America Pays for Villaraigosa’s Transit Legacy

You can’t say no to federal funds for L.A.’s empty trains, fake transit hubs, and unfixed potholes.

What is TIFIA? This fey-sounding acronym for the 1998 Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act may be your ticket to a wheezing, convoluted federal lending vehicle designed in large part to help Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa name a major project after himself. 

How can that be, when the deepening state and federal fiscal crisis has delayed or derailed so many major projects? 

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), in her capacity as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is receiving a lesson in planned economics through President Barack Obama’s $556 billion six-year highway and transit bill. Because the administration provided a plan that is underfunded by at least $134 billion, it is left to Boxer to whittle the bill down, complaining to Reuters as she does so. A bill that would have cost more than $185 billion over the next two years now may end up costing only about $109 billion, most but not all of that from the federal gasoline tax. 

This bill does not include the $53 billion taxpayer expenditure for railroads announced by Vice President Joe Biden in February. But the bill does contain non-road transit, and one chief executive who has been looking on with gleeful hand-rubbing is the squat, amiable mayor of the City of Angels. 

Villaraigosa rejects the legacy that has already been granted to him by history: L.A. died on his watch. Instead, he believes that by narrowing the city’s 30-year plan for new municipal rail projects down to 10 years—the “30/10” plan that Villaraigosa explains in this 2009 puff piece by Ari B. Bloomekatz at The Los Angeles Times—he can outshine even the burnished image of his predecessor James Hahn. 

A few things to understand about 30/10: 

It’s politically popular. Boxer and challenger Carly Fiorina both embraced Villaraigosa’s scheme to grab federal funds for the idea in the 2010 election.

It also has no realistic hope of being funded. At the most conservative estimate, the plan will cost at least $13.7 billion, and it will probably cost a lot more. L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten, one of the idea’s largest boosters, pronounces that the project—which includes an extension of a subway line to the West Side V.A. hospital and an at-grade rail line from USC to Santa Monica, as well as a plan to take away one lane of highly congested Wilshire Boulevard and turn it into a bus-only route—would "create 918,300 jobs paying $50.8 billion in wages." 

And it has a new name. “Fast Forward America” is the new designation of 30/10, given with an eye toward getting other cities to accelerate railroad projects. In L.A., “FAST” has been turned into the telling acronym: “Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic.” (That is exactly correct: They don’t want to fix the traffic; they want to fix the people.) 

Angelenos, fixed or not, voted in 2008 to approve a new county-wide sales tax, set at the seemingly reasonable rate of a ha’penny. Measure R was heavily advertised as a tax that would fix potholes, repair the county’s disgraceful road infrastructure, and “get traffic moving.” The Los Angeles County MTA's Measure R splash page highlights the road and driving elements of the measure, with its top bullet point noting that MTA has disbursed "$100 million for...projects such as pothole repairs, major street resurfacing, left-turn signals, bikeways, pedestrian improvements, streetscapes, traffic signal synchronization and local transit services."

More than two years in, Los Angeles now fixes nearly a third fewer potholes than it did before. According to the Measure R expenditure plan [pdf] a mere 15 percent of money from the sales tax is designated for road service. The largest portion goes to new rail projects, though only the Expo Line from USC is currently under active construction. 

The half-cent sales tax has made itself felt in other ways, however. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis [pdf], gross metropolitan product for Los Angeles declined 3.4 percent in the year after Measure R’s passage. 

Punchline: Even taxing the county into penury and ignoring the deplorable condition of its roads won’t bring enough money to fund FAST. According to MTA’s expenditure plan, the new tax will only contribute $2.93 billion to new rail projects over the 10-year window Villaraigosa envisions. 

But the biggest joke isn’t just on the people of Los Angeles, who after all deserve the absurd fate of becoming guinea pigs in the New Urbanists’ experiment to create a newer, better Homo Angelicus. The real laff is going to be on the American taxpayers, who despite the fizzling of Obama’s transit package may yet end up paying for Antonio’s folly. Boxer has been trying to shake loose money by expanding the TIFIA program, which currently lends a little more than $100 million per year to transit projects, to $1 billion in annual lending. As the Reason Foundation's Robert Poole explains here, TIFIA may be among the more rational uses of federal dollars, as it at least in theory encourages private players to develop transportation solutions. 

Of course, $1 billion nationwide is not nearly enough to fund 30/10 or FAST or whatever Villaraigosa names his next version of the L.A. rail plan. But the program is going ahead, and its boosters still think there’s some money out there somewhere. Boxer tells The Wall Street Journal that the expanded TIFIA will “leverage $30 billion in private investment.” That’s a multiplier effect of $30 for every one dollar the government gives out. Which is why I said Boxer is “receiving” a lesson in planned economics, not that she’s learning anything from it.

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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  • johnl||

    Great article. Homo Angelicus is a great new word, but I wonder about "laff".

  • ||

    Off topic, still haven't got a good answer to this question yet though:

    Did I miss where Reason was all over this story or do the Hit & Run editors not find it newsworthy that Rand Paul doesn't believe in the first amendment?

    http://www.salon.com/news/opin.....index.html

    "But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that's really an offense that we should be going after -- they should be deported or put in prison."

  • ||

    I think it's too extreme a statement, but it does seem to me that it's exactly the type of thing people were demanding that he say when Giffords got shot.

  • l0b0t||

    Is it not currently against the law to advocate the violent overthrow of the US? IIRC, it is a crime to threaten the POTUS. Didn't the Reagan administration refuse visas to Hortensia Allende and to the Pet Shop Boys because of fears of what they were going to say in public?

  • ||

    It is probably legal to deport people over it, and to refuse visas.

  • ||

    Fuck off, rather.

  • Monkey Rapage||

    And what the hell's so bad about public transit, libtards?

  • Skr||

    I believe the proper epithet is "libertard", stupid monkey.

  • some guy||

    Nothing's wrong with public transit. The problem with moving people by rail is that it is not efficient. It always costs more than people are willing to pay. So, those people end up forcing others to pay for them. Commuter rail projects in the US are always funded by institutionalized theft. Always.

  • ||

    And what the hell's so bad about public transit, libtards?

    Nothing, as long as you pay for it yourself.

  • Anonymouse||

    I'd say the same thing about parking for your cars. Your roads might (sort of) pay for themselves, but your parking sure as hell doesn't – every municipality in the country aside from a few dense city cores has a minimum parking requirement for development, forcing building owners to pay for your parking. Truth is, this is probably a bigger benefit to drivers than non-drivers get out of public transit subsidies.

  • rather||

    Never heard that argument. Do you have a reference I can read?

  • Highway||

    This is a shortsighted argument. If business owners pay for the parking lots, then presumably they put the costs they need to recoup into their prices. So the customers *do* 'pay for their own parking if it's based on a requirement for zoning or development.

    I disagree with most parking requirements from the other side: Too much parking area is required, which creates impervious area that has negative environmental consequences. But the idea that parking is subsidized in the same manner as rail because it's a requirement for developers is misguided.

  • GSL||

    Villaraigosa rejects the legacy that has already been granted to him by history: L.A. died on his watch.

    Amen to this. Unfortunately, San Diego doesn't appear to be learning any lessons from LA's New Urbanist excesses.

  • CE||

    Flying home from Seoul to LA, Los Angeles looks like a third world country by comparison.

  • Paul||

    I love to point out Seattle's roads whenever a liberal screams "roads!" when I'm asking what I get for my government tax dollar.

  • ||

    Paul, I was just up in Seattle today covering a co-workers territory. Holy fuckin' crap are Seattle's streets in shitty condition, or what. The main arterials weren't bad but get off on any minor arterial or sidestreet and it was crap third world roadage. And this was up in Ballard and around north Greenwood, not in the central district or the Rainier valley. But, hey, you got a cute little trolley called the SLUT (South Lake Union Trolley). I guess that's supposed to make up for pothole filled streets.

  • Paul||

    If more people would right the S.L.U.T., potholes wouldn't be a problem.

    Get people out of their cars and onto public transit.

    How will people notice a transit strike if no one's on the buses and trains?

    And so on.

  • AlanS||

    All this boondoggle will do is fast forward LA to bankruptcy.

  • Kroneborge||

    I'm mainly ok with this type of spending. If the entire 700b in stimulus had went to infrastrucutre at least we would have something to show for it when it was said and done.

    Moreover, the future generations that would be paying for it would at least still be getting benefits from it.

    Historically we can see that things like the Hoover dam were a pretty good investment.

  • ScottK||

    Perhaps, assuming those contracts were given to private companies at market-competitive wages. Which, of course, would not have happened.

  • Kroneborge||

    That's true. But at least there would be something to show for it at the end. Over say the 40+% that is wasted on school overhead.

  • AJ||

    Yeah, we could continue to subsidize bankrupt rail companies with taxpayer dollars well into the future!

  • Corey||

    Everybody knows better than to take Wilshire (well, apparently not everybody, being that it's always packed) - Olympic and Pico are the best east-west routes in the city.

  • Skr||

    Adams/Washington if you can go a little further south is better. The lights are still synched from when the 10 collapsed during Northridge.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    If you have the misfortune of a Hollywood/West Side commute, you will discover something interesting the first time you try and avoid rush hour: The lights on Santa Monica Blvd. are timed so that even if there is no other traffic on the road, you will still spend most of your journey at a dead stop.

    The lights on Santa Monica Blvd. are synchronized by Jigsaw himself.

  • Paul||

    The lights on Santa Monica Blvd. are timed so that even if there is no other traffic on the road, you will still spend most of your journey at a dead stop.

    That's what urban planners used to call "frustrating drivers out of their cars, and into public transit".

    Which is funny, I remember some local officials and activists saying exactly that in the 90s, but I think they backed off that rhetoric when trying to sell their urban planning ideas to the public, because it was a non-starter.

  • Corey||

    Yes, but the public transit that you would abandon your car for if you commute to the westside is a bus - which would be hurt just as badly from mistimed traffic lights.

  • AJ||

    Not to mention sitting at a stop light idling is not so great for the environment that the planners profess so much love for.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    Corey|6.2.11 @ 10:59PM| wrote:

    >[...]A bus ... would be hurt just >as badly from mistimed traffic >lights.

    In some systems, buses can send signals to get accelerated green lights or delay red lights.

  • ||

    I noticed that driving through at 3 a.m. (don't ask what I was doing at 3 a.m.), but I got the feeling I was going to get jacked if I stayed at some of those prolonged reds. Hollywood is disgusting, despite many tourists' imaginations.

  • Lawrence||

    Hollywood has been going through major revitilization, of which the Subway was a key part, and continues to do so. Did you see it in the 80's and 90's? I agree that it's still rough around the edges, but it's light years better than before - that's a fact.

  • skr||

    It is better than it was

  • skr||

    I few years ago when they started doing the revitalization, I took my Mom around (she was in town visiting)Hollywood. She got the privledge of watching a drug transaction take place while I was trying to turn onto Hollywood.

  • ||

    My brother, who does not live in California, is convinced that a SF-LA high speed rail line is just what California needs.

  • Paul||

    As a non-California resident, I agree with him 100%. Anything which bankrupts that state faster, killing the dying patient quickly and quietly, I'm for.

  • skr||

    I think that maybe dead in the water.

  • ||

    I lived about 5 years in Los Angeles. When I hear of a proposal to take a lane away from the already-congested Wilshire Blvd, the only thing I can think is "are they freaking insane?" Much of Wilshire is basically two lanes plus parking, so we'd be talking one lane each direction, or doing away with parking. Neither "solution" would be workable.

  • ||

    During rush hour, parking is not allowed on Wilshire, so it is three lanes of general traffic.

    On Wilshire, there are more people riding in buses than in cars, so a bus lane is not necessarily inappropriate.

  • Lawrence||

    Agree with Spokker. The Wilshire buses have some of the highest, if not the highest ridership in the county. A bus lane will allow them to move through easier and will actually prevent the lane changes that create a lot of excess traffic.

  • The Derider||

    Eliminating parking on Wilshire is a very good idea. Why is that not workable?

  • WarrenT||

    Patronage and graft. That's what projects like this and are all about.

  • chaussures mbt pia femme||

    nice!

  • airliner||

    Seriously - have any one of you been on a train or bus in LA? As a conservative, native born Angeleno, that can afford a car - i find the debate against rail offensive...the trains are well used - (try getting a seat on a redline train during rush hour) and fairly convenient. The only issue with the trains is that they don't go everywhere yet - Measure R is starting to solve the problem and as you see more areas connected you will see more people jump on them.

  • Why_is_rail_a_Liberal_thing?||

    The half-cent sales tax has made itself felt in other ways, however. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis [pdf], gross metropolitan product for Los Angeles declined 3.4 percent in the year after Measure R’s passage. - Was it the sales tax or did it have anything to do with the "great recession"? Is there a comparison between other communities GMP that didn't increase their sales tax to fund much needed transportation during this time period?

  • The Derider||

    Measure R was passed in 2008. Hmm... what else happened between 2008 and 2009 that might have effected the gross metropolitan product for Los Angeles?

    What tripe.

  • Robert||

    I would love to hear these Reason idiots to try an explain their "free market" solution to LAs traffic problems...

  • ||

    After you wipe that sneer off your face, you could start here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....r_embedded

    or here:

    http://reason.org/news/show/re.....ay-pricing

  • The Derider||

    From the article you linked:

    The underlying problem is that congestion pricing can easily produce more losers than winners. Those who pay the toll would be winners, because their time savings would be worth what they had to pay. But a great many others would be “tolled off” the freeways, to already-congested arterials. And those using the arterials would be made even worse off by those diverting to them from the tolled freeways.

    Wilshire is an arterial, not a freeway. Congestion pricing on say, the 10, would only make these problems worse.

  • ||

    Empty trains? They are packed every day. I should know. I take the subway daily from Hollywood to Downtown LA. I would think a publication named Reason would do a little Research. Of course, that wouldn't suit your ideology, so better to just go with polemic.

  • Lawrence||

    Agreed - I ride the Gold Line and Red Line to work everyday. I'm middle class and can afford a car, but choose to ride the train as it's more convenient. The trains are very busy, especially during rush hour and they will only get busier as the network expands.

  • Old Man With Candy||

    Drink!

  • Abercrombie Paris||

    Politics is dark, wish you happy every day!

  • The Derider||

    Hahaha

    LA's "empty" trains?

    Try again, this time with a clue.

  • nike dunk||

    is good

  • goallen||

    ty rights, etc. seem like a more accurate measure of freedom than democracy.

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