Antonio Villaraigosa, The Transportation Mayor

Five years ago, I was sitting at my desk in New York City reading about Los Angeles and wondering how I was going to adapt.  Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seemed obsessed with speeding up car traffic to the detriment of neighborhoods.  It’s hard to remember the Mayor’s talk of Tiger Teams, specialized LAPD units designed to punish cars parked in rush hour travel lanes, cars “blocking the box” or anyone else that dared impede traffic at rush hour.  His attempt to “Manhattanize” Downtown Los Angeles was widely mocked in media outlets.  His signature transportation project was The Subway to the Sea, which was widely considered a pipe dream.

Villaraigosa, with two key transit allies, on one of the Expo "preview" trains. Photo:Intersections, South L.A.

What a difference half a decade makes.

Last night during his State of the City address, the Mayor doubled down on what has been his signature accomplishment, the passage of Measure R in 2008 and the beginning of a slow transformation of Los Angeles from the car dominated punchline of “Los Angeles Story” to a transit town.

“The successful passage of Measure R taught us something about Los Angeles,” proclaimed Villaraigosa.  ”This is a city willing to invest in itself. This is a city willing to lead and to chart a new path. And that is why today I am announcing that we will be asking voters to continue Measure R until the voters themselves decide to end it. “

With those sentences, the Mayor kicked off the 2012 election for many Angelenos.  If the legislature, the Metro Board and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors let it happen, L.A. County residents will have a chance to vote on extending a thirty-year half-cent sales tax that would allow Metro to build more and better transit projects now. The longer a sales tax, the easier it is to borrow against.  Via press release, the Mayor released a list of projects that would be accelerated and expanded by what is being billed “Measure R+.

  • Green Line to LAX would open 10 years sooner (2018)
  • The Subway to Westwood would open 13 years sooner (2023)
  • The Green Line extension in the South Bay would open 17 years sooner (2018)
  • Gold Line to Whittier or El Monte would open 15 years sooner (2020)
  • A new project in Southeast LA County – the West Santa Ana Branch – would open eight years sooner (2019)

Critics are already pointing to polls that show “Measure R+” coming up short in the polls, but by embracing the transit tax in such a large and public way, Villaraigosa is putting his legacy on the line.  A lot can change between now and November, and with the areas most visible politician pushing the issue, it has a better than average chance of passing.  With only fourteen months left in office, the November election could be Villaraigosa’s last chance to make a real splash.

While its great to be the “transit mayor,” it would be even better to be the “transportation mayor.”  A friend of mine emailed me that Villaraigosa is going to be remembered as the mayor who “brought the city’s transportation infrastructure into the 21st century.”  She cited Measure R, last night’s speech, bike share, CicLAvia and, while she didn’t mention it, she could have added the Bike Plan and its slow, but gradual, implementation.

Look at that list again.  What is missing.

For Measure R+ to complete the progressive transportation picture started by the passage of Measure R, then the city, the county and the region need to invest in pedestrian infrastructure.  The poor state of the city’s sidewalks has gotten to the point that the city council has to debate every couple of years whether or not to make homeowners pay to fix the sidewalks in front of their house.  Many crosswalks aren’t ADA accessible.  Large parts of the city don’t even have crosswalks.

Being the Transit Mayor is great, and much more than I expected from Villaraigosa when I arrived in L.A.  All you have to do to see how far Villaraigosa has come is to look at how last night’s State of the City compares to previous years when there was barely a mention of the city’s lacking transportation infrastructure.

But a world-class transit system isn’t a panacea to car culture by itself.  The easiest way to finish the picture is to fix one of the mistakes made when Measure R was put together in 2008.  Measure R+ needs a bicycle and pedestrian set-aside.