Good-bye #RoadBond, Hello #RoadandSidewalkTax

Buscaino and Englander between meetings in D.C. last month. Photo via CD 15/Office of Joe Buscaino
Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Mitch Englander between meetings in D.C. last month. These two have worked tirelessly to find funding for road repair. Photo via CD 15/Office of Joe Buscaino

Sustainable transportation advocates from all parts of the city have weighed in on a draft proposal to repair large parts of the city’s road and sidewalk infrastructure through a fifteen-year half-cent sales tax increase.

While they pretty much agree that the current proposal is better than previous ones, “better” still isn’t good enough, especially when the way L.A. invests its transportation money impacts so much more than transportation. It also impacts the environment, public health, and a host of community issues.

“Community health depends on having access to streets that are safe for all users, particularly pedestrians and those using bikes and public transit,” writes Malcolm Carson, General Counsel & Policy Director, Community Health Councils. “Community Health Councils supports a bond measure to fund complete streets treatments on major arterials with priority given to underserved communities such as South Los Angeles.”

Yesterday, the City of Los Angeles Chief Legislative Analyst and City Administrative Officer released a report on the “Save Our Streets” proposal to identify ways to repair Los Angeles’ decaying city street network. The staff recommends a fifteen-year half-cent sales tax increase that would raise $4.5 billion. $3.86 billion of the funds would be spent on road repair and restriping, and the rest would go towards sidewalk repair. The tax would have to be approved by 2/3 of voters before it would become law.

The ‘Streets for the Future Coalition’ is comprised of over a dozen organizations representing a variety of communities across Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, L.A. Walks, Trust South L.A. and the groups quoted throughout this article. They argue that the sales tax proposal outlined by city staff fails to take into account Mayor Garcetti’s “Great Streets” program, LADOT’s People St, pedestrian needs beyond sidewalks that appear to be part of a war zone, environmental improvements, or bicycle planning.

The coalition is disappointed that the current proposal does not include funding for improving the safety of people bicycling or environmental improvements. They believe Los Angeles residents want to invest in the future of the city, and not simply fill potholes and return streets to their previous conditions. They plan to actively take part in the public process that begins with an information session at 6:30 in City Hall on April 2.

“Los Angeles’ streets are the City’s most important public places and the way we design our streets influences public health, air quality and social connections” writes Mark Valianatos, a professor at Occidental College, steering committee member for L.A. Walks, and contributor to Streetsblog L.A. “The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College believes we need streets for the future to help make L.A. a more just, green, and livable city.”

Councilmembers Mitch Englander (CD-12, San Fernando Valley) and Joe Buscaino (CD-15, South Bay) have been beating the drum on road repair for over a year since their initial proposal for a thirty-year property tax increase for a ten-year bond failed to qualify for last fall’s ballot.

Last Spring, Englander defended the now-defunct bond proposal to Streetsblog, noting that every street that was repaved would need to be restriped. Every restriping created opportunities for adding more bicycle lanes, Sharrows, modern crosswalks, or other improvements that could be made with paint.

Given this promise, and the new funding allocated for sidewalk repair, city staff and the councilmembers might be surprised that bicycling and pedestrian advocates are unhappy with the current proposal.

“Every visitor, every resident, and every business owner uses our streets and our local economy is dependent upon the ability to move people and goods throughout the city,” wrote Buscaino and Englander in a statement.

“It is critically important that all stakeholders understand the seriousness and importance of this issue, engage in the conversation, and work cooperatively toward finding a solution.”  

And therein lies the current rhetorical conflict. While the city is trying to improve the laughably poor state of its transportation infrastructure to better move more vehicles and pedestrians, advocates worry that they are planning for a city that will have different needs by the time the repaving and sidewalk repair is completed.

And, bicycle and pedestrian improvements aren’t so expensive as to change the basic makeup of the tax.

“A city bond should be used for capital investments in city infrastructure and not just for routine maintenance—and doing so is affordable. Such major improvements as curb extensions that incorporate green infrastructure are the future of our streets, but there are many simple safety enhancements to implement as part of any street project,” writes Holly Harper, an architect and director of Green L.A.’s Living Streets Coalition.

“High-visibility crosswalks with upgraded signage and signals, restriping to include transit or bicycle lanes, well-maintained sidewalks and trees may be incorporated at reasonably low cost.”

But, as Buscaino and Englander note, the public process isn’t closed, it’s just opening. Last year, advocates for a sustainable transportation system dominated the public hearings and a cry for better sidewalks was a focus of a series in the Los Angeles Times. If Streets for the Future can replicate that effort, the sales tax proposal that goes to voters could be significantly different than the one presented by the city yesterday.

  • traal

    A regressive sales tax is a great way to make the poor pay disproportionately more for the roads than the benefit they receive from them.

  • Komera

    How would this impact Measure J 2.0?

  • Herbie Huff

    Ughhhh so disappointed we’re looking again to the regressive sales tax!

  • Herbie and traal, merely opposing the sales tax isn’t very constructive. The staff reports outlines why alternative funding options were not found to be viable. Do you disagree with that assessment? The situation is dire and I commend the council members who are seeking to do something instead of allowing things to continue a downward spiral.

    I have heard some assert that since many items lower income people spend the bulk of their money on are exempt from sales taxes (such as groceries) that they are not as regressive as is often asserted.

    Komera, I am sure Move LA is pondering exactly what effect this could have on a possible 2016 measure.

  • Herbie Huff

    The property tax was on the table for the last road bond, and is not even considered in the document Dana links.

    Sales taxes are highly regressive. Below are sources for further reading, each of which describes the regressivity of the sales tax

    My opposition to the sales tax is not a “mere” act. The sales tax has become the go-to for local transportation financing and it’s a purposeful, considered act to speak out about the ways in which it unfairly draws on the pockets of the poorest and most vulnerable.

    Wachs, Martin. 2003. Improving Efficiency and Equity in Transportation Finance. Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy Transportation Reform Series. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. 19 pages.

    Taylor, Brian D. and Alexandra T. Norton. 2009. “Paying for Transportation: What’s a Fair Price?” Journal of Planning Literature, 24(1): 22-36.

    Schweitzer, Lisa and Brian D. Taylor. 2010. “Just Road Pricing,” Access, 36: 2-7.

  • So how is your theory as to what is “just” translated into something that can get traction politically? Martin Wachs has conceded that the track record of the academics in that regard is poor, “… the irrelevance of analysis and of what we do at the university,”

    Just pointing at a bunch of articles is far short of effective advocacy.

  • Herbie Huff

    Excuse you. My advocacy record is extensive and ongoing. You can PM me if you really have questions about it.

  • Herbie Huff

    Streetsblog is a forum for discussion, so what I’ve done here is offer discussion and critique. I do my organizing and advocacy… not on the internet.

  • Not that there’s anything wrong with doing your advocacy on the Internet…but yeah. You are both pretty powerful advocates in your own right. I preferred the property tax proposal FWIW, but I think they were trying to figure out what had the best chance of passing. Apparently, this proposal doesn’t have a great chance of passing either.

  • I’m sorry. Lately I have been running into a few too many who confuse net posts with organizing/advocacy. Forgive my mistake.

  • Maybe there needs to be a campaign to educate the public about the costs of bad roads in term of auto repairs and undermining pedestrian, transit and bike access. If the benefit of remaking repairing streets were understood funding options might be less dicey. Shouldn’t this work hand in hand with the mobility element update, vision zero that Damien promoted today, complete streets, etc.?

  • RayS

    Paying to repair the city streets through a sales tax is bullshit. I don’t drive (and I already pay a “user fee” through my transit fare, which, I admit, is ludicrously low) so why should I subsidize those that do? Sales tax dedicated to repairing and maintaining the sidewalks? Yeah, I would be okay with that. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point.

  • Buses run on streets so we transit users benefit from street repair. The transit fare doesn’t fund road maintenance. That is the responsibility of local municipalities.

  • Finding money for anything given the politics of this state is not easy. A property tax hits a buzzsaw of homeowner etc. opposition. Sales tax has complaints of being regressive. The status quo has resulted in terrible street conditions for L.A. city. The shaking of the buses I ride on testify to that fact. Pavement and sidewalk repair costs escalate dramatically after a certain point. We have a problem but no seeming solution.

  • How do we measure benefit? Poor roads can impact the economy, make the area less competitive. Is that a benefit that isn’t being taken into account?

  • RayS

    The fare itself may not but the sales tax already collected for transit certainly does. I certainly consider the Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit Lane project “street repair”. My point is the cost to repair and maintain the streets should be borne by the users (proportional to their use) not subsidized by the general population which is what a sales tax would do.

  • ‘the sales tax already collected for transit certainly does”. Local return funds are restricted as to how they can be used by jurisdictions. Where did you get the idea Props A&C and Measure R fund road paving? Not to any great extent that I am aware of.

    The Wilshire BRT is actually mostly being funded with a federal grant.

    How do we collect money “proportional to their use”? Gas tax? Tolls?

  • RayS

    “How do we collect money “proportional to their use”? Gas tax? Tolls?” In a world free of political consideration? A surcharge on vehicle registration for cars registered in the City of Los Angeles and a permit to operate on the streets of Los Angeles for cars registered outside the city. In the real world, I have no idea. A permit to park on city streets is a possibility though it wouldn’t capture vehicles that only park on private property. I definitely think the ludicrously underpriced “residential parking permit” needs to be $30/month and not $30/year.

  • There was some talk about using funds from an increase of vehicle registration to fund transportation funding on a statewide basis. The proponents evidently did polling and got cold feet. It does seem there is lots of need and a paucity of options…

  • calwatch

    On Kobylt and Chiampou Mitch Englander tried to sell the tax to their 1.2 million audience (10% or so of which lives in the City of LA, so over 100,000 voters):

    For a John Kobylt interview it went fairly well, although Kobylt has to drag in his annoyance at paying for parking in Brentwood, where he lives (with the dubious suggestion that parking times be enforced by the honor system, which would lead primarily to employees parking in front of his favorite burger and ice cream shops).

    Kobylt does make the fair point, however, that there needs to be an effort made at cutting out fluff in the budget and focusing on roads. This is what the County of Los Angeles does, to great effect in the unincorporated areas. Proposition C and Measure R funds are used for arterial paving, as allowed by the local return funding guidelines. Bike advocates are the ones that got them to move away from just paving projects and implement a Bike Master Plan, but the County has 3/4 or more of their roads in good or better condition and hardly any poor roads, despite a much wider area than the city.

    Yes a sales tax is more regressive than the other options, but a bond affects newer property owners disproportionately over business owners and long term property owners, a parcel tax screws condo owners and senior citizens who have owned their property a long time, road pricing is a technological nonstarter, and the state constitution prohibits local income taxes.


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