In October the Westside Urban Forum hosted a panel, “R U Ready 4 Measure J,” examining arguments for and against extending the 2008 Measure R sales tax an additional 30 years to 2069. Moderated by David Abel, editor-in-chief of The Planning Report, the panelists—Dan Rosenfeld, Senior Deputy to LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Denny Zane, Executive Director, Move LA, and California Assemblymember Mike Feuer—make clear cases around Measure J, placing debates around the ballot into a regional and historical political context. TPR Presents the following excerpts from that discussion.
"The benefits of this investment are concrete, and real—not an imaginary, faint hope on the horizon. The real question before us: Do we want to take the steps needed to accelerate our Measure R investments and their benefit?" -Denny Zane
David Abel: Assemblyman Feuer: Why do we need Measure J, given that the voters of Los Angeles County approved Measure R in 2008, which promises to fund, over the next 30 years, a variety of new bus, rail, and highway capital projects; bus and rail operations; as well as provide money to cities for local transportation needs?
Hon. Mike Feuer: As everybody here knows, Measure R was one of the most exciting things we’ve done in our region for a long time. As the recession was beginning, our communities decided by more than a two-thirds majority to dramatically transform our transportation system. But it was a 30-year deal—that was the promise that we made to the voters. 30 years, while a good deal, is not as great as it could be. So the Mayor and others lead an effort to work with Congress to accelerate the implementation of Measure R.
Congress, however, was unable to come together to adopt what was then called the 30/10 Program—doing the 30-year program in 10. Then came an alternative vision—simple, but not identical, called America Fast Forward. That made some headway. It’s received a broader national consensus around this issue, and there has been an infusion of additional money into our region to help accelerate, by some amount, the pace of these improvements. But we need to do more.
At the beginning of the year I introduced legislation in the state Assembly to enable LA voters to decide for ourselves a way to accelerate the pace of Measure R, and that legislation was signed by the Governor two weeks ago. The ballot measure is before us on November 6th. We will vote to allow Measure R to remain in place beyond the original 30-years. Measure J extends the revenue stream by another 30 years, generating enough money for us to build in roughly ten years what otherwise would be built in 30.
Measure J promises to jumpstart a quarter million jobs now when we need them the most. We also get for the period in which we’re paying the interest, the benefits of having the system in place. These benefits are economic, public health, and environmental, dramatically improving our quality of life. I cannot advocate strongly enough that Measure J be adopted.
David Abel: Dan Rosenfeld, there are three members of the Metro Board who declined to support Measure J. You represent one of those members, Mark Ridley-Thomas. Share with our audience why the Supervisor thinks Measure J is not needed.
Dan Rosenfeld: Well I’ve been given the unenviable assignment of laying the case against Measure J. If you remember in high school debate, you had to prepare both the pro and the con position, and then you’d flip a coin to see which side you actually had to argue that day. Today I’ve been given the con argument.
Let me start by listing six reasons that, I think, should make you think twice about Measure J. I’d like to point out that these are not the policies of Supervisor Ridley-Thomas—he’s concerned about one of them, and I’ll mention that. He has not come out against it; he has not come out for it. Other Supervisors have actively opposed Measure J, but it’s a complex issue because there are multiple public goods on the ballot next month, and congestion relief and job creation are certainly priorities for us. Nor is it necessarily my personal conviction; I’m not sure what I would like to see prioritized.
I think it’s good for even the most ardent supporters of Measure J to understand what the arguments against it are because, in preparing the case for it, it’s good to know what the potential vulnerabilities are.
One argument could be that it’s premature, that we’ve just passed Measure R, that we have some $36 billion coming in, and that we’ve just begun to deploy it. Why shouldn’t we wait and see how it goes, fine-tune our response, and then seek additional money? I don’t think there’s any question in my mind, the supervisor’s mind, or the minds of anybody here that we need more money for transit improvements in this part of the city.
The second case against it, is it’s unspecific, where Measure R was elegantly calibrated. It had something for everyone—urban, suburban, highway, and transit. It very carefully spread benefits and, therefore, got lots of support. There’s a perception that Measure J is less specific, and more single-mindedly focused on extending the subway to West LA.
The third argument could be that it’s too long. A 30-year mortgage is a pretty common thing; a 60-year mortgage is not. In 60 years my kids will be 90, and we probably won’t be here. Who’s to say that today we should commit their tax policy to technologies and to a program that we think are appropriate today. The world may change, and we all may be in electric cars that drive automatically, making the systems we build no longer necessary. 60 years is a long time.
The one that causes the Supervisor’s concern is it’s distracting. He believes that Proposition 30, which is the Governor’s initiative to help fix the state budget, is of supreme importance because of its contribution to healthcare and to issues that he has cared about as a councilmember and as a state legislator. He’s concerned that anything that distracts on the ballot from the importance of that proposition is problematic.
Number five: it’s perhaps not necessary. We’re talking about accelerating the Measure R projects. I don’t think there’s anyone who isn’t interested in doing that. Measure R comes in over 30 years, and you can always spend the money as you get it. We had hope that we would get Qualified Tax Investment Bonds from the federal government, where they pay the interest and we borrow against our pretty secure tax revenue stream at zero interest, probably the cheapest money we could have received. We didn’t get that. The second cheapest money we could get was a TIFIA loan, and we are getting those loans. It costs about 2.4 percent, and that’s a pretty good rate for borrowing our own money to spend it today to accelerate the project, rather than waiting for the second and third decade of Measure R.
The other option that we have not explored is to simply borrow against our own money and accelerate construction and finance it ourselves. That would probably cost 4 or 5 percent today—you can see it’s a little more expansive. The state just borrowed 3.7, I think. Interest rates are low, and we can accelerate Measure R without Measure J. There’s an interest cost to doing it that isn’t in Measure R, but it would allow us to get the benefits that I think we all want to see.
The sixth and last concern: is it physically possible for Metro to build 11 projects all at once? We know how hard they are to build; we know that delays in many of them have occurred; we know the cost overruns that they incur. These are the most difficult construction project you can imagine. You’re building through a living, breathing neighborhood, tearing up streets, relocating utilities, making noise at night, and dealing with all kinds of neighbors. It’s very, very hard to build a subway; it’s hard to build a light rail line—building one or two at a time has been challenging to us. I mean physically, can we in this economy—do we have the managerial power, the talent, the architects and engineers, the contractors, the materials, the laborers, to build all these projects at once.
David Abel: You can tell Dan was a champion debater. I also was a debater, but the last issue I argued was, ‘Should the Unite States Recognize Red China?’. Allow me now to turn to Denny Zane to respond to Dan’s opposition case.
Denny Zane: First of all, I want to thank Dan Rosenfeld for agreeing to argue this position when Measure R almost literally started in his office!
I think that the argument for Measure J might be framed the following the way: Imagine this opportunity was before us ten years ago. We would have had the opportunity to have the system of Measure R built, roughly, by now. I think all of us then, can appreciate some of the extraordinary opportunity that’s before us. Not only could we have avoided the significant level of unemployment that we now have and the congestion that we now have, we would have injected an efficiency into our economy and strategies for reducing emissions like no other community in the world. The benefits of this investment are concrete, and real—not an imaginary, faint hope on the horizon. The real question before us: Do we want to take the steps needed to accelerate our Measure R investments and their benefit?
To me, that frankly is a no-brainer. It doesn’t mean that the arguments that Dan has posed don’t need to be taken seriously. Of them, I think the most interesting is the last one, about capacity. But you must remember that what’s being asked here is a request of the voters to create an opportunity. We’re not mandating that Metro build beyond it’s capacity. We’re creating an opportunity. There will have to be management decisions. There will have to be prudent choices made to ensure that there are no problems of the sort Dan was suggesting. But let’s create the opportunity. That’s the kind of problem you want to have, not a problem to avoid.
As for the issue of burdening the generations to come, I would much rather the generation 60 years prior to us today had given us this burden and avoided the burden of an infrastructure system that doesn’t work today. That is the prescription for decline. Measure R was a transformational moment, and prior to that we knew there were three million more people coming to Los Angeles County. The Metro had announced that it had and enormous zero-billion dollars to spend on new projects. Imagining where we would be 25 years from that moment with things worsening beyond that crystal moment, with no resources, and without new capacity. That moment gave birth to Measure R, the recognition that we’ve already let it go too far and too long. That’s the argument for acceleration.
If I were now looking back 60 years, I would say, “please, take that step, this burden of this half-cent sales tax, that $25 per year per person, that trivial ‘burden’, as they call it, that can create such efficiency, that can create such opportunity in our community. We want that burden. We wish you’d have given us that burden to release us of the one we have.”
Beyond sharing the cost with the system, we will get the opportunity earlier to realize expenses. There’s no generational equity to say, “This generation should pay, and the next generation should all reap the benefits.” Generation equity is a shared burden and a shared opportunity, and that’s what we have before us now.
I think that Measure J is a transformational moment. Measure J is where Measure R should have been. It gives us the revenue we need for low-interest bonds. Dan’s other point, that we just bond now based upon existing Measure R revenue—the Metro Board really does not make that an option for us. The Board adopted a policy that there would be no acceleration for one project unless all projects were accelerated. That is policy.
There is not enough money in the TIFIA program to accomplish that. TIFIA only provides loans for about a third of this project process. That is not enough to provide the kind of acceleration we’re talking about. Yes, we could accelerate somewhat—maybe we’d be talking about a 30/25 program. The Board could change its policy and leave a whole slew of projects behind in order to accelerate one or two, but that’s not the kind of consensus we’ve created in this program. Rather, we would want to have a kind of opportunity that Measure J gets us, where all parts of our community can benefit.
David Abel: This is the Westside Urban Forum; what benefits accrue to the Westside if Measure J passes?
Hon. Mike Feuer: I think that the benefits to the Westside are very obvious. We end up having a subway, at least to Westwood, with the ability to avoid certain streets altogether. If one lives in neighborhoods close to Westwood, Beverly Hills, or the Fairfax Area, LaBrea, there will be stops at all these areas. And for those people like Zev Yaroslavsky who have said, “After about 2PM on Friday I don’t plan to go Downtown, it’s just too complicated,”—not anymore.
The benefits suddenly transcend a more parochial Westside-specific situation, and we start to think more about how the Westside can be deeply integrated in the most positive way to the balance of the region. Not just Downtown, by the way—suddenly you’re hooked up to North Hollywood and beyond, to Pasadena even, in a way that, I think, is transformational.
David Abel: Three Metro members—Antonovich, Knabe and Ridley-Thomas—did not support the Measure. It is noteworthy that Mark Ridley-Thomas’s political base—labor—is strongly in support of Measure J. Could you share what arguments swayed the Supervisor to abstain from supporting Measure J?
Dan Rosenfeld: As I said earlier, I think his concern is, ‘why now?’. I think in principle, and he should speak for himself on this, the expansion of the transit system is very important to him. And our district is quite well served and will be additionally served by Measure R and Measure J if it passes. And we’re a very transit-dependent district as well as a job-seeking district. The question in his mind is, ‘why now?’, particularly with the other measures on the ballot. Frankly, with potentially two terms ahead of him, he will become the senior member of Metro Board, the senior member of the County Board, and will probably benefit from the resources of Measure J more than anyone else in the political arena. It’s a timing thing in his mind, and he believes we need to balance the state budget.
Hon. Mike Feuer: I just want to say something about the argument that measure J competes in a negative way with Prop 30. That would be an argument were we deciding whether to put Measure J on the ballot. But that’s not what’s being decided. Measure J is the ballot, and so then the question becomes not whether you decide to campaign for it. Instead, you decide whether you should vote for it, which is a question utterly distinct from whether you should vote for Prop 30 as well.
I think it’s important to identify that. And parenthetically, as Dan points out, Mark Ridley-Thomas and I worked closely together in Sacramento during some of the dark days of the recession, but I’m still doing it. And I have to say, Prop 30 is of enormous consequence to me. I think the public understands that there are multiple priorities that we have to realize at once here, and a quite unique opportunity to seize.
Dan Rosenfeld: If you dig into Measure J, there’s a series of projects, specifically, that would benefit. Some are already done—I should point out that Metro has just finished two major projects ahead of schedule and under budget; that’s the Orange Line extension and the Silver Line congestion management hot lanes of the 10 and 110 Freeways. So there is a track record being established of on budget, on schedule performance.
A number of projects are underway and will not be affected by Measure J. The Expo Phase Two to Santa Monica, the Crenshaw Line that will start next spring, the Foothill Extension to Azusa—those have no need to be accelerated. Nor does the Regional Connector if the federal money comes through. So the subway clearly benefits, and the subway is the backbone of the system. I wouldn’t argue with that.
The one that intrigues me is one that isn’t often mentioned, and that’s the airport connection. I think it’s one of our great shortcomings as a city, that we’re the biggest airport by far in the country that doesn’t have transit access. The good news is the airport authority and Metro are working closely together. I believe they’ve agreed on a technology to bring transit into the airport. That’s a project that is in the second or third decade of Measure R today that, for every reason in the world, we want to move forward. That’s not just a Westside issue, that’s a regional issue, and I’d like to see the airport connection raised as a priority because of its broad benefit.
David Abel: In closing, opposition to Measure J comes from two additional sources: the Bus Riders Union and a Beverly Hills newspaper, the Courier. Who would like to respond?
Denny Zane: I think aside from Bus Riders Union, the real driver of opposition is peoples’ representatives being dissatisfied with particulars in their district, giving voice to communities in their districts that have those concerns. I think that’s a legitimate and important role for representatives to take. You have your political leverage, and you want to sustain it as you exercise it in a fashion that really is constructive to the ultimate end. And I think, Ridley-Thomas in particular has been very responsible in that regard. He’s lending his voice to communities in his district.
I think the same is true of others. When Mike Antonovich argues that Measure J doesn’t do some things—in particular it doesn’t do the sort of region-wide connection to the airport systems—he’s correct. It does not do that. It does, however, provide the opportunity at LAX that we need to accelerate. It doesn’t do Burbank-to-Ontario, but that’s not an argument against Measure R or J because what they do accomplish is so extraordinary and exceptional. It’s an argument for more progress; it’s an argument for more steps. I look forward to joining with Antonovich on that because I think that linking transit to aviation systems is vital for our region and will be another transformative opportunity.
The Bus Riders Union is more puzzling to me because the premise of their argument is that there’s some sort of racist implication to building out rail systems. I find that puzzling because data shows that over 90 percent of bus riders are of low-income communities of color, and more than 80 percent of rail riders are from low-income communities. The low-income workforce is very well served, and it’s the dominant user of both systems. Why one would put the interest of one versus the other I just don’t understand.
The argument they make is that there’s nothing in Measures R or J for the bus drivers, which is completely false. 20 percent of the revenue goes for operations of the bus system. Now the bus system and the rail system are heavily subsidized systems. 70-75 percent of the operating costs are subsidized. That means you must have a revenue stream to do that, especially if you want to grow the system like they say they do. They want to add 500 new buses—that would demand a very significant additional revenue source. Where is that going to come from? Well, Measure R provides a significant part of that new revenue, so it should be regarded by bus advocates as one of the best things that has happened to this region for bus service in out lifetime. But why they don’t see it that way, I’m very puzzled. I hope that they rethink their position in the aftermath and become the Transit-Riders’ Union rather than the Bus Riders Union.
Hon. Mike Feuer: Regarding Beverly Hills: on the one hand, the publisher of the Beverly Hills Courier lives in Pasadena, and I don’t think he speaks for the people of Beverly Hills. The newspaper is an opportunity for him to express his views in what appears to be a news story often but is in fact just an editorial. I didn’t read the editorial today, but I can predict what it probably said. There are people in Beverly Hills of good will who are concerned about the tunneling issue underneath Beverly Hills High School. I take seriously the fact that they are sincere in their concerns, a sincerity that I do not attribute to the Courier.
If you’re worried about route the subway will take, that is not a reason to oppose accelerating the project. It’s a reason to have some further say into the route. I have delved deeply into the safety issues associated with the tunneling and have had conversations with projects groups about those issues. I’m in favor of accelerating the pace of Measure R by Measure J, and I’m in favor of leaving it to the scientific experts to determine what the safest routing is.
Denny Zane: I would like to add to that I sat through a very long Metro Board meeting, especially for the purpose of having the community of Beverly Hills present their case to the Board. They brought out a panoply of experts, consultants, geologists, and so on and so forth, and the only issue that was addressed with respect to the substance and the merits was the issue of the alternative station on Santa Monica Boulevard. Nobody of professional qualification related the case that there was any risk whatever. Some members of the community made rhetorical arguments, but there was no substantive, substantiated evidence that there was any risk to that school at all.