This is 30: On the watershed rail-enabling 1970s ballot measure that you’ve probably never heard of

Norm Emerson and the shovel used to break ground on the B (Red) Line in 1986. Photo: Aurelia Ventura

We tend to think of Prop A (1980) and Prop C (1990) as the big guns that made LAs public transportation system thinkable the first two half cent tax increases that provided the funding needed to get Metro Rail off the ground. But not so fast, says Norman Emerson, who served as Mayor Tom Bradleys Director of Research during his 73 campaign and his Director of Policy from 1973-1978. He later served as the Pacific Regional Representative for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, the Federal Project Director for the Century/I-105 Transportation Program, and sat on the SCRTD Board of Directors during the development of the Red Line. In this piece, Emerson explains why the passage of Proposition 5 in 1974 was such a watershed moment.

By Norman Emerson

When Tom Bradley was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1973––fifty years ago!––he came to office with a strong vision and commitment to build a world-class rail network that would improve access to jobs, reduce air emissions, and benefit the many diverse communities of Los Angeles County.

Throughout his campaign, he had stressed the importance of securing new federal and state transit funding, arguing that Los Angeles was not receiving its fair share to meet the area’s expanding mobility needs. (On a per capita basis, Bradley pointed out, Puerto Rico was receiving more federal transit funds than the Los Angeles area.) His vision was bold. About a month before the 1973 election, holed up at an abandoned Ralph’s supermarket on Wilshire Boulevard that doubled as our campaign headquarters, a reporter asked Bradley how long it would take following his election to move forward on a new rail system. He said 18 months. (In retrospect, the time frame was highly unrealistic, but it demonstrated his sense of urgency to deliver on a very important pledge he made to the people of Los Angeles.)

Shortly after his election, Mayor Bradley asked me to join his administration and begin the complex tasks of developing a comprehensive set of mobility improvements for Los Angeles. At 26 years old, this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Our first priority? Money. We needed to identify innovative ways to secure local, state, and federal funding needed to begin the predevelopment work that ultimately led to construction of the Red Line.

But increasing funding for more rail in cities faced an uphill battle in Sacramento. Bradley learned this firsthand from his colleague and ally, the California State Senator James Mills, who had been pushing for light rail in San Diego with a bill known as SCA 15. Politically connected oil and gas interests, along with a group called the “road gang,” strongly opposed any legislative push to tap into the state’s highway fund account, which is funded by gas tax revenues. Historically, the State Highway Commission restricted the use of the highway trust fund and any other auto related fees for the construction of transit projects. The Commission and their attorneys relied on a very conservative interpretation of Article XXVI of the California Constitution, which deals with transportation finance.

But the tides were turning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had recently announced what they called their “Transportation Control Measures,” which, in line with provisions of the federal Clean Air Act (CAA), called for reducing auto use in the Los Angeles region by over 90%. “The development of large-scale mass transit facilities in the Los Angeles area, the EPA Administrator stated, “is essential to any effort to reduce automotive pollution through restrictions on vehicle use.” The EPA also encouraged the local government to study the feasibility of rail.

We encouraged Mayor Bradley to take the case to the Los Angeles Times editorial board in order to argue for moving forward on Mills’ ballot measure. Shortly afterward, the Times ran a story titled “Mass Transit: A Good Start,” supporting the need for a new rail transit system in Los Angeles.

Editorial that ran in the Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1973

Still, Sacramento wouldn’t budge, provoking an unprecedented move by the mayor and two major allies, LA city councilman Ed Edelman and the City of Riverside. With the help of the Los Angeles-based Center for Law in the Public Interest, which was known for utilizing the legal system to bring about positive societal and environmental changes, Bradley decided to sue the state, including the California Highway Commission, over the allocation of the state highway trust fund revenues for transit projects. That meant that the language of Article XXVI in the California State Constitution would have to change). The Center’s unique legal strategy was to file the suit with the California State Supreme Court in order to elevate the policy issues at stake and gain attention of Sacramento legislators.

Read the whole filing here.

The Center’s litigation stated that both the highway commission and state legislature have the “authority and duty” to allocate highway trust funds to support mass rapid transit systems, and Los Angeles was no exception. Since both state entities had ignored their authority, the litigation made compelling arguments that they act in the public interest and move forward with funding transit. While the Supreme Court remanded the case to a lower court, Senator Mills’ SCA 15 was approved by the legislature and was placed on the 1974 ballot as Proposition 5, or the “Highways and Mass Transit Guideways. Legislative Constitutional Amendment.

Getting it on the ballot was a very big step. But now, Bradley needed to get it passed. The ballot measure required each individual county in the state to pass the ballot proposition as requirement to access the highway trust funds. Increasingly, Proposition 5 was pitched as a battle over discretion. Should voters get a say in how they wanted their gas tax dollars used? Or should those funds be restricted to one sole purpose?

Well, it all came together. In June 1974, the voters of both California and Los Angeles County approved Proposition 5. For the first time ever, transit supporters could pursue highway funds for development of new rail projects serving Los Angeles County.

It wasn’t a total victory for transit advocates. In November that same year, Proposition A, a transit tax ballot measure––it proposed a half-cent tax increase designed to raise capital for a rail system and another half-cent that would subsidize a 25-cent bus fare––lost with only 47% of the vote. While the Mayor fought hard for its passage, RTD didn’t have much experience building rail projects, a big concern. Nor did RTD have a great track record with the unions that represented bus operators and mechanics –– and an RTD bus strike during the final months of the campaign didn’t help.

Yet here was a small slice of victory for the mayor: voters in the City of Los Angeles supported the measure by a 57% vote.

Much has been written about the complex technical and political dimensions of rail development in Los Angeles. But I would argue that Bradley’s early vision and political will to secure enactment of Proposition 5 was a watershed moment that deserves special recognition. Not only did it make much-needed initial funding available, but it created a solid foundation for future transit decision-makers for the next 50 years. And I was very fortunate and honored to be a part of it.

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4 replies

  1. A ballot measure was passed in the early 1980’s that raised the Sales Tax by a half percent which in turn allowed the RTD to cut the Bus Fare from 85 cents to 50 cents. Ridership increased considerably so the RTD increased service placing more buses on the street to avoid overcrowding. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission strongly objected to the increased service because it meant the subsidies per rider had greatly increased. The LACTC threatened the RTD that its would withhold all the RTD subsidies if the RTD did not reduce service back to to its original levels. It seemed the increase subsidies were cutting into the LACTC pet non transpiration pet projects. Approximately ten years later the two agencies were merged , forming the MTA, and those from the LACTC had secured the reigns of the operating agency and have systematically reduced the service they were unable to accomplish when the two agencies were separate. While San Diego was able to build their first light rail line with no federal subsidies, under budget and in record time the LACTC foray into building a light rail line on their own, the Blue Line to Long Beach was a total joke. They needed federal dollars, it was over budget and took over three years to construct. The Blue Line runs along the former Pacific Electric right of way. In comparison, it took Henry Huntington utilizing preemptive equipment six months to build the original line. To top things off, the MTA has spent billions to rebuild the line after only 20 years of service. One of the main flaws when it was originally built by the LACTC was it was not “standard gauge” but instead a gauge that prohibited newer equipment from being able to operate along its tracks. This was a wonderful news story that stopped short of revealing the many political barriers that stood in the way of a Modern Mass Transit System.

  2. Wow – pleasant to see a Metro outlet supporting using state highway trust fund revenues for transit projects. Any chance Metro could stand up for this today? With all of Metro’s freeway expansions lately, Metro seems is more on the side of the “Road Gang”

    • Really? Cause transit is expanding just as fast, if not faster than the freeway system now. As far as I know, outside of HOV Lanes and improvements, there aren’t really any plans to build another freeway in LA county outside of maybe the High Desert. Freeways are now more unpopular than Public Transit.

      Also, last I checked, Pasadena was now in the process of getting the SR-710 stub back so. . . Expect more homes and shops in Old Town Pasadena in about 15-20 years. Not fast enough is the only disappointment there. So if anything, freeways are also getting downgrades.

  3. I’m almost certain, if Prop A passed in 1974, all 28 by 28 projects could, just maybe, actually be a reality by 28 instead of the half-baked proposals we have today.

    Even adjusted for inflation, building the purple line to Santa Monica would still have been cheaper in 1980s dollars than it is today.

    Honest question: Was the technology to allow building around Methane soil available back then?