Measure J, the initiative on the Los Angeles County ballot to extend the voter approved half-cent transportation sales tax, has found support among transit advocates and some cycling advocates too. A two-thirds ‘yes’ vote on J would extend the ‘sunset’ of the 2008-era 30-year tax hike for an additional 30 years in order to generate $67 billion total for mobility investment across the county. (About $43 billion from the Measure J extension.) With Metro behind it, it’s tempting to go along because we do need transit options. But this initiative amplifies concerns that accompanied the original Measure R and is one of three tax-hike proposals on the ballot. It may not have sufficiently broad support. Already two key LA County Supervisors, Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich, have declined to endorse it. We join them. With 26 years yet to go on Measure R yet, we feel that leveraging a sales tax increase so far into the future for improvements not clearly specified (much less costed) begs voters take a pass.
We might be a minority voice, and here on the Westside in particular. Measure J has found broad support among boosters of multimodal mobility, including out-front members of the Los Angeles cycling advocacy community; key outlets like Streetsblog LA; and even the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, which came out in support with an editorial:
LACBC works closely with MoveLA, the coalition of labor, business, and environmental organizations backing Measure J. MoveLA shares our vision of a bikeable, walkable, and transit-friendly Los Angeles County and are working with us at Metro to ensure that our regional transportation policy supports these goals.
(It’s worth noting that Move LA is headquartered in an office adjoining the LACBC’s suite on Spring Street.)
The Los Angeles Times also endorsed Measure J, finding it “a win for transit, the economy and the future of L.A. County.” The projects accelerated by Measure J, the editorial said, “would ease congestion, reduce pollution and increase quality of life, without raising taxes.” The editorial also labeled valid arguments against both measures R & J as “tired,” which is a disservice to those who thoughtfully analyzed the pros and cons.
The proponents’ take on Measure J is that bonding against the next 5+ decades of the sales tax bump will prudently accelerate investment across the county when we most need it. It would create 410,000 jobs at a time when our state can barely keep the lights (on much less fund big projects), they say; given Washington intransigence, Angelenos must step up to the plate with another three-decade levy. (Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposal to pack 30 years of transit construction into the next ten years – 30/10 – largely at federal expense didn’t fly in DC.)
Measure J opponents find much they can live without, however. Measure J proposes a raft of projects that still will rely on federal cost-sharing – funding not necessarily forthcoming given today’s fractious politics (not to mention prevailing anti-urban bias among House leadership in Congress.) Yet Metro’s own project sheet notes that the particulars on many projects (including the most broad outlines) have yet to be nailed down. Details are to be decided by the Metro board. (Beverly Hills City Council recently declined to endorse Measure J precisely because it views Metro as wielding too much power.)
Moreover, some find it implausible to imagine that Metro will be able to manage so many big projects when the organization has its hands full today with the significant projects that have already broken ground. Critics grimly predict that Metro’s limited project management capacity can only be a recipe for fiscal imprudence. Opponents have also raised a social justice argument in opposition to Measure J, saying that any sales tax is a flat tax on consumption that falls inordinately on the less economically advantaged.
Looking at the substance of the proposed projects, critics question whether Measure J should tap receipts so far in the future to fund transportation projects today when we can’t even anticipate tomorrow’s needs. And should projects serve tomorrow’s users at the expense of those traveling today? The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, for example, recently took their arguments to city councils to say that rail investment doesn’t well serve the much larger number of bus riders who suffer today under bus service cutbacks. They add that our least-advantaged travelers don’t directly benefit from roadway investment either.
More About Measure J
According to Metro, the economic and transportation benefits of Measure J justify extending the sunset date to 2069 only four years into the original Measure R’s 30-year horizon:
By starting construction on seven rail and rapid transit projects, and up to eight highway projects within the next five years, instead of the twenty years currently planned, this job creation will be accelerated. The measure will also provide an additional thirty years of continued funding for local transportation improvements (ex. pothole repair, signal synchronization, local roadway and bridge safety improvements), countywide bus and rail service operations, Metrolink and Metro Rail capital improvements, and administration.
Contrary to how the initiative is often talked about, it’s not all about mass transit. Metro of course is the lead agency on the $1.3 billion I-405 expansion project, and Measure J would plow significant money into auto infrastructure. If current statewide apportioning ratios hold for Measure J projects too, active transportation facilities might only nibble a few percent of that big pot o’gold (even considering the program’s 15% local return).
But active transportation interests (and pro-bike supporters in particular) aren’t the key supporters of Measure J anyway: it is the agencies that would benefit, and labor, its representative unions, and materials suppliers who really stand to gain. (As measurej.org notes, it is a “coalition of Charitable, Business and Labor Organizations.”) Not for nothing is Measure J being sold as a jobs initiative as much as a mobility program. (See the Metro Measure J Fact Sheet at right.)
Measure R in 2008 enjoyed majority support across Los Angeles County, but it barely surpassed the necessary 2/3 threshold of approval at the ballot box. Just as were reasons not to have supported Measure R, there still exist valid objections to extending the half-cent sales tax increase (over an additional thirty years under J) and that may threaten the initiative’s success on November 6th.
Why We Don’t Endorse Measure J
We would like to be able to stand with proponents in support of Measure J (we supported Measure R) but we feel that the “tired arguments” (as the LA Times editorialized) against this initiative are persuasive. Supporters note the wide net that a sales tax casts to spread the cost of mobility options across a wider constituency, but any sales tax is regressive. When conservative supply-siders like Malcom Forbes press the flat tax, and corporations like Amazon routinely sidestep collecting it, we believe that it falls too much on the least economically empowered. We’re also sympathetic to the Bus Riders Union arguments that under-serving the much larger bus constituency undermines Metro’s campaign for a larger checkbook for more ambitious projects.
We’re also concerned that Measure J leverages the future without regard to tomorrow’s unanticipated long-term transportation needs. Should we be borrowing against funding through 2069 for only one or two decades of improvement? On one hand, will it leave anything for needs that we can’t today forecast? On the other, will it saddle us with infrastructure that may not serve us well a half-century hence? Imagine if we had drawn upon today’s transit funding to build the freeways of the 1960s. We’d have much more of what we don’t need, yet have fewer resources to tap for what we do need. Today that’s mass transit and active transportation facilities, but yesterday’s policymakers didn’t have the vision (even if planners did, right). Greenhouse gas reduction wasn’t on the radar then (much less state law).
But mostly our reluctance to endorse Measure J simply boils down to a lack of faith. The prospect of decades of indebtedness chasing too many projects over a compressed timeframe sounds like the makings of a megaproject bubble. We count ourselves among the critics who find it difficult to imagine that Metro will be able to manage so many big projects. Metro has much on its plate today. Even without Measure J, Expo will crawl to completion and the Purple Line will one day reach the sea. But Measure J will likely nourish perceptions (if not the actuality) of waste, fraud, and abuse in public-sector megaprojects. (Academic planner Bent Flyvbjerg has found that strategic misrepresentation of project cost and overly-optimistic projections regarding performance and timelines not only plague major public projects but are instrumental in securing policymaker approval for them.)
Some may be comforted by the Measure R-mandated annual monitoring and spending review. Yet two factors argue against complacency. First, extending the sales tax bump for double the initial 30-year term will undoubtedly overtax the capacity of any oversight body, namely the independent taxpayer oversight committee charged with the task. With so many more projects getting off the ground, can we even ensure effective oversight?
And second, taxpayers only need look to other big-scale public construction programs in order to question whether we in California (or the United States for that matter) have what it takes to usher publicly-funded megaprojects from conception to realization efficiently and cost-effectively. Consider the Los Angeles Community College District expansion program. It has been wracked with corruption and self-dealing for many years, according to a long-running series in the Los Angeles Times. Efforts at reform under public scrutiny have not been wholly successful at reining it in. Nothing about that $6 billion program (“Do it for the kids!”) inspires confidence.
And then there’s the California High Speed Rail Authority, which was created by ballot initiative statewide and endowed to put California train travel on the literal fast track. That program was also billed as a bold step toward a multimodal future, and also sold as a jobs program. But the Authority has wobbled under public scrutiny. Successive proposals and route plans have called into question the credibility of the appointed body. And now, years later, and under new direction, the program has been scaled down to appease local constituencies. But then it never promised an end-to-end high speed rail right-of-way anyway. Top-end speed projections seem overly optimistic. In sum, it seems to virtually embody Flyvbjerg’s findings about megaprojects.
We don’t want to see the same happen throughout Los Angeles County. We instead favor our existing program of mobility project acceleration under the promised oversight and annual reports. Voters are being asked to allow a return to the well when we’ll not even have learned what new post-election direction Congress and the executive branch will take. So we’ll take a pass this time and prefer to revisit the promises of Measure J the next time around, perhaps.