The Source ponders Measure J's loss at the polls

Everyone loves to analyze elections — before they happen, while they're happening and the morning after. I'm no different.

In 2008, I covered Measure R for the Los Angeles Times from the outside looking in. In 2012, I'm working for Metro and watched the Measure J election from the inside looking out.

So I have some perspective. And I have a few thoughts on the results:

•While there may be no moral victories when it comes to elections, it's nice to see 64.7 percent of the voters supporting an accelerated transportation program in Los Angeles County. Putting aside the particular merits of J, it's clear that a solid majority of voters in L.A. County want a different transportation future.

It's also obvious that many elected officials and propositions around the country are today celebrating victories earned with substantially less percentage of the vote than J received. That's the issue with the super-majorities required by Prop 13 — they're hard to achieve. Is that appropriate or does that just create logjams?

•In my own view, significantly lower turnout was among the most significant factors impacting J. Measure R was put on the ballot in Nov. 2008 because it was expected to be a high-turnout election, particularly with Barack Obama on the ballot. The bet among Measure R supporters was that there would be significant overlap between support for Obama and support for Measure R.

They were right — R passed with 67.9 percent of the vote. In 2012, interest in the presidential election wasn't so great (two year campaigns are soul crushing) and about 889,000 fewer people voted in the Measure J election than in the Measure R election. The great unanswered question — at least as of this morning — is whether people stayed home from the parts of the county where interest in mass transit is the heaviest. I suspect they did.

•Measure R contained a long list of new projects to be funded both on the transit and highway side. Measure J did not — it simply proposed accelerating Measure R projects that otherwise wouldn't be completed until the late 2020s or the 2030s.

New projects get people excited; older projects not so much. Also, several of the Measure R projects have yet to be defined in the planning process at Metro, another challenge to the campaign. It's hard to sell something when you don't know yet exactly what that something will be. Prime example: the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor, an ultra-important project for many residents of the San Fernando Valley.

•Perhaps more so than in 2008, Metro was limited in the amount of advocacy it could do on behalf of Measure J — a request made explicitly by the Metro Board.

•I'm not in the political campaign business and I'm not comfortable second-guessing the work of those who are. I do think the Measure J results, however, should inspire a conversation about whether it's best in campaigns to speak generically about transportation improvements or whether it's best to be specific and talk about individual projects.

Prime Example #2: The Westside Subway Extension is by far the largest and costliest of the Measure R projects. But it was barely mentioned in the campaigns for Measure R and Measure J. Should it have been? Or would that have hurt the campaign in other parts of Los Angeles County?

•I think it's important for everyone to understand the unusual situation triggered by the loss of Measure J. First, some background: Measure J was designed to take advantage of an expanded federal loan program called TIFIA that offers low-interest, long-term loans. The TIFIA program was greatly expanded in the last transportation bill thanks to the considerable efforts of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Metro Board of Directors and transit supporters in Congress such as Sen. Barbara Boxer.

A typical TIFIA loan lasts for 30 to 35 years. Measure J was needed so that there would be revenue to pay back those loans after Measure R expires in 2039.

So Metro is now in the unusual position of having helped create a great federal loan program that it can't fully exploit. And there's another factor in play: the expanded TIFIA program is part of a transportation bill that will expire in 2014. Metro and many other transit agencies are going to want that program continued — a decision that's ultimately up to Congress and President Obama.

That will almost certainly require a big push from local officials, including the next mayor of the nation's second-largest city, Los Angeles. I hope between now and early March, voters in L.A. ask the mayoral candidates whether they're up for such a challenge as the next mayor will also have considerable sway on the Metro Board of Directors.

Putting aside the particular issue of Measure J, the broader issue remains: the vast majority of Americans live in cities, they need to get to work and dollars to build transit projects in our lifetime remain in very short supply. Solving that problem will take a lot of heavy lifting by elected officials and public alike.

How did you vote on Measure J Why? And what factors do you think played into its loss at the polls? Comment please!

 

30 thoughts on “The Source ponders Measure J's loss at the polls

  1. I voted yes on Measure R, but no on Measure J.

    My reason is Metro is not getting their priorities in order. Majority of the tax funds were to go to highway projects instead of more rail lines. We don’t need anymore new highway projects, we need more rail projects.

    In addition we need to also focus on keeping up with the maintenance of what he have today. The Blue Line is in serious need of fixing. It has frequent delays and the stations are becoming cesspools for criminal activity.

    We also have increasing issues with Metro’s fare system and TAP grievances. All of these cost money too and we need to get all these sorted out first before we go full steam ahead with others. It’s just going to cost us more money to fix all of these issues per each station built if we don’t act today.

  2. Steve, I currently live in NYC but am an LA native so I certainly have some strong opinions on this this issue as a transit booster. Here my thoughts/questions…

    1) The 2/3 threshold for measure approval has got to go. Why is it even in place when it’s obviously a recipe for gridlock and inaction? I’m not sure if this requirement is exclusive to LA County or if it’s due to state law but if it’s the latter, how is it that the California tax hike passed with a simple majority?

    2) The fact that Measure J was needed is an acknowledgement of the fact that Measure R was badly written. Knowing that a very difficult 2/3 threshold was needed for approval, it seems inconceivable to me that another transit measure would be presented to voters only 4 years after Measure R. If a 30-year tax revenue stream was insufficient to fund transit project in a timely manner, why was Measure R not designed to last 60 years? Instead, we had a situation where we needed another measure to go before the voters in a bad economy and knowing that a simple majority would not suffice. Did the creators of Measure R not foresee this? It seems clear to me that Measure R, while visionary and brilliant conceptually, was terribly incompetent in its design and application. Thus we’re now facing the prospect of funding projects we might not see for decades to come.

    • Hi Harold;

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and I think you raise a very good point.

      As I’ve said in the past, Measure R was a transportation plan heavily shaped by the political process. It was also something that was heavilly polled beforehand and shaped by that polling — i.e. it was assembled to be something that could muster two-thirds approval at the polls. On that level, it certainly succeeded, getting 67.9 percent of the vote.

      In my view, R has to be given a lot of credit for reviving a long list of transit projects that had no funding whatsoever and were basically pipe dreams. Was the list too long? Would it have been better to focus on only the highest-ridership projects? Should R have been for a longer period of 30 years? Would R have still been approved if it had fewer projects, proposed a permanent tax and only focused on the subway and a handful of other transit projects? Great questions. I don’t know the answers.

      It was after Measure R was approved that the reality began to set in: many of these projects also would not be built for years because Measure R money flows into coffers over time, not all at once. That began a talk about accelerating them, leading eventually to Measure J. As you suggest, I think a good public policy debate on J is the timing: was it too soon? And was J the best way of accelerating all these projects? I think this is a debate we’ll see unfold over the next several years as local officials and Metro decides whether to return to voters.

      As for the two-thirds issue, that was part of Prop 13. I can understand wanting to have a super majority for things like taxes; on the other hand, maybe the super-majority requirement was just a cynical way to stop pretty much everything but a few tax increases that manage to squeak by (like Measure R). With Democrats in control of the state Legislature, it will be interesting to see if they pursue lowering the threshold to 55 percent. They could rightly claim they’re not increasing taxes, only giving voters a better shot at making such a choice. Their political foes can also claim that’s Democrats taking the lead on increasing taxes. So we’ll see.

      I personally believe a supermajority on a transit issue is possible. As with any election, a lot of things have to break right. They didn’t for J; I think everyone, particularly Metro, needs to spend some time contemplating what didn’t work and why. Turnout, in my opinion, was certainly a factor — but not the only factor.

      Again, thanks much for taking the time to compose an interesting and thoughtful comment and post it here. I really appreciate it. The best way for this region to create a great transit system is to get people like you to engage in the process.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  3. Hi Steve.

    No mention from you of the efforts of the Bus Riders Union and locals who campaigned against Measure J? Why no mention? You are not aware of such efforts? Surely you are. Or that you currently work for Metro is the reason you’re hush-hush on it?

    They’re efforts had impact. Impact on me with some effect on my decision to vote No on Measure J. Interesting issues too. Bus service has been slashed in LA, especially in communities which will be less affected or untouched by Measure R projects, and by Measure J’s quick-track super-long-term debt financing. Bus service is the most economical, efficient, quickest built and effective means of addressing public transportation needs (safer too?, I wonder). Bus service does not entail costly and long-time-to-build rails, or freeways, and access it creates is much more readily available and productive. Bus service is a no-brainer, yet no brains have addressed significant bus service options in Measure R and subsequently Measure J.
    Hhhmmm, Metro. What is up with that?

    I’m personally for more rail projects as well, with freeway expansion last on the list. All that very very expensive work on the 405 and no rail being put in instead of another silly lane each way? Yes, rail is expensive, but fast and efficient once installed.

    Eduardo’s comment above makes strong points about maintenance of our current rail system and stations. And yes, TAP is slow to access and fund, initially and continually confusing to most, and requires more than one TAP card to be most economical for the rider. This with Metro’s claim of how “simple” and efficient TAP is. You can regularly see people new to TAP, who miss train after train as they attempt to figure out how to access and pay for a ticket to ride (as Metro no longer provides cash purchase option to pay to ride buses and subway without an electric TAP card, at extra cost too).

    TAP is so blatantly programmed to cost a rider more than they need to pay that it makes me think the best way to fund Metro projects is to slash the managers and board supervisor’s salaries by 75%. I guarantee you there are well qualified people, also more than willing, to do their jobs just as well, at 25% of the annual salary some to most of these guys get paid.

    Another reason to Vote No for Measure J; the seemingly misaligned priorities of Metro decision makers.

    Metro Executive Compensation:
    http://www.metro.net/about/board/executive-compensation/

  4. Honestly, Metro failed on so many levels with their outreach and CLC’s (Community Liason Committee’s). They spent $4,000,000 of our tax dollars and could NOT deliver the information that people were asking and demanding they provide. They didn’t answer our questions about costs for high profile projects like the SR-710 Extension that includes, dual tunnels (Northbound and Southbound) that would be 14 miles of underground double decker toll lanes. And then it was uncovered by the public that the PPP (Public Private Partnership) would keep the toll monies. And the cost of the tunnels was never shared. It was also reported that the Seattle tunnel (SR-99) would cost the Washington taxpayers $7,000,000 just for the electricity to light the 1.7 mile tunnel per year. But it was also uncovered by the public that it wold cost somewhere around $20 billion dollar and up to build this one project which is part of the 5 alternatives that Metro is “recommending” to the MTA Board of Directors. Metro compared the cost of this project to the SR-99 in Seattle. WSDOT (Washington State Dept. of Transportation) estimates that their tunnel is costing 1.97 billion dollars a mile to build. And that they don’t believe that the PPP will even be able to recoup the cost overruns from the set toll amounts. In otherwords, the tolls will go to the PPP private investors, not the public and that they will have to raise the costs of the tolls and now are concerned that traffic (both cars and trucks) will divert from this route onto surface streets due to prohibitive daily costs passed on to the public. It is estimated it would cost over $4.00 per car and $12.00 for trucks to use the tunnels. So the defeat of Measure J has been what is necessary to bring Metro back to the table with a transparent plan that gives the public more fiscal and environmental accountability. Now we just have to hold them to it. Go to Facebook, “No on Measure J” and “No 710 Freeway Extension”.

    • Hi Tina;

      I just wanted to point out that the 710 gap project was not on the list to be accelerated by Measure J. It’s also worth pointing out that several alternatives remain under study — no decision has yet to be made to build anything. As for the tunnel alternative, the funding Measure R provides for the 710 project is not enough to build it; additional funding would be needed either through a public-private partnership (likely involving tolling of the tunnel) or some other source.

      As for the SR-99 tunnel in Seattle, WSDOT says it will cost about $2 billion to build the two-mile tunnel under parts of downtown Seattle — it replaces the old viaduct. Along with some associated projects, the total cost is estimated at $3.0444 billion. http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Viaduct/Schedule/Budget

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. @Steve, Measure J which was introduced and written by MTA Board member John Fasana, amended the language of the fiscal expenditure with a “vice-versa” clause so that Metro would have been able to move the funds from Transit to Highway Improvements and vice-versa. The public and some of the electeds like The Los Angeles City Council, The Pasadena City Council, the La Canada-Flintridge City Council and the Glendale City Council passed resolutions against Metro’s failed community outreach, unsupported data, and unwillingness to communicate costs to the public and elected officials. Metro was and continues to be unable to respond and answer stated concerns made by several elected politicians from the California State Legislature and the surrounding municipal city council members which encompasses a broader regional base. Metro also has the authority to spend the $780,000,000 dollars on studying the alternatives of their choice and the ability to pay the Metro consultants until all the money is gone. We would prefer to see the money applied toward projects that can make a difference in Los Angeles County. The SR-710 tunnel will be 4.5 miles bored in two directions. That is over 9 miles with boring and a cost estimate of $1.94 billion a mile. Even if it is a billion a mile, it is still going to be in the billion dollar double digits. And don’t forget cost overruns. A connector has to be built to connect the two tunnels to meet emergency requirements and that has to be hand mined. It’s going to be over $20 billion easily. We are broke here in California and we need to take another look at what our REAL transportation solutions are going to be. Please go to our FB pages and check out our “files” we have a lot of info. Thanks.

    • Hi Tina;

      Measure J was written by Metro staff and adopted by the Metro Board. Board Member Fasana introduced an amendment that would have potentially allowed some highway funds to be transferred to transit projects within a particular subregion. I believe many cities in the San Gabriel Valley, including some you mentioned, approved resolutions to support Measure J. The $20 billion cost you place on a 710 tunnel is your opinion.

      Obviously, everyone has the right to their opinion about whether closing the 710 gap would be a good transportation program or not. At this point, no decisions have been made by Metro. I do think putting a tunnel in the list of alternatives is something that should be studied. Traffic circumventing the gap impacts many streets in the western San Gabriel Valley, including residential streets in particular in Alhambra, South Pasadena and Pasadena.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  6. California is unprepared for public private partnerships. And the public knows it. We shouldn’t be spending money we don’t have. And these large transportation projects are too hefty to put on the backs of the LA County Taxpayers for 60 years. There are other solutions like heavy rail to carry the “natural goods movement” that was eliminated from the text at some point by Doug Failing and Metro. They also eliminated “trucks” from the dialogue as well. But we have videos and quotes of Failing saying that the 710 tunnel would have truck movement. The trust that the public had with Metro led to a slow disintegration of the relationship after these types of scenarios. So much so that when we came to the meetings the public was as prepared as Metro Staff, SCAG, COG, elected officials and the Metro Board itself.

    http://blogs.sacbee.com/the_state_worker/2012/11/lao-california-unprepared-for-public-private-partnerships.html

  7. @Steve, the Los Angeles City Council voted on a resolution to oppose all suggested routes proposed by Metro along with the City Councils of Glendale, La Canada-Flintridge and Pasadena City Councils, opposing the proposed alternatives due to the failures on the part of Metro to do proper outreach and a lack of substantiated data. These resolutions were written and passed in their public chambers respectively so that the elected officials including the Mayors of Pasadena, Glendale and La Canada-Flintridge were unified in opposing Metro’s flawed process and could go on record to oppose Metro’s proposals and their lack of transparency, outreach and flawed data relating to the SR-710 Extension. We intend to follow this issue to its end or until we can participate in the process that we are being shut out of. I am for solid transportation solutions and I demand to participate in the process. That is why I voted against Measure J.

    Finally, the SR-710 Extension will not solve the traffic congestion that Metro is selling to the San Gabriel Valley folks. Their studies are filled with gaps and errors and have not produced data that can be backed up to the publics satisfaction. We brought engineers and math experts from JPL and they could not use the chart numbering systems that Metro (CH2m Hill) was presenting as the criteria for their calculations. One gentleman had experience working on 3-D models for NASA and said he tried working from the available numbers that were provided in their charts but found them to be unusable.

    I don’t mind waiting a year or two for a Transportation plan that would be accountable to not just SGV, Alhambra or San Marino but to all of us regionally. We expect to see our concerns addressed and implemented in a transparent process so we can arrive to a conclusion together. We, the Taxpayers, are paying for the entire package and insist on the ability to participate and be a part of the solution.

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