaHood as U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Instead, that post went to Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Anthony Foxx, who was confirmed by the Senate Thursday.
Villaraigosa tells Governing he spoke with the Obama administration about the job in December 2012 -- he says that doesn't necessarily mean he was offered the job -- but he believed it was important to finish his term in Los Angeles. He announced in early February that he didn't intend to leave the mayor's office early. "The press started really knocking on my door -- like, daily -- and I just wanted to end the speculation," he says.
In retrospect, that perhaps shouldn't have been a concern. The president nominated Foxx in late April, and his confirmation Thursday means Foxx takes over the Department of Transportation just a few days before Villaraigosa's term expires. Villaraigosa has already said he wants to run for governor of California.
Regardless, Villaraigosa says he plans to continue being engaged in transportation issues, and he has the perfect opportunity: one of his final transportation issues in office -- Measure J -- was a defeat for the mayor.
In November, Los Angeles County voters, by a 66.1 percent margin, supported extending Measure R's half-cent transportation sales tax by another 30 years in order to accelerate the completion date of the package's projects.
But state law requires a two-thirds super-majority for that type of tax, meaning it actually failed, despite its overwhelming popularity among Los Angeles voters.
Villaraigosa is lobbying state lawmakers to lower the threshold of votes needed to approve a sales tax in order to ensure Measure J has a better chance at passage. "I'm going to put it on the ballot next year -- even though I'm not mayor any longer," Villaraigosa says. "By then we'll have reduced the threshold."