Beyond the Spin, Breaking Down Measure J

On Monday, October 15, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was feeling good. The Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which includes the Daily News, Daily Breeze, Long Beach Press-Telegram, SGV Tribune and Pasadena Star-News, had endorsed Measure J. In front of the hundreds of transit advocates and professionals at Railvolution, a sales tax extension that would largely accelerate transit projects was a popular topic. Villaraigosa smiled as he characterized the opponents of Measure J.

“The same familiar chorus is sniping and complaining,” he laughed before launching his applause line, “Of course, the same people are the first in line to spend the money.”

Bus Riders Union members and BHUSD President Brian Goldberg surround Damien Goodmon at a "No on J" press conference. Photo: Sahra Sulaiman

One week later, the “familiar chorus” responded with a pair of press conferences slamming Measure J, Villaraigosa and Metro. In the morning, a rally for the “No on J” Coalition gathered to a smattering of press. Attending were a who’s who of Metro’s harshest critics, including the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, the Bus Riders Union, The No on 710 Coalition, Union de Vecinos and the Beverly Hills Unified School District. L.A. Weekly referred to the gathering as a “Rainbow Coalition.” In the afternoon, two L.A. County Supervisors, one of whom is charing the Board of Directors at Metro, held their own event.

A poll taken last month, and published by L.A. Weekly shows that Measure J, which needs the support of two-thirds of L.A. County voters next Tuesday, is in a tight race. But beyond the spin and politics, the questions remains. Should it? Streetsblog attempts to go behind the spin and politics and takes a look at the same issues surrounding Measure J.

Image by Metro via Move L.A.

With all the discussion of the impact of extending a sales tax until 2069 and “corporate welfare,” at its heard Measure J is about expanding transit options. In 2008, Los Angeles County voters passed Measure R, a sales tax extension that goes largely towards transit expansion with some money set aside for highways, “local return,” transit operations and Metrolink “modernization.” Following the bills passage, Villaraigosa went on a crusade to convince the federal government to change its transportation funding formulas to benefit areas willing to tax themselves. This would benefit Los Angeles by allowing projects slated for construction decades from now to come online in the next ten years.

While his proposals, whether called “30 in 10” or America Fast Forward, were met with critical acclaim, they met with only modest success on Capitol Hill.

Instead of just relying on the federal government, Villaraigosa and his political allies decided to put Measure J on the ballot this year. Measure J would extend the sales tax from sunsetting in 2039 to 2069. This will allow for more bonding, and construction, right now. The funding allocation, by geographic area and project, is proportionately identical in Measure J to Measure R.

Proponents of Measure J argue that the tax extension is too good an opportunity to pass up, building transit projects today and in the next decade will have an important payoff for future generations. Opponents have several arguments related to transit and transportation against the tax extension.

1) My area isn’t getting the same transit projects

The funding allocations for Measure R and Measure J were created so that each L.A. County Supervisor’s District would receive roughly the same amount of new funds from the transit sales tax. Under Measure J, a two-thirds vote of the Metro Board of Directors can re-allocate funds from one project to another inside of the same Supervisor’s District. If, hypothetically speaking, Supervisor Mike Antonovich wanted to extend the Gold Line even farther, all he would have to do is convince other Metro Board Members to defund another project, such as the I-710 Big Dig.

2) There’s too many highway projects being funded

The argument that “we can’t pass a transit sales tax without money for highways” is being turned on its head this election season. Much of the opposition that exists to the sales tax extension is coming from groups and communities fighting highway projects. Environmental groups who support the extension, including the Sierra Club, argue that the benefits of building transit now outweigh the risks of building bad highway projects. Thanks to the new “funding swap” mechanism in Measure J, they actually have more avenue to battle highway projects than they do under Measure R.

Image from Metro via Move L.A.

3) There’s still a major issue with the amount of money being designated for operations

It’s hard to argue with this.

In their op/ed last week, Sunyoung Yang and Eric Romann of the Bus Rider’s Union point out that only 5% of Measure J will go towards rail operations. That formula leaves a good chance that as more rail projects come online, fares could continue to rise. Speaking in Spanish, Bus Riders Union member Rosa Mirandes also fought against the idea that Measure R is a “transit tax.”

“Only four years after the passage of Measure R, MTA cut about a million hours of additional bus service, leaving many passengers and bus riders with less mobility… domestic workers, security officers, janitors, and many elders and students,” she stated at the No on J rally. “During this time, despite an additional billion dollars in their budget, they have raised their fares. Measure R was not an expansion of transit.”

While one in every five transit dollar will go towards bus operations, as is the case with Measure R. That hasn’t stopped bus service cuts from occurring on a regular basis and fares to jump to $1.25, although none have happened within the last year. Villaraigosa himself argues that the 20% number won’t stop fares from increasing and more cuts from coming.

“By the way, I wanted more money for operations but I couldn’t get the votes for it,” Villaraigosa told Streetsblog of the battle over Measure R in an exclusive interview. “I wanted to freeze the bus fares for everyone, but I couldn’t get the votes for it.”

However, because Measure J pushes the same projects that Measure R does, rejecting Measure J does not do anything to improve the current plight facing many bus riders and the transit dependent. The question that remains is whether or not the thirty years of new operations funds is worth the new projects being built faster for those bus riders that will not be switching to trains for their commute. Transit watchers and economists disagree on this point, with some claiming the Measure J oeprations funds will help keep fares low and more buses on the ground while others argue the opposite.

An early draft of Measure R had more funds going towards “Local Return” and less going towards highway expansion than the final draft of the legislation that enabled the tax to go on the 2008 ballot. If that original formula had been approved, at least municipal operators such as LADOT’s Dash and Commuter Express, Long Beach Transit and the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus might have been able to at least keep their own fares lower and offer more routes.

The Los Angeles Times did their own investigation into the claim made in pro-Measure J television advertisements that the tax extension would keep fares low. In the article, Metro CEO Art Leahy, Metro Board Chair Mike Antonovich and Board Members Richard Katz and Mark Ridley-Thomas all offer different views on how Measure J will impact Metro’s fares in the short- and long-term. Times editorial writer Dan Turner looked at the issue and also threw up his hands, although he did state that it’s worth supporting Measure J either way.

Because the sales tax extension will inject literally billions of dollars into the county economy, a second battle broke out over who benefits most from the tax.

“We are all opposed to…the crony capitalism, we are opposed to MTA becoming an ATM for the 1%, the developers and the contractors. We stand across the street from View Park Prep School (at Slauson and Crenshaw) where a proposed light rail line will be endangering the safety of children,” thundered Damien Goodmon from the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. “It’s a common thread throughout the region…in Beverly Hills, in South LA, in East LA… and we see an agency that can simply not be trusted with our tax dollars.”

It’s been a matter of faith for opponents of the Westside Subway that the reason that the approved route for the Subway runs underneath Beverly Hills High School is because the location stop in Century City needed to support development by JMB Realty. The parade of geologic experts that Metro produced claiming the other route was dangerous was merely for show and their experts produced better results.

While it can be clearly shown that JMB Realty supports not just the Westside Subway under its current route, but also Measure J is easily demonstrated. That JMB is also a major supporter of Villaraigosa is also easily shown. However, that doesn’t prove that Villaraigosa persuaded Metro and its contractors to change a subway route or create bad information about seismic safety. It also doesn’t prove that Measure J is about helping real estate companies.

But there are groups and companies that will benefit in the near-term from Measure J’s passage. Unions enthusiastically back the Measure, noting that it means the creation of a quarter of a million jobs in the near term. Companies such as engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff to community outreach firms (disclosure: some of whom sponsor Streetsblog) would also see a rush of contracts as new transit projects rush to the design, engineering and construction phases.

Many of these groups have given their names and money to the extension’s efforts, and are a key reason that pro-Measure J videos are on television as commercials and anti-Measure J videos are web-only.

Of course, if you’re one of the people planning to ride the Westside Subway or use the Regional Connector to cut twenty minutes off your commute; you celebrate the involvement of the developers and construction companies in the campaign. If you’re worried about fare increases or bus service cuts, you use their involvement to make the case that Measure J is about crony capitalism.

On the same token, the issue of who gets the quarter of a million new jobs is a hot one. Pointing at a giant fake check at the “No on J” press conference, Janet Dodson argued that Measure J will, “Bring jobs to these people and to the contractors that work for these people” while gesturing at gigantic fake checks made out to JMB, Parsons Brinkerhoff and Westfield Malls.  Before Metro adopted a policy that required hiring from disadvantaged communities earlier this year, Goodmon once commented to me in a phone interview that he was surprised Metro didn’t already have such a policy noting that local communities would be more supportive of Metro projects if they saw people they knew getting the jobs to build them.

That same policy makes it more likely that blue collar workers in disadvantaged communities will see jobs in the near-term under Measure J. Federal law prohibits projects that rely on federal funds in any form to discriminate in hiring based on geographic location, so Metro can’t guarantee that the Crenshaw Line will be built by people living on the Crenshaw Corridor. It can make benchmarks for the economic levels of the community’s where hiring is done to make it more likely that people of lesser means will benefit from these newly created short- and medium- term jobs.

There are several reasons Streetsblog didn’t endorse Measure J despite the fact that much of our staff, Board of Directors and readership are voting for the extension. One of the big ones is that there are some drawbacks and some uncertainty in the Measure itself and the editorial board felt that exploring the uncertainties and benefits of the extension would do more to educate our readers before they vote tomorrow. We will post the results of the “reader endorsements” tomorrow, and there’s still time to get your votes in to influence our election day coverage.

(All quotes were taken by Sahra Sulaiman at various Measure J events.)

  • Juan Matute

    Thank you for presenting J more completely than any other news source

  • Chance

    “1) My area isn’t getting the same transit projects”  The answer to the criticism is to defer and trust in your County Supervisor’s discretion.  Suppose your County Supervisor has vested all his transit and political capital in a Subway to the Sea so the best he can muster for your community is a convenient to build bus route? Does Antonovich care as much about Sylmar as he does about Pasadena?  He seems to have no forgiveness for not building rail into the Inland Empire (not subject to Measure R or J taxes) but has not been as vocals on the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor which also goes through his district. Antonovich and Yaroslavsky were both instrumental in preventing the red line from continuing west in the late 90’s.  If not for these County Supervisors whom we are supposed to defer our judgement in, the Red line would now be open to Sherman Oaks, perhaps as far as Woodland Hills. It is probably clear that I call the San Fernando Valley home and I have yet to hear an answer as to why I should support Measure J that doesn’t fall back on naive optimism. 

  • Anonymous

    How about amending the 2/3 rule?  Why shouldn’t majority rule?

  • Juan Matute

    How about amending the rest of the 13th Amendment to the California Constitution? Under current rules, 50% can vote for free ice cream, but it takes 2/3rds to vote for reasonably-priced ice cream.

  • Matt

    Red Line would never have gone to Sherman Oaks by now.  One, the only plausible route that has anywhere near the density required for a subway is Ventura Blvd., and it is doubtful many neighborhood groups here would not block this.  A lack of political and neighborhood support behind any specific projects is one reason why the Valley does not have more rail now, although they do have quite a bit considering the two Metrolink lines and the current subway.  Two, there simply has not been the money to build a subway any further than what we have now until Measure R.  Finally, changes in projects are up to the Metro Board and a 2/3 vote is needed for approval, not just the Supervisor as you state.

  • Erik Griswold

    That’s going to be wokred on next.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Measure J doesn’t list any project for funding that isn’t already on Measure R. Two differences are that if Measure J passes, then the projects that were anticipated to be finished in 20-30 years can be built sooner and it will also bring a source of funding for bus and light-rail operations for the years 2040-2069. Without Measure J, that operations funding would either have to be replaced from another source or else rail and bus operations would likely have to be cut and perhaps ticket prices raised much more than if Measure J had been approved by voters.

    Cities within the county would also have much more future sales tax revenue to bond against for paving streets, repairing sidewalks and constructing bicycle infrastructure. These improvements would be much less likely to be made without Measure J. This would also reduce the maintenance costs of streets by up to 50% and smoother roads would lower the wear-and-tear on vehicles. Trip and fall payouts would also likely be reduced if the sidewalks were repaired.

    This county is suffering from a dip in the housing market and a slowdown in consumer spending. Measure J would give a financial stimulus that would counter some of that by helping to boost the economy when the county needs it the most.

  • Chance

    Your rebuttal to my comment assumes a high level of ignorance on the reader. The Red Line’s westward expansions is not a topic for argument but was detailed in Metro reports.  It would likely have been where the Orange Line is currently.  Many neighborhood groups did help block the Red Line, especially the wealthy ones who enlisted the support of a now behind bars corrupt State Legislator (Robbins Bill).  Our County Supervisors should have been fighting for congestion alternatives and supporting the Red Line extension that would have served hundreds of thousands of daily commuters.  Also, you may be confusing the Measure R tax with two former propositions which funded the Red Line.

    Metrolink is not Metro.  People who equate Metrolink to Metro should also support the tripling of Metro fairs, the limiting of trips to once every hour, and limiting of service on nights, weekends, and holidays. 

    The point is this; the City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles have little regard for the people who live north of the basin.  The County Supervisors who represent North Los Angeles have done little to address our transit needs and have in fact, actively prevented mass transit from being developed there.  If we can’t even get the people who represent us to vote in our favor, how are we supposed to get 2/3rds of the LACMTA board to?  As much as we appreciate seeing our income get taxed and spent on neighborhoods we can’t even drive to without spending at least an hour in gridlock, we would be better served to not encourage Metro’s plans of neglect.

  • I want to drve

     What measure R as well as J fail to address is how to get around outside stations.
    Expo certainly speed up the commuting from Downtown LA to Culver City.
    Westside subway certainly speed up the commuting from Downtown LA to various parts of WLA
    AS a life time bus rider, I never have the problem taking the bus to get to Culver City or Beverely Hills. There is 733 and other bus on sunset (forget the number)
    The scariest part how to get to Union Station or El Monte Station.
    Once I reach train station at WLA, I still have to deal lousy bus service.
    Same thing is true in Pasadena and Long Beach.
    Measure R and J is just segmentation project improvement.
    It is aiming for the people who could drive to train stations. Their jobs and activities have to be near train station. That does not go that far.
    If people have to drive to train stations, and then drive zip cars at WLA train station, what is the point of spending the money.
    Many car drivers oppose this measure because they can’t dump their cars. Those people actually have intention to take public transportation

  • I want to drve

     How about amending public transportation measure that improvement of public transportation?
    I have no problem some money for local return improvement
    Measure R/J has too much money on freeway
    Measure R/J ignore the population that depend on the public transportation

  • I want to drve

    You have to be ignorant to realize that LA public transportation is out of shape.
    The railroad only projects will not solve the problem.
    It will not  even entice more people to give up the cars. The future rail stations are not even near everywhere.
    That is the problem with Measure R as well as J
    If measure R spends same amount of money on rail construction on improving bus service, it is good measure, but Measure R and J don’t
    It took me a while to find out that 15% has less to do with improving bus service. Many people who don’t drive got misled in 2008. I’s like to know their response on this election. Many of them are angry and regret supporting measure R because of bus service cut (instead of improvement)
    the other interesting part is keeping fare from increase?
    Where does that fall in the pie chart?
    If it is under bus operations, it makes no sense. Everyone takes bus and rails. Of course, many bus riders don’t ride rails. Their destination may not be near train stations.
    If it is under bus operation, less money will be available for bus operation. Don’t tell me that we don’t need good bus service. You can[t argue that future rail stations reach everywhere
    I don’t belong to BRU. I can not read their minds. I talked to many bus riders. They really don’t care about buses or rails. All they care is getting to destinations easily. They love to take trains. However, can they reach train stations without struggle without cars? I don’t know the mentioning of “switching to trains for their commute”. People just want to get to destination easily. Who care about trains, buses, rickshaw, horses, or whatever.
    Will the future Westside Subway shrink the trip time from Union station to WLA.
    yes or No, it will shrink the travel time between Union Stations and various WLA train stations. Even MTA admits that people still need cars once you reach stations. That is the reason parking lots are built at every stations.
    One last thing, how many people who support Measure R/J will actually take trains?
    I know most MTA employees support. I know many of them don’t even bother to drive to train stations and take Metrolink/subway.
    Many subcontractors will support, but I doubt many of employees and management will use it.
    A company at Pasadena is involving in many train projects. It is within 5 minute walking distance from Gold Line Station. My friend went to interview. He was never given instruction on how to take Gold Line. The people at that company told him ho to drive on freeway. My friend blamed me for not telling him. He did not tell me he went to that company for interview. That company was interested to take the government’s money to build rails but is not interested in using rails
    Many subcontractors are in WLA. There are not within 1 hour walking distance from Culver City station. Taking bus from those companies to Culver City stations will take forever.
    I don’t know if MTA staff take EXpo/buses to reach those companies
    I don’t know if the employees of those contractors take bus and Expo to reach MTA.
    I kind doubt it. I have reason to believe they don’t
    People still love cars even the people who support rail projects
    Back in the 90’s when MTA was doing some improvement on Red Line in the 90’s, I went to a company for interview. That company was MTA subcontractor. It was doing some work for Red Line. When I mention about taking bus service, the project manager asked me how I can get to work.and be reliable
    Will hiring manager of all those subcontractors ask that same question?
    That pretty much spell out our public transportation improvement has not been very helpful for people who don’t drive for past 2 decades

  • Prof. Jim Moore, USC

    If Measure J passes, we know what to expect.  The numbers do not lie, and the MTA is not shy about the details of its rail plans, particularly the role played by subways play in its plan.  Unfortunately, we cannot trust the MTA to make cost effective choices, and voters should not fool themselves into believing otherwise.

    The MTA’s Adopted Budgets show that the agency has spent $11 billion plus on building the Los Angeles rail system, and in doing so has substantially reduced total transit ridership by shifting resources from buses that move many to trains the move few.  Spending billions for less transit is a bad buy.  

    The system’s ridership zenith was in 1985, when Los Angeles County had close to 20% fewer residents than it does today.  Ridership began to crater the day the MTA began to shift resources from bus services and fares to the agency’s rail plan.  The system saw continuing losses in ridership until the agency finally settled a federal law suit with the Bus Riders Union in 1996, a case the MTA had been systematically losing, and began mandated improvements in bus service.  After ten years of ridership increases totaling 37% and approaching a return to 1985 levels, the federal court’s consent decree binding the MTA expired.  Announcing that it could no longer continue to fund both current transit operations and rail expansion, the MTA began to pull back from bus service and raise fares.  As a result, from 2007 through the 2013 budget, MTA will have lost 38 million boardings, all to free up resources for rail.  The agency is programming larger cuts in bus service, which also impacts rail ridership because less bus service makes it more difficult for people to get to the rail stations.  Measure J just ensures that the agency is empowered to do even more of the same by extending local sales taxes from Measure R for an additional 30 years until 2069.

  • Andres D.

    bla bla bla… keep throwing buses at the problem, that’ll solve everything.  Because traveling down Wilshire on the 20/720 is such a great and speedy process.  Because when USC plays everybody would come on the bus to watch them play… Lets get real.  The Orange Line is already begging to become rail.  The Silver Line is often bursting at the seams during the school semester.  measure R had nothing to do with bus cuts, it was the State that raided transit funding… let’s get the facts straight.

  • Mukluk7

    @ “I want to Drve”-  That seems to be a problem with the muni’s, not Metro.  Metro does not control Culver City Transit, Big Blue Bus, Foothill Transit, or any other municipal transit operators. 

  • Matt

    If enough people felt that their elected representatives do not represent their interests then they would be voted out.  What can I say – that is democracy.   Valley voters should vote out Antonovich if they don’t feel he supports whatever transit projects they support (I’m still not clear what Valley groups specifically support and no one else is either, which is part of the reason for their lack of progress).  The SGV has really gotten behind the Gold Line, while West LA is behind the Subway to the Sea and the Expo Line.  The Valley??????

    Metrolink is funded by LA County transit tax dollars the same as Metrorail.  A working person in Northridge can get to Downtown LA in the same time as it takes someone in West LA even though it is half the distance.  If people in the Valley don’t support or value Metrolink, perhaps we should shut it down and the funds distributed elsewhere.

    No way a subway along the Orange Line corridor would be built in any scenario by now.  It is a suburban throughfare and near single family neighborhoods.  It is not Wilshire Blvd. and doesn’t have anywhere near the density now or in the future to support a subway.  Maybe someday it could be light rail, but that ship has largely already sailed and the Valley overplayed their hand by banning light rail in the corridor.

  • Matt

    Your analysis always fails to include Municipal operators like SM BBB and of course Foothill Transit, which didn’t exist in 1985, but was cut out from MTA operations in 1988.  Overall, the MTA has let the muni operators expand in certain areas and reduced overlap.  If you are going to compare transit in LA County you have to include the Muni Operators then and now as well.  Your current analysis is not apples to apples.

  • Dennis Hindman

    I’ve read some previous reports of yours where you stated that the Blue and Red lines were a waste of money because Los Angeles is so spread out and they were not attracting enough passengers. Well, the Blue Line had a ridership of 92,000 passengers in September and the Red/Purple line was at 155,000. Those numbers would be difficult to duplicate with buses.

    Let’s see, you also said the Green line was a train to no-where. It’s ridership hit 46,000 in September.

    It could be argued that the Gold Line to Pasadena was a waste of money, but it was extended to East LA and the ridership in September was almost at 42,000.

    The Orange Line maximum capacity per Metro was 40,000 passengers a day when it was 14 miles long. A FTA study said that it was at maximum capacity at several load points and the transit agency would have to either have to platoon the buses or put in more direct stops to eleviate the problem. They could also use longer buses, but they are already using the maximum length allowed by law.

    As transit consultant Jarett Walker said on his Human Transit website “A transit agency should start using trains when they need a very, very long bus.”

  • Dennis Hindman

    For the life of me I do not see how funding bus operations with an estimated $17.7 billion more from Measure J will curtail bus services. That’s illogical. Its much more likely that bus services will be curtailed more without Measure J and the price to ride transit will rise.

    Rail already carrys over one-fourth the passenger load for Metro and that will rise when more miles are added. Measure R and J allocate only one-fifth the operations money to rail. Bus service is certainly not being neglected with funding through Measure R or J.

    Oh, and by the way, the Red Line subway runs under Vermont Ave for four stops and the bus service is frequent using only 60-foot buses–including local bus lines that stop every three blocks or so. The subway hardly curtailed bus service along Vermont Ave where the subway runs.