BRU ‘Blowsback’ at Metro’s Sales Tax Proposal

One week after Metro moved a half cent sales tax to the fall ballot, the Bus Rider’s Union launched it’s first attack in the press against what it terms, "The MTA’s sales-tax boondoggle" in today’s on-line "Blowback" section of the Times.

The BRU breaks their attack into two arguments: that the funds generated by the sales tax are going to the wrong projects and that the funds are being generated by a regressive tax that hurts the poor.  By casting LA County as a modern day Nottingham with Sheriff Villaraigosa and Metro acting as the black knight tax collectors, they are trying to change the discussion from the Mayor’s vision of a transit oriented Los Angeles he presented in the Times last week.  Remember, it needs a two-thirds majority of votes to pass the ballot in the fall and a large campaign against the tax could keep it from getting near that threshold.

These arguments aren’t anything we haven’t heard in some form or another before.  According the the BRU, the tax is wasteful because such a large portion of it goes to rail and highway expansion projects.  Instead of spending 60% of its $40 billion in sales tax proceeds on these projects, "for the rich," the BRU proposes spending under $12 billion to double Metro’s bus fleet to 4,400 buses and maintain the current fare on these buses.

Instead, the MTA proposes a sales-tax increase to build up to $80
billion in rail and highway projects. This raises fiscal mismanagement
and racial discrimination to an indictable level. Right out of a
Charles Dickens or Richard Wright novel, the MTA asks bus riders to
support rail projects, the poor to support the rich, the
transit-dependent to support the contractors, and the public to support
politicians’ own ambitions.

Rumors are swirling that Mayor Villaraigosa is raising millions of dollars to support the sales tax proposal through a coordinated media campaign and other transit advocates are planning a grassroots campaign.  As each side has revealed their messaging in the Times in recent weeks, it will be interesting to see how support for the tax reacts to the information and spin as we get closer to November 4.

Photo: TheStrategyCenter/Flickr 

  • Rail is not “for the rich” and bus is not “for the poor”. The poor, as such, will benefit immensely from improved mobility that rail brings. In New York, London and other world metropolises, both rich and poor ride and benefit from rail and bus.

  • anonymous

    Rail is used by both rich and poor, whereas buses are used only by the poor. Why is this? Because nobody who has an alternative would choose to take the bus. So the BRU wants LA’s transit system to be a system that people use only because they have no other choice, rather than one that is actually useful even when one can drive.

  • LAofAnaheim

    Eric Mann wants to keep the poor on buses? Geez…what a racist bigot.

  • My hope is that this will backfire.
    Most people, if you tell them something is for the rich, seem to then want that thing and vote for it.

    “Trains for the rich? Awesome, I can’t wait to ride these wealth trains, not like those stupid poor people trains in New York!”

  • Bus advocates call for lower fares and more service in the face of limited operations funds and rising costs.

    The solution is a bigger pot, which is where the sales tax would generate $7,880 million for bus operations over 30 years, a 70% annual increase from existing (Draft LRTP) levels.

    Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!

    And how regressive is a sales tax that doesn’t apply to groceries, rent, transit, utilities, or services?

  • Spence

    In other news, my nose is itching, so I think I’ll shoot myself in the face with a shotgun.

  • kg

    I’m sorry, I must have missed something. Wasn’t there a big blowout in december about the MTA trying to increase bus ridership through an expensive ad campaign that didn’t work and then installed a bunch of turnstiles at its rail stations and raised pass prices? Yes, more money is a good thing, and yay for sales taxes to give us the varied public transit we deserve. But this whole thing stinks. The BRU’s position is more than fishy, but the last group of people I trust to spend a big pool of money effectively are the MTA. I’d hate to by cynical about this one, but seriously…

  • Eric

    The BRU is organized to oppose rail transit of any kind. It makes no sense to oppose rail, since it is a proven technology that has been around for hundreds of years. Buses have failed- they clog streets and move at the glacial rate of traffic. If the real goal is to move people quickly from point A to point B, why would you dismiss rail? It has higher capacity is much more environmentally friendly as well. LA needs a comprehesnive grade-separated mass transit system. I suggest that the media stop giving attention and press space to an organization funded (indirectly) by gas and oil companies, and start running stories about things that can benefit the future of tis city like the organization called the Rail Riders Union. It is sad to read these stories. Bring back the fairness doctrine that Ronal Regan abolished and stop printing these harmful stories.

  • Eric,

    I appreciate your comments. As we move towards the November 4th election there will be lots of stories about the sales tax, and plenty of opportunities for people to weigh in. Personally, I don’t agree with many of the ideas that are in this editorial, but to the organized opposition of such a large and influential group (who has an impressive track record of success) is an important story, and the publication of an op/ed on the Times’ website is certainly a story worth covering.

    And while Streetsblog hasn’t done a lot of stories on the RRU, we have done plenty of stories on the Transit Coalition and Southern California Transit Advocates. RRU stories will come in time as well.


  • Note how the BRU evidently sent out a call to have members and allies crowd the comments section of the Blowback article with “me to” comments, evidently to make it look like they speak for a large number of people. Is anyone fooled?

    I have to disagree with Damien’s comment “…the organized opposition of such a large and influential group (who has an impressive track record of success) is an important story”. While perhaps the BRU’s track record of getting publicity translates in some way to being influential, I have to question whether their days of hogging the spotlight on bus issues are numbered. It would have been news if they offered something positive or new; this collection of the usual old arguments is hardly newsworthy. Expected, yes–but rather dusty.

    BTW, the comprehensive transit plan they are touting is the highway centered bus plan they offered under the new service provision of the consent decree.
    It is so ludicrously impractical (and would saddle Metro with BILLIONS in operating expense–plus where would you park all these buses? and how do you seize highway lanes to be bus-only?) even Judge Hatter rejected it and finally instead adopted Metro’s proposal that implementation of the Rapids network would fulfill that provision. In fact Hatter in his final order ending the decree expressed doubts about the decree and its underlying philosophy; these cracks in the facade of the track record of “success” Damien mentions is of course never acknowledged by the BRU.

    I’ll just note the article is riddled with the usual mis-statements, which by now Mann has to know are long outdated soundbites. Transportation is no longer a lonely backwater, and Mann can’t dominate the discussion of the issue the way he did a decade ago. Also the solidarity of the left is crumbling, as the Labor Federation prominently is gung ho for the sales tax.

    The BRU could participate in the debate on these issues; instead it continues to carve out a niche of publicity seeking, stereotyping, promoting outdated soundbite arguments, etc. Not a surprise, but a shame. And all these years of the BRU members/true believers continuing to let themselves be led by the nose and have their thinking done for them by Comrade Mann has destroyed the sympathy I once held for them; at some point it is your own fault when you continue letting yourself be exploited.

  • The link no longer works. Could the comments blizzard they orchestrated hae backfired?

  • The BRU is nothing but a bunch of poverty pimps.

  • I am no fan of the BRU, but some of the comments above about how buses “don’t work” seem to me to be bit shortsighted.

    Bus Rapid Transit has some pretty good examples (I’ve heard) in other countries that concede the right of way to bus-only lanes – and treat the buses more like rail cars.

    BRT (can) have a lower price than rail, and can move a lot of people per dollar spent.

    I don’t like the Bus Rider’s Union – but the bus is a viable means of moving human beings. London’s famous underground (and Paris’ Metro) are both dependent on bus service to enable transit throughout the city. It is foolish to assume that buses cannot move people, regardless of how insane and ridiculous the BRU is.

  • Erik Griswold

    Repeat after me:

    Buses get STUCK in Traffic!

  • anonymous

    ubrjay02: When Bus Rapid Transit works for moving large numbers of people, it is because the buses are literally packed, with load factors of up to 300%, which is something the BRU would not allow in LA, given that one of their key (and most valid) positions was against bus overcrowding. So the BRU way would require more buses, and thus more bus drivers, in a country where bus drivers are much more expensive than, say, Brazil or Colombia. In fact, it seems to me like they’re more of a Bus Drivers’ Union than a Bu Riders’ Union sometimes.

  • My observations, once Dana pointed out to me that there were a lot of obvious BRU planted comments, is that the bulk of the comments were posted in a 90-minute blitz right after the Times released the article for posting at midnight. I would not be surprised if every one of those posts originated from the top floor of the Wiltern Theatre building, despite having different “posters”.

    Also, although the article was restored not long after Dana said it had disappeared, no comments after 10:00am on the 31st have been approved for display by the Times’ editorial staff. Curious.

  • Alek F

    I wish someone would finally shot the mouths of those BRU lunatics with their pathetic yellow T-shirts!
    If they would only realize how lame their comments are, and how senseless their ideas are. Being anti-rail means being anti-transit, pro-traffic, and pro-pollution.
    I would love to see how doubling the bus fleet would move people “efficiently” while crawling on our completely congested streets with deteriorated pavement at 5 mph! Unless BRU has created buses that can fly over traffic? that would be nice. 60-foot buses with wings! Way to go.
    To conclude, I think it’s obvious BRU is involved in fraudulent agenda, pursuing only their interests and racial motivations.
    Pop-quiz of the day: If BRU are anti-rail, how come they’ve been seen numerous times riding our Subway?

  • Instead of blaming the BRU, why not ask why it is that Metro cannot pull their heads out of their behinds and commit to multi-modal solutions to our transportation needs? Transit advocates, environmentalists and others called on them repeatedly to commit to ANY expansion of the bus network, yet they pointedly refused to do so. Neither the Draft LRTP nor the proposed sales tax list of projects includes any funding dedicated to expand the Metro Rapid to the more than 20 different high-ridership transit corridors where it doesn’t exist and is desperately needed. Why not? It’s a proven strategy to improve ridership and travel times, while actually reducing operating expenses. Are they seriously suggesting that after 30 years and $40 billion in new funding that they are still going to be offering nothing better than the 33/333 on Venice Blvd? That is insanity, pure and simple.

    The same goes with respect to funding for bikes and pedestrians. Contrary to popular belief, everyone walks in LA at some point in the day, and many people bike and far more would if they thought that their chances of living through it were much better than 50/50. Also, bicycle and pedestrian improvements are the keys to transforming our streets from mere traffic conduits into places where people actually want to be. Yet, Metro is proposing a sales tax with 0% set aside for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. We’re left to fight it out, city by city, in the Local Return program, as if people never bicycle or walk across city lines.

    Out of that $40 billion, it might have been nice to see a few pennies set aside for grade separations on the light rail projects, particular in South LA, not only to improve safety and congestion, but to speed up those rail lines that are already being built. All of these measures, bus, bicycle, rail safety, and pedestrian improvements, can be put into place relatively quickly and with budgets that measure in the millions, not billions, and yet can deliver concrete improvements to our quality of life across the region. Instead, Metro makes firm commitments to dozens of billion dollar rail and highway mega-projects that cater to the goods movement industry and real estate development interests.

    I really want to support this tax, because few things are more critical than addressing our transportation crisis in this County. But Metro’s hasn’t made it very easy.

  • Alek F

    Dear D. Malcolm Carson,
    VERY well said!
    I totally agree with you.
    To answer your question as far as blaming BRU – is because by opposing Rail projects, they are actually preventing mass transit from developments. They want to create “first-class bus system” that actually can never exists, and never will (it’s an oxymoron rather, buses by definition cannot be “first class”).
    But – I once again support your comments, and I support expansions in both – Rail AND Buses. It’s really sad that the City of Angels is constantly fighting: one group against the other, rail against bus, east-side against west-side. Why can’t we indeed live in harmony, and create mass transit solutions that would fit EVERYBODY’s needs?
    So – yes, we need both – a comprehensive Subway system and improved Bus system.
    One reason I have doubts about supporting the Sales Tax increase is because it will take VERY long time to build the projects; namely – subway extension to Westwood (only to Westwood!) won’t be open until year 2034? This is unimaginable! We need SOONER solutions, way sooner! If we could receive 40 billion in Federal funding, to start building Subway now – then things would be much better. We need money RIGHT NOW to expand our subway, our Bus service, to build bikeways and bike lanes. But waiting for 20-30 years to start seeing the effects of our taxes – is way too long…
    You’re right. MTA indeed has not made it too easy for us… ;-)

  • D. Malcolm Carson, sorry but I agree with Voltaire that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • I continue to find that in “transit circles” when criticism of this public agency, with it’s $3 billion dollar annual budget and God-knows how much money in annual discretionary funding is lobbed, instead of criticism leading to a debate about the issue, it leads to an attack of the organization/politician/person lobbing the criticism. It’s more akin to a school yard argument than a discussion by public policy advocates.

    Just a tip, if you guys ever expect to be anything other than p.r. tools for Metro at worst, or bloggers who get the special Metro press releases a day before everyone else at best, you need to start pointing your guns in the right direction.

    I seriously doubt the BRU has ever referenced SOCATA, Transit Coalition or any other organization in their meetings. They’re always targeting the decision-makers, because on their best day it is a struggle for them to be heard by a couple, let alone a majority, of the board members.

    Because anyone not in the trenches so to speak, or anyone that can pull back for a second sees that Metro could have taken care of the SGV demands, the Fix Expo demands, Expo Phase 2 community demands, the bikers demands and added some bus lane projects all for total less than $2 billion in this $40 billion dollar measure: less than 5%.

    Instead they have chosen to roll the dice, which tells you two things:

    1) They really are politically-tone deaf, and they need to get their money back from whatever high-priced political consultants is charging them $20K a month.

    2) They have far more power than any of you can imagine given that they’re acting with such hubris.

    If the measure goes down, MTA only has themselves to blame.

  • And Dana,

    Most don’t consider “the good” a) giving fuel to an opposition movement when the political mountain to climb is already so steep; and b) jeopardizing billions for expansion by creating a measure so litigiously vulnerable.

    Lots of problems can’t be avoided, but Malcolm names several that could have been completely avoided rather easily. Why not explain to him why the things he itemized were so impossible to include in this measure?

  • Damien – I think you’ve hit on something that has befuddled me about Southern California politics ever since I got involved in it.

    There is a bizarre disconnect between politicians and their own, rational, self interests. I don’t know what prevents the MTA board members from seeing the economic utility of an improved bus system (which gives buses priority over cars), bicycle projects, and is willing to deal with fired up communities.

    They end up dragging their agencies into bizarre court room struggles, and in the end we all get shitty projects. I think there was a point when L.A. residents were able to put an end to local leaders being able to achieve crappy goals that hurt everyone’s interests – trash incinerators in South L.A., a prison in Boyle Heights, a freeway where Glendale Blvd. is, the 710 freeway expansion, etc.

    There is something that needs to happen politically that will re-orient our local politicians regional decisions. This “We hate the BRU” stuff is really really boring and counterproductive.

    The truth is, they have a better ground game than any of the other advocacy groups working in transit I am familiar with. That is an asset, despite their leader being a commun-ard, and their group’s insane principles.

    In the BRU’s defense – the bus system can be “first class”. One simple change I would make to MTA policy to enable that would be to allow a bus to be weighted much heavier than the movement of single passenger cars when funding transportation projects. Right now, a fully loaded bus is considered the equal of a single occupant car when the MTA determines which projects to fund. Buses, right now, are considered to be causes of congestion, and are described technically as degrading the performance of the roadway! In fact, it is the over-abundance of private vehicles which degrades the roadway – and altering some guidelines would give the bus system access to billions it is excluded from because of the way buses are viewed by the MTA’s Planning department.

  • Brayj, the problem is that you, and those who want to punish the automobile drivers, are in the minority. Politicians on the MTA Board also have other positions, and they don’t need John and Ken’s million listeners who are stuck in traffic and have nothing better to do during commercial breaks to start calling politicians and making their lives, or the lives of their staff, a living hell. Look at how many people showed up to a protest about Mylar balloons, of all issues. John & Ken (and Doug McIntyre, Kevin James, and the other local conservative talk show hosts) have not turned their ire onto the sales tax measure, but if they do, on a consistent basis, it will sink the sales tax to below 50%. This is why you keep 35% of the money going to roads and highway expansion, because maybe they won’t make too big of a stink about “illegal alien buses” and “the subway to nowhere”. (Surprisingly, they were sympathetic to the Mandeville Canyon bicyclist, although that may have been because John hates stuck-up, arrogant Westsiders even more, despite being one of them.)

    Except the BRU has never serious agitated for bus lanes until recently, and only as a reaction to the subway to the sea. I spoke to a former Reason Foundation contributor and frequently quoted transportation expert a long time ago, and the Reason Foundation had drawn up a system to build the BRU’s busway proposal. The BRU would support HOT lanes, which would run the BRU’s vaunted freeway buses. Of course, the private sector would build these lanes and charge congestion-varying tolls on them, which would fund the freeway bus network. Needless to say, despite working directly with high level BRU officials over a period of many months, Eric Mann put a halt to it by saying he wouldn’t negotiate with capitalists.

    A lot of it has to do with the difference between their organizing models. The Bus Riders Union, as demarcated by its name, uses the traditional union model, which is strongly hierarchical and uses paid organizers to distill information into simplified morsels for its membership. SO.CA.TA has used the consensus model, which leads to three hour meetings on the minutia of service changes and fare increases, but ultimately empowers more people that can sit through those meetings. The Transit Coalition basically uses Bart Reed as the benevolent leader, since it’s his full time job. The BRU was successful at stopping the original MTA fare hike, and, with the help of the NAACP, implementing the Consent Decree. But notice how their early partners have completely fallen back now, disassociating themselves with the BRU.

  • calwatch,

    The petty politics of shock jocks are no match for bread and butter local business and quality of life improvements.

    It takes very small amounts of money to re-stripe a road in a commercial business district (after holding numerous community meetings, and hiring a consultant to plan the roadway changes, etc.) or to calm traffic in a residential neighborhood.

    The benefits of these types of changes can be felt immediately after a project is completed. In fact, the benefits can be reliably measured.

    All it takes is a competent politician to connect the dots. Unfortunately, there is a tradition of car-only thinking in America that all but ensures that real solutions to many of the problems plaguing L.A. never make it to the decision makers.

    If the MTA set aside $200 million for bike and pedestrian projects over the next 40 years we can build a fossil-fuel independent transportation network for millions of residents in L.A. County. That is real, and that is cheap! One grade separation can cost upwards of $100 million – and that typically depresses land values, retail sales tax income, and quality of life around that improvement.

    It is bread and butter local politics that needs to happen, and the future for politicians who think this way is only going to look brighter and brighter.

  • Regarding Damien’s Goodmon’s snarky “Why not explain to him why the things he itemized were so impossible to include in this measure?” Since Mr. Carson sits on the L.A. Transportation Commission, I am sure he is well versed in political realities and needs no lessons from me in same.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that ubrayj02 is of the “all my friends agree with me so we have a consensus” approach to things, and seems horrified that someone might actually have a contrary opinion. Great for filling blogs but very ineffective at any real advocacy. As for Mr. Goodmon, next week will tell the tale when he and his allies get their chance to make their case before the PUC.


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