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Los Angeles tries to accelerate transit: Would it work here?

If approved by Congress, the Los Angeles plan would constitute a new kind of federal-local partnership in transportation investment.

Along with the federal government’s final blessing upon the Central Corridor light rail project at a spirited ceremony on Tuesday came a nagging sense of ambivalence.

Certainly, this was a triumphal moment. The feds had formally pledged $478 million to cover half the cost of the long-awaited transit line, set to open in 2014. The mood was so festive that Jim McDonough, the normally shy Ramsey County commissioner, broke into a joyful kind of primal scream, perhaps to accentuate Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff’s main point: “This is really a great day for the Twin Cities.”

And it was — both for this region and for the nation. With gasoline bumping above $4 a gallon and with unrest spreading in the Middle East, never has the national interest been clearer: It’s a good idea to offer people more efficient transportation options. Even in a time of budget distress it’s one of the sanest investments a government can make.

And yet sanity is not the default position right now in Congress or in many state capitals.

Denial and nostalgia
Republicans are targeting transit projects and transit operating subsidies as part of a wider assault on the deficit, aimed, in this case, at the poor and at those who choose a smaller-footprint lifestyle. Their intent, it seems to me, is to use the deficit as a lever to pull people (and the market) desperately back into the 20th century, back to a time of auto dependence and spacious suburban expansion. For them it’s a moment of both denial and of nostalgia for a day when freedom was defined by a full tank of cheap gas and a 20-mile drive to work.

Those days are over. Still, the emerging challenge for metropolitan areas is to find a way to sustain transit operations and build new lines in the face of austerity and stiff partisan resistance. Failure will bring increases in fares and a cannibalizing of bus service, as the Minnesota Legislature now contemplates. Failure will also bring federal cuts to new transit starts, cuts that could jeopardize even the best projects, including the Southwest LRT line projected to open in 2017.

That’s where the ambivalence comes in. Worries about Southwest’s future — and about the future of the bus system — take some of the luster off Central’s big moment.

A new local-federal partnership?
Some cities don’t want to wait for the current system to pay off. The traditional federal grant/local match program, known as New Starts, is overloaded with applications and budget pressures. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is especially impatient and has formulated an alternative financial plan that President Obama has called “a template for the nation.”

Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa calls his initiative 30/10, for 30 years worth of transit in 10 years.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa calls his initiative 30/10, for 30 years worth of transit in 10 years.

The mayor proposes that federal loans be used to leverage local sales taxes dedicated to transit. Future revenue from those taxes would secure the loans. The arrangement would essentially allow transit projects to be built on the installment plan. Los Angeles could use future revenues from its voter-approved transit tax to borrow enough money to accelerate its build-out. Rather than waiting 30 years, the next 12 lines could be built in 10 years. Voters could actually experience the fruits of their investment. The impact would create jobs, deliver transportation choices to an auto-clogged region, reduce carbon emissions, shore up local transit operating budgets and hasten the nation’s drive toward energy independence.

30 years worth of transit in 10 years
Villaraigosa’s plan has attracted a startling list of bipartisan supporters, including Rep. John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House transportation committee, as well as the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.

The mayor calls his initiative 30/10, for 30 years worth of transit in 10 years. The national version has been labeled America Fast Forward, signifying its ability to accelerate projects. “We knew we had to go national,” Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve won the support of 105 mayors — 20 percent of them Republicans — because they understand the prospect of getting federal assistance through the traditional channels is now remote.”

Even before since last November’s Republican takeover of the U.S. House, transportation planners were taking harder looks at various forms of “value capture,” innovative financing tools that use increased land values caused by new roads or transit lines to pay back the bonds that built the new roads and lines.

Villaraigosa’s strategy is a variation that uses sales tax revenues. In 2008, L.A. County voters passed a half-penny sales tax increase set aside for transit. Originally, the tax was expected to raise $5.8 billion for transit projects over 30 years. By using federal loans to further leverage the local revenues, Villaraigosa’s initiative would raise $8.8 billion to build 12 train and bus lines in just 10 years, with 20 years remaining to repay the loans. The new projects expand the county system by 78 miles.

MSP is studying the L.A. plan
If approved by Congress, the Los Angeles plan would constitute a new kind of federal-local partnership in transportation investment. “We think it’s a pretty intriguing idea,” said Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council. The formula is a focus of current research on how to accelerate the transit build-out in the metro area.

Susan Haigh
Metropolitan Council
Susan Haigh

“We’re focused on jobs and economic development,” Haigh said, “but that doesn’t happen without investments in transit and transportation. The question is how can you take advantage of transit’s return on investment to advance and accelerate transit projects.”

The answer will be data-driven, she said, but it’s not yet clear whether the Los Angeles model can work here.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, said that Los Angeles’ plan may be a bit ambitious even for L.A. It’s not so much the financing but the physical problem of doing so much construction in 10 years.

He echoed Haigh’s assessment on whether Villaraigosa’s plan could work here. “We’re waiting for the numbers,” he said.

As for whether the Southwest line will move forward, McLaughlin said he sees no reason for panic. “We’re ready to go into preliminary engineering. The federal officials I talk to think we’re still a region that produces quality projects. So, as I told them, let’s get on with it.”