Getting Transit Built Faster

15 Jul

Image from Metro Transportation Library and Archive:

There’s been some movement on the transportation front as of late, and much of it is good news for the Los Angeles area. First, Metro’s Orange Line extension opened on time and under budget. The line, a successful workhorse of Metro’s transit system earned praise recently, spurring a discussion about the region’s burgeoning rail-on-wheels network. The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece that billed LA as the nation’s most forward-thinking city in terms of transit (uh, move over Portland?). And the feds finally passed a transportation bill that extends a federal loan program that the city is relying on to put some transportation projects on the fast track.

By all accounts, the region’s admittedly ambitious plan to expand transit is well on its way to becoming a reality. But for all the cheerleading, there’s been less chatter about what it will take to make these dreams a reality.

Let’s start with financing.

First, there’s America Fast Forward. The program consists of a coalition of cities that are advocating for the expansion of federal bond and loan programs to expedite transit and infrastructure projects. Billed as a jobs creation measure, the program earned a victory with the passage of the latest federal transportation bill. With the expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA, for short), Los Angeles stands to gain about $350 million in loans for its long-range transportation plan. And that means that the local transportation authority can build planned projects on an accelerated timeline. But before that can happen, there must be a vote of the people.

To qualify for the loans, Los Angeles will have to dedicate a revenue source to pay back the federal government. So Metro’s board has recently voted to put the extension of the current half-cent sales tax on the ballot in November. (You can read the Metro staff report on the extension measure here [PDF].)

If the measure, dubbed Measure R+, is passed by the two-thirds majority required by California law, then Metro can apply for the newly available federal loans. That’s a pretty big “if”, but voters have already demonstrated their willingness to fund transportation improvements. Plus, extending an existing sales tax a few more decades (until 2069) doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch, right?

Transit advocates are working to raise public awareness of these issues so that voters see the value in voting yes on Measure R+. Groups like MoveLA, which was pivotal in getting Measure R (sans plus sign) passed in 2008, are working to reconcile competing priorities and win broad support for the extension. Still, it doesn’t look like this’ll be an easy win.

While this may all be well and good for Los Angeles, it’s helpful to look at the broader implications. The TIFIA program will likely be a boon to other cities in the country looking to accelerate financing for transit projects. Cities with big plans to expand transit, including Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston, and Charlotte all stand to gain from this new financing option.

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