We tend to think of Prop A (1980) and Prop C (1990) as the big guns that made LA’s 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 Bradley’s 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.
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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Categories: Transportation News