Bus Riders Union: Transit Justice, Not Corporate Welfare – No on Measure J

(This is the second of four op/eds on Measure J that Streetsblog will publish this week. Yesterday, Gloria Ohland of Move L.A. made the case for Measure J. – DN)

Framing the public debate on Measure J as between a progressive vision for regional mass transit expansion versus parochialism and anti-tax conservatism conveniently obscures several inconvenient truths about Measure J. Measure J is Mayor Villaraigosa’s swan song for LA as he makes a move for higher office, but the panoply of negative human, environmental, and fiscal consequences will be felt long after he is gone.

Given Metro’s torrid civil rights record dating back 20 years, we have real reason to believe LA’s working class Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific Islander majority will be hardest hit. Given Metro’s pattern of mismanagement and crony dealings with powerful corporate interests — the very interests funding the Measure J campaign — the agency cannot be trusted with a blank check from tax-payers. Serious advocates for sustainable transportation and livable cities have an obligation to examine these inconvenient truths and ought to see Measure J as a huge setback, not the leap forward that its promoters promise.

Inconvenient truth #1: Measure J advances a corporate-driven, Disney-fying and gentrifying vision of the city at the expense of low wage workers and communities of color. Why would the Yes on J campaign receive enormous campaign contributions from the likes of multi-billion dollar companies like Westfield Corporation, NBC Universal, and AEG? Precisely because these companies see Measure J as integral to accelerating their vision of Los Angeles, where public transit’s primary role is to bring people to and from their corporate theme parks and malls. Real estate developers and Metro’s own Real Estate Department like Measure J because it “leverages development.”

But that development – packaged as “transit-oriented development”  – has in neighborhoods as diverse as Hollywood, Boyle Heights, and Downtown followed a now-documented pattern of gentrification: working class transit-using residents are displaced and overall transit ridership around rail stations decreases. Metro’s willingness to let developers dictate projects to the complete exclusion of working class community residents gives us no reason to believe this pattern will change. Boyle Heights is one example. Another is the Crenshaw Corridor, where repeated demands from Black community leaders that Metro invest resources to ensure new light rail not endanger the lives of residents and preserve local businesses have fallen on deaf ears.

Moreover, Measure J will likely accelerate the pattern of service cuts and fare increases, imposing real and unnecessary suffering on transit-dependent employed and unemployed low wage workers — janitors, security officers, domestic workers, hotel workers, etc — struggling to survive the Great Recession. At best, Measure J’s rail expansion vision has the effect of substituting one type of transit rider – a choice rider, a tourist, an urban professional – for a transit-dependent person, generally Black or Latino. It will generate short-term construction jobs at the expense of hundreds of thousands of other working class people. At worst, it’s facilitating a whitewashing of the city.

Inconvenient Truth #2: Measure J is a construction bonanza with no operations plan and therefore not a sustainable transit vision.  Proponents of J take the “If you build it, they will come” attitude, but ignore that with only 5% of the funds for rail operations Measure J – like Measure R before it – lacks a viable plan to operate and maintain the system it intends to build. Measure J’s lack of restrictions on how much can be borrowed to finance construction and how funds can be spent only enable politicians’ addiction to exorbitantly expensive “legacy” construction projects.

These kinds of projects are also favored by construction giants like Parsons Brinckerhoff and CH2M Hill, who are backing Measure J with their eyes on the prize accelerating the doling out of hundreds of millions in Metro contracts. In this context, operations funding to pay for service for current transit riders – 90% people of color, with an average annual household income of $14,000 – becomes completely expendable and gets raided to feed this addiction. How else to explain MTA’s bait and switch with Measure R’s dedicated bus funds — one million hours of bus service slashed and fares raised 20% despite $120 million annually in new bus operations dollars. The civil rights consequences of Metro’s decisions – namely a federal civil rights investigation of Metro and evidence that the agency violated federal law – are well known.

The problems don’t stop there: bus and rail maintenance funds are also sacrificed, leaving the existing system in a state of disrepair in the name of expansion. (See the Blue Line crisis).  Those who claim bus riders should be happy to have 20% for bus operations from R and J rather than nothing at all shamelessly ignore that Measure R has been a disaster for these riders so far.

Inconvenient Truth #3: Despite billions spent to “expand the system”, Measure J will not make a significant dent in transit ridership levels. As Measure J accelerates construction of rail, as inevitable construction cost overruns and debt service pile up, Metro can be expected to follow a familiar pattern: resolve its self-imposed “operations crisis” by slashing service and raising fares. (Note that Measure R promised a short-term fare freeze, but Measure J contains no such promises and CEO Art Leahy has nodded toward increases in the near future.) Metro officials want to argue about fare subsidies being too low, but any serious transit advocate knows that fare increases are a surefire to drive down ridership. And a transit agency genuinely committed to boosting ridership in the long-term would choose to avoid fare hikes when the financial flexibility clearly exists to do so.

On the service side of things, Metro’s bus system currently serves 1433 square miles of the county while Metro’s rail system covers only 87.7. Even if the current rail network were to triple in size, Metro’s bus system would continue to be the backbone of mass transit in sprawling LA County. As such, slashing the existing bus system while expanding rail will at best shift riders from one mode to the other. At worst, it will price out the core low-income riders from the system altogether and make the $40 billion Metro plans to spend on rail construction seem like a horrible investment of our tax dollars.

Inconvenient Truth #4: Measure J involves a deal with the highway devil, and will do little to create a bike, pedestrian, and transit-friendly sustainable future for LA. Measure J doesn’t offer a dime of dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Meanwhile, it gives 20% to freeway construction — including disastrous mega-projects like the 710 expansion and tunnel extension. In the end, Measure J will leave future generations with a mountain of debt, yet do nothing to break with LA’s auto-centrism. With the public health crisis of air pollution and global climate crisis both requiring bold and genuine responses, it is sad to see some environmental and public health advocates fall in line behind the city’s political and corporate powers.

There is a different path for LA: a bus, bike and, pedestrian-centered transportation system, with bus lanes and bike lanes on all major streets, auto-free zones and auto-free days all throughout the year, and environmental justice-oriented development serving the city’s working class majority. This people-centered vision can be built in a short time frame and doesn’t require a $90 billion advance from taxpayers. Rejecting Measure J will put the brakes on the current runaway train and send a message to our political leaders that we demand a far better vision than the pork-barrel currently on offer.

www.NoOnMeasureJ.net