Five Things I’m Thinking About Transportation

When I last took a paternity leave, I returned with a brief column on some stories I would never get to flesh out that occured during my time off. Sometime after that, Steve Hymon started running an occasional “5 Things I’m Thinking About Transportation” series. I’ve rarely done it, but if it’s good enough for a Pulitzer Prize Winner…

1) With the election just eight days away, Streetsblog will be focusing on Measure J this week to try and provide as much information and opinion about the proposed sales tax extension. Over the next four days, Streetsblog will publish four op/eds, two in favor and two opposed to the sales tax extension. Today’s op/ed will be by Move L.A. Tomorrow’s by the Bus Riders Union.

Today also sees a major update to the Measure J Page, including many of the major news pieces on the ballot proposition from the last three weeks. Tomorrow, we’ll have a story by myself and Sahra Sulaiman going into greater detail on both the “yes” and “no” campaigns. And on Friday we’ll have the L.A. Streetsblog election ballot including Romney v Obama, Measure J, and Proposition 37.

2) How awesome is it that “getting Jerry Browned,” the year-old term for getting buzzed by a closely passing car, has mainstreamed enough to be featured in a Los Angeles Times cartoon? Click on the image to see the punchlines.,0,2854852.story

3) The L.A. Streetsblog editorial board took an informal vote not to endorse or oppose Measure J. However, the lack of endorsement should not be construed as opposition as say the Beverly Hills City Council’s lack of endorsement is. It’s been our tradition to not endorse, despite our legal ability to do so and the board decided to maintain that tradition. This got me to wondering…would anyone care if we endorsed or opposed Measure J? I know a lot of you trust as as a news source, and thanks for that, but I also know Streetsblog readers are very informed and very opinionated. Would an official endorsement give anyone pause in their voting decisions?

4) In one of their first editions of the year, the Beverly Hills High School Highlights, the student newspaper, took a stand against the ongoing campaign of the Beverly Hills Unified School District against the Westside Subway (page 4). It concludes, “Pouring money opposing a project that will likely benefit the city is futile, even if the board is correct in our abilities to regain the money after the case is solved.”

At a later meeting of the Board of Education, a handful of School Board Members (page 3) railed against the editorial calling it “borderline inane” and made sarcastic comments about the quality of the journalism at the paper. While I don’t expect people in power to agree with every editorial written against them, there’s something ugly about someone who’s an adult in age sneering at a student newspaper from the seat of the Board of Education. Student journalists should be taught the importance of speaking “truth to power,” by adults. Even if the journalists have come to a bad decision, the published comments by School Board Members Lisa Korbatov and to a lesser degree Lewis Hall are shameful.

Parents wrote to the Beverly Hills Weekly paper  defending the students (pages 2 and 10), but I wanted to add my two cents. Editorials are opinion pieces. There was nothing wrong with the editorial. The quality of journalism at Highlights is actually superb. Just look at all the awards the staff has won over the last couple of years.

5) If I have to hear another anti-Measure J person complain that it doesn’t fund any transit projects in their region, I’ll scream. The reality is that both Measure R and Measure J spend money across regions proportionally, it’s just that some regions get more highway dollars than transit dollars. So if Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a chief opponent of Measure J, wants to see more money for transit projects, all he has to do is lobby for the High Desert Corridor, a freeway project funded by Measure R, to be a light rail project instead.

To sweeten the pot, I’ll go all Donald Trump for a minute. If he pushed for a transit option instead of  the High Desert Corridor or the I-710 Big Dig, not only will I write a week of stories just about issues in his district, I’ll feature him positively in all of them.

  • Haley

    It would really disturb me as a reader if Streetsblog didn’t officially support Measure J. That is ridiculous. It needs any positive press and every vote. I thought Streetsblog would easily be supportive of Measure J and make an effort to explain why Measure J will improve LA transit. Why bother giving groups like BRU any press time? We all know their arguments are a joke. Is Sahra going to be harping against Measure J as well? Sure we all like balanced news but one of the biggest pet peeves of transit supporters is hearing BS from the BRU and their cries against Measure J. We are trying to improve the transit system and people are getting in the way for the wrong reasons. If you read Streetsblog, it’s more that likely you’ll be voting Yes for Measure J. 

  • Anonymous

    Streetsblog didn’t support Measure R either, and was quite skeptical of its merits at the time (or overly credulous of its alleged demerits); so this shouldn’t come as a big surprise.  I do agree that it is a bit disturbing that when concrete measures have come up regarding transit improvements, Streetsblog has tended to stake out a middle ground that it never takes with respect to cycling issues.

  • Chance Dunny

    It would really disturb me as a reader if Streetsblog didn’t officially oppose Measure J.  That is ridiculous.  It needs negative press and every vote against.  I thought Streetsblogs would easily be against Measure J and make an effort to explain why Measure J will not help transit.  Why bother giving groups like Westfield, AEG, and other developers any press time.  We all know their arguments are self centered.  Sure we all like balanced news but one of the biggest pet peeves of transit supporters is hearing BS from the political elite and their cries for Measure J.  We are trying to improve the transit system and people are getting in the way for the wrong reasons.  If you read Streetsblog, it’s more that likely you’ll be voting No for Measure J.

  • Haley

    Exactly, Alec. 

  • Haley

    OK, go ahead and continue to use the 720 bus for the next 25 years to Westwood instead of taking the Purple Line which could be finished a lot quicker w/ Measure J money. I saw a sign that said “Transit Racism – No on Measure J”. What on earth are these people thinking? It’s a subway for God’s sake, it’s basically built for the poor and then the discretionary users are secondary. 

  • Anyone who thinks that the 1960s to 1980s were a golden age of transit, walking and cycling in Los Angeles County should hope that voters reject Measure J. Anyone who is glad that LA county voters rejected transit taxes in 1968, 74 and 76, causing LA to miss out on the 80 percent federal funding for urban transit that helped build BART and the DC Metro, should hope that Measure J fails. So yes, it is pretty ridiculous that streetsblog is neutral on measure J, but we still love you Damien!

  • Personally, an endorsement one way or the other wouldn’t bother me. I’ve never seen Streetsblog as a traditional, neutral media outlet, and I frequently cringe at the wishy-washy affectations of impartiality that mainstream news reporters so often engage in. Streetsblog is supposed to provide a voice for the movement for sustainable cities, livable streets and transportation reform — it’s perfectly reasonable for it to take a position on issues that affect those goals.

    What I would ask, rather than impartiality, is for Streetsblog to offer a compelling articulation of the reasoning behind its endorsement, to be honest and fair in characterizing the arguments for and against, and to show respect for those who make a cogent case for the other side of the issue (but still call out BS when appropriate). After several years of reading Streetsblog, I have complete confidence in Damien’s ability to do all of the above.

  • I want to drve

     Purple line does not stop everywhere
    You still have to go somewhere in between.
    What measure R and J fail to address is local bus system.
    Yes, bus which rail supporters oppose
    The main reason most car drivers (who wish to take public transportation) oppose is too much money is put on the rail and not enough bus system
    You don’t see any other cities in the world that build rails and ignore the local bus system
    Seriously, our bus system is terrible. Rails are supplement but not replacement.
    Bus service should be increase with or without rail
    Don’t tell me you can get to all the destinations on Expo and Purple lines
    Some rail supporters say rails are good because they don’t stop everywhere. . Then how you going to get between.
    Let’s not forget the bus service cut after rails are built.
    Let’s not forget the major service cutS after measure R is passed.
    Don’t tell me about 15% or 20% bus operation. People who struggle taking buses/rails can
    t see that.
    Don’t blame to the state government. The so call15% not only does not increase service, it can’t save the buses
    Don’t tell me those are duplicate or not important.
    If you are a truly transit rider, you know bus service are terrible.
    If you drive to train station, you have no right to attack the people who don’t drive

  • Haley

    Dear “i want to drve”, i agree the buses aren’t great but you forget to understand that people who support rail and buses are in one group as transit supporters. you have no argument in opposing rail if you use the bus. both are great and improvements in buses will come in time. for the moment its about building out more rail lines because bus service already exists. the reason there are bus cuts is because its stupid for metro to pay for a bus and rail line that operate on the same path. so its called saving money by not having duplicate service. 

  • Anonymous

    I would like to see Streetsblog officially endorse Measure J. I think a majority of readers are probably already going to vote in favor, but every voice in support helps. As can be seen in the comment thread below, it sounds like some people are buying the BRU’s zero-sum game characterization, which IMHO represents an archaic viewpoint that comes from the perspective that transit is only for poor people.

    As Haley and Alec suggest, if this was a bill that pertained to cycling only, Streetsblog would probably be less middle-of-the-road. I understand there are projects in Measure R/J that most readers probably don’t like, e.g. High Desert Corridor, but political trades must be made. I think it is well worth the trade off to fund the study of HDC in order to get Westside Subway – a project that will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – that much sooner. I think it’d be good if Streetsblog talked about this more and took a position.

  • Alec, our complaints with Measure R came after the Metro Board was completely dismissive of the concerns raised by us and others (including the LACBC, which has endorsed Measure J) that creating a gigantic pot of money without a set-aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects was a mistake. I believe, and have been told by people that would know, that our line (taken with the LACBC and Green L.A. and others) helped give the Mayor cover to push the city’s “bike-ped set aside” from Measure R local return funds. That’s only a couple of million a year, but it’s a major pot of funds that’s covering the Bike Plan, the city’s new ped. coordinators and others. I voted for and love Measure R and I think that our articles were pretty clear in that case. Much clearer than our limited coverage of J has been thus far.

  • Britnay

    If Streetsblog doesn’t endorse measure J, then I’ll equate this site with LA Weekly. And we all know LA Weekly is anti-subway. 

  • If you look at the makeup of our Editorial Board: Joe Linton, Deborah Murphy, Joel Epstein, Juan Matute, Carter Rubin and Sirinya Tritipeskul; I see one hardcore bike advocate and a handful of hard core transit advocates.

  • Juan Matute

    I can’t speak for the entire board, but I acknowledge that advocates for complete streets, transit, and the poor have perfectly valid reasons for opposing Measure J.  R & J guarantee nothing for cyclists and pedestrians.  Building rail projects isn’t a cost-effective option for moving fewer than 50,000 transit passengers per day through a corridor (there are plenty of viable options to expand the Orange Line’s capacity). The sales tax is one of the most regressive forms of taxation.

    Measure R was necessary to fund Metro’s LRTP.  Measure J isn’t the only option to accelerate transit projects, it’s just the one currently on the table.  We need new revenues as soon as possible to accelerate not only the Measure R LRTP projects, but also bus projects that extend the reach of the high quality transit throughout the county.  It would take over $100 billion in local funding to build the rail system that LA will need in 30 years.  LA will either need to find significant new sources of revenue in the near term, or prioritize bus service through congested areas of the county.

    Measure J won’t provide one penny of new revenues until July 1, 2039.  Instead, Metro will use Federal TIFIA financing and private Municipal bonds to borrow up to $4 billion beyond what it can with Measure R alone.  It will use these funds to accelerate a transit backbone network, but it won’t build the complete network that LA needs by 2039.  Other options such as VMT fees, cap & trade program revenues, and express lanes revenues could provide tens of billions of dollars in new funding before Measure J provides a new cent.  In comparison with these options, J is relatively weak in what it can help accomplish.  Bus-only lanes, VMT fees, gas tax increases, and express lanes are seen as unpopular.  However, if two-thirds of the county votes to increase sales taxes for transit & highway capacity expansion, maybe the public is more open to these options than some think.

    I’m voting for J for three reasons:
    1. I think an all-in approach is necessary for transit in Los Angeles 
    2. Perfect public policy is exceedingly rare, so sometimes the question becomes “is it good enough?”
    3. J will be seen as a referendum on LA’s transition to a transit-intensive region, a necessary metamorphosis 

  • Erik Griswold

    Measure J creates more transit options and makes travelling without a private automobile attractive.  

    Unless LA Metro intends to build stations that represent 99% of the Metrolink Commuter Rail stations, (not very likely, Metro knows Real Estate), these will be walkable and bikeable.

    You  can’t build ridership on these lines unless you provide pedestrian/bike connections.  And that is what is going to drive more pedestrian connections elsewhere.

  • The question isn’t “If Measure J passes will we regret it fifteen years from now” but “sixty years from now will we still think it’s a great idea.” Because the plan is to bond and borrow against this revenue, we can’t repeal the tax. That means I’m voting on a tax today that my great grandchildren will be paying.

    You’re asking whether we’ll be happy with the accelerated schedule when the projects are completed.  A better question is “will we be happy when we’re done paying the tax?”.

    I’m actually with you, I think we will be. But it’s by no means a slam dunk. Personally, I would be a lot happier just raising the tax rate now, rather than pass the buck to our kids and grandkids. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be voting for J next week.

  • Britnay, if you have Facebook you can read a much fuller response from Sunyoung Yang of the BRU here:
    If not, we’ll have their piece tomorrow.

  • PC

    I would prefer that Streetsblog not endorse anything. Let the individual authors continue to write articles with their biases (<– not using that word pejoratively) front and center, and let readers continue to absorb those articles and use them to help make up their own minds.

  • I’ll just note if I was opposed to J I’d take to one side I want to drve and point out rambling demonizing diatribes with broad simplistic unsupported slogan/statements are not an effective way of building support for your point of view. BTW, R saved a hell of a lot of bus service in L.A. County. Compare us to the 1/3 cuts OCTA did a while back if you want to know what was avoided.

  • I think the emphatic pro and anti comments are a prefect illustration of why not taking a psoition is probably the smart move.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Measure J will bring in a estimated $130 billion in sales tax revenue through 2069. Of that total, 15% is distributed to each of the 88 cities in the county by population for local transportation projects.

    The city of Los Angeles population is 38% of the county. That means the city could potentially get an estimated $7.41 billion from Measure J funds. There could be bonds issued against these future funds by the city council to speed up needed street and sidewalk repairs

    LA has 6,500 centerline miles of streets and 56% of them are in “C” or lower condition (3,640 miles), with 24% in “F” condition. In a 2011 report, the Bureau of Street Services estimated that it would take ten years and cost $2.63 billion to bring the average street condition up to a level of “B”. Paving these streets that are in “C” condition or less will decrease the wear and tear costs on motor vehicles which are much higher than than they pay for the sales tax.. This will decrease the overall annual costs to vehicle owners (including transit). It wil also speed up the installation of bicycle lanes, while also reducing the average cost of installing them by striping when repaved instead of stripping the lanes off and then striping using overtime on the weekends as they did in the past fiscal year.

    There is also a estimated $1.5 billion of sidewalk repairs that are needed in the city of Los Angeles. Having these sidewalks in disrepair is a contributing factor in the city losing $10 million last year in trip-and-fall lawsuits.

    At an estimated cost of sidewalk repairs of $1.5 billion and street repaving of $2.63 billion brings a total of $4.13 billion in needed repairs that the city is unable to afford in the forseeable future. However, by issuing bonds against future Measure J sales tax, the city could do these repairs quickly, increase employment and still have over $2 billion of local Measure J tax revenue left over for future maintenance.

    There is no sales tax on unprepared food and prescription drugs. This means that even though the average tax for Measure J is $25 per person in the county, or just over $2 a month, its much less than that for each lower income person since they spend proportionately more on food and prescription drugs than do the higher income people.

    I can’t believe that anyone would be foolish enough to not vote for Measure J. It will bring some traffic relief for most people who live or work in the region, increase employment, potentially lower the average annual street maintenance costs while decreasing the overall costs to vehicle owners, reduce trip-and-fall rewards due to sidewalks and increase the rate that bicycle lanes are put in–while also reducing the cost of installation. Plus, it won’t increase anyone’s tax for another 27 years.

    If Measure J passes, it will once again offer strong proof of what government funding of transportation infrastructure projects can for the economy during a recovery from a major fiscal crisis. The U.S. economy is suffering from a lack of consumer demand and not a lack of production capacity. The government has the ability to temporarily supply employment while the private sector is recovering.

  • Anonymous

    I pretty much second everything Juan is saying. Measure J may not be great, but it’s better than nothing, and it’s on the table. We can make it happen now!

    A defeat for Measure J in the name of wanting a better transit policy would be a Pyrrhic victory, because it will be widely interpreted as meaning that people don’t want transit. After J passes, we can move on and try to get even better policies implemented, but the key is to keep making forward progress.

  • Dennis Hindman

    There is a argument that Measure J will be burdening future generations with taxes to pay for previous freeway and transit projects. However, when you consider the benefits that this region could receive from Measure J in the near future, when it most needs it, this should far outweigh a future where there is inadequate transportation to meet the needs of the people who might live in the county due to a lack of sufficent funds to improve it.

    The $25 average tax per person under Measure J in county would be much  less than the $48 per capita that Netherlands spends annually on bicycling infrastrucutre. That would be the equivalent of $183 million per year for the city of Los Angeles. Which is far more than LA spends annually for road maintenance.

  • Dennis Hindman

    LA Metro intends to borrow far more than $4 billion with passage of Measure J in order to accelerate transit and highway projects. Metro projects that they will take in $4.6 billion in sales tax revenue in the first ten years specifically for transit and highway capital projects under Measure R. Metro lists $21.670 billion in sales tax revenue that will be used for highway and transit projects under the thirty year lifespan of Measure R. Compressing these 30 year projects into 10 years will require an additional $17.065 billion beyond what they could raise in 10 years worth of sales tax under Measure R.The agency anticipates that bonds issued under Measure J will not be repaid until at least 2050, which is 11 years after Measure R is set to expire. Sales tax revenues from 2019-2050 will be much greater than the first 10 years under Measure R.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Juan, you stated: “Building rail projects isn’t a cost-effective option for moving fewer than 50,000 transit passengers per day through a corridor (there are plenty of viable options to expand the Orange Line’s capacity).”

    You also stated: “It would take over $100 billion in local funding to build the rail system that LA will need in 30 years.” At $160 billion a mile for light-rail that would be 625 miles of light-rail. Since light-rail would not be a cost-effective option for the busiest transit corridor in the San Fernando Valley (Orange Line) according to you, then most of the county, which is much less transit dependent, would not be cost-effective for light-rail. So, where would those additional hundreds of miles of transit rail be installed?

  • Dennis Hindman

    If Los Angeles would install bike paths along all 2,600 miles of primary streets at an average cost of say $2 million a mile, then that would cost a total of $5.2 billion. This should easily get a 10% modal share for bicycle commuting, or at least 170,000 cyclists in only six hours of the day. Which is more than the Red/Purple line does on a entire weekday. That would be a much more effective use of limited financial resources than spending $160 million a mile for light-rail, or $600 million a mile for a subway.

  • Juan Matute


    In order to dig into J and understand it beyond just what summary statistics that Metro gives., I built a financial model of R & J revenues and expenses.  The model looks at various scenarios, including if Measure R produced the originally projected $40B over 30 years, produced the now-predicted $36B over 30 years, or produced as low as $32B over 30 years.  Additionally, it looks at J revenues (predicted to be $90B nominal versus $130B nominal that you cited), and two expenditure plans (Measure R original expenditure plan and the accelerated expenditure plan).  

    Because I have a fully-functioning model, I’m able to plug in different assumptions to better understand how J will affect R.  First, because J’s new revenues are so far into the future, I had to use a net present value formula in order to discount those revenues into present borrowing capacity.  I’m able to plug in current TIFIA rates (35-year term) and current Muni AAA/AA rates (30-year term) to figure out what J can do over the next decade.  My estimate that Measure J provides just over $4 billion in new borrowing capacity through 2023 is based on that analysis. I didn’t get into the finer details of how Metro could maximize it’s borrowing capacity, but I would put the cap at $5.5 billion if the agency took “creative” measures.

    Because interest eats up a large (but somewhat insignificant due to low real interest rates when adjusting for inflation) chunk of J’s buying power, there is a strong need for new sources of revenue before 2039.  There are many options – and even with J Metro will likely pursue these options J provides one new cent.  My point is that J is not the magic fix to LA’s transit transition, it’s just the option that’s currently on the table.

    Measure R & J guarantee nothing for pedestrians and cyclists.  It’s up to LA Counties 88 cities to apply their local return in that way.  LA city has a set-aside, but this set-aside has far greater exposure to political whims than Measure R’s hard coded expenditure plan.

    Measure J produces a lot of capital funding for Highways five decades from now.  That’s as far as we’ve come since building the original 405, and I’d be hard pressed to predict whether we’d still need that level of funding for highways in the future.

    I didn’t say that spending $100B on light rail would be cost effective, but I did imply that it is the implicit path of R & J.  Right now, despite Metro’s best efforts, the bus system does not provide the same travel time and headway reliability as the rail system, which operates in a controlled environment.  Reliability is the most important factor in attracting a new tier of transit riders and increase transit mode share.  The public often conflates reliability and speed with the need for rail, but this is a case where correlation doesn’t imply causation.  In urban applications the right-of-way is the most significant indicator of speed and reliability, not the vehicle technology.  

    $100B is roughly the amount of funding that would be required to replace the Metro Rapid system with light rail (450 miles of Metro rapid, plus cost escalation). Los Angeles County can either find $100B in new funding to build that light rail system, it can dedicate right-of-way to Metro Rapid and other buses so that the bus system approaches the reliability of the rail system, or it can do some combination of the two.  Because the second option, dedicating right-of-way to buses, is a political cost rather than a significant monetary cost – it sometimes escapes valuation.  The $100B figure is meant to illustrate the high monetary cost of political decisions to use rights-of-way to move cars, rather than people.  

  • calwatch

    I agree. I am skeptical about J, enough so that I voted it down on my absentee ballot. Yet I wouldn’t have a problem if it passed.

  • calwatch

    The question this model doesn’t represent is that it has no predictive value of what will happen between 2038 and 2068. Not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of tax revenue, services, etc. If we continue on this current tax regime, where digital goods and services are non-taxable, our tax base is going to continue to shrink. Where before people were paying taxes on CDs and software, they are not anymore. Where before people bought material goods to satisfy themselves, now they often want the gift of time and so pay for services like nannies, maids, and personal services like massages. 

    To bond out all this revenue in the out years is the same trouble we got into in the early 90’s, when the MTA’s “400 Mile Rail Plan” collapsed in the same way that Hollywood Boulevard did. I wouldn’t expect you do know this, but I expect the people who were in power in the 90’s, and are supporting J, to know better,


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