Measure M: A higher tax for better transportation in LA?

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2016 has been a big year for public transportation projects in Los Angeles County. Two commuter rail line extensions have opened, one connecting Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles, the other Pasadena and Azusa.

Meanwhile, work continues on such projects as a 9-mile extension of the Purple Line subway beneath Wilshire Boulevard and a 8.5 mile commuter rail connection to Inglewood and South Los Angeles.

But as LA County’s population grows and traffic worsens, transportation planners and many elected officials say more big transit projects need to get built. That’s why they’re supporting Measure M, a half-cent transportation sales tax increase on the November ballot.

Listen to the KCRW broadcast story about Measure M here:

“We are a crossroads,” said Phillip Washington, CEO of Metro’ L.A. County’s Transportation authority. “We can do nothing and be eaten alive by congestion, or we can pursue further in investment in transportation infrastructure.”

If passed by voters, Measure M would permanently raise the retail sales tax in LA County by a half-cent on ever dollars spend. That would increase to a full cent in the year 2039.

The revenue raised by the tax increase, estimated to be about $860 million annually, would fund a smorgasbord of big new transportation projects that have been dreamed and discussed by planners years.

They include a subway linking West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley through the Sepulveda Pass, a commuter rail connection to LAX, new carpool lanes and expansion projects for various freeways, and much needed repairs to the region’s existing transportation system.

Metro’s Phil Washington says Measure M’s passage is key to mobility in 21st Century Los Angeles County.

“We will always need transportation infrastructure,” said Washington. “And so we look at this as a ‘once and for all’ solution to our transportation infrastructure challenges.”

Measure M supporters say more transportation projects, like the recently completed Expo Line connecting L.A. to Santa Monica, are needed in Los Angeles County to stave off even worse congestion in the region and give commuters transportation options.Measure M critics oppose a sales tax increase and say the money the initiative raises wouldn’t be spent fairly across LA County. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But Measure M’s critics oppose it for a variety of reasons.

Many don’t like the prospect of another transportation tax increase on county residents. Critics of Measure M note that county voters already approved a half-cent transit sales tax increase in 2008. Revenue raised by that initiative, Measure R, is going to fund construction on current transportation improvement projects, like a subway to West LA.

Critics also oppose Measure M because it doesn’t have a sunset period. The half-cent on the dollar sales tax increase that comes with its passage stays in place unless voters go back to the polls to rescind it.

But perhaps an even bigger problem with Measure M, say its opponents, relates to regional equity and where and the transportation projects its passage would fund are built in LA County. They argue more politically powerful parts of the county would benefit first as ground is broken on costly transportation improvements.

“Under Measure M, other projects that are much more costly in the Valley and on the Westside are going to take priority and that is unfair, said Carson Mayor Albert Robles.

Robles leads a coalition of cities in south Los Angeles County that is opposed to Measure M. The cities argue the infrastructure projects they’re part of the county needs, like improvements on the 405 and 110 freeways, aren’t scheduled to begin for years, even if Measure M is passed.

“We have some of the worst traffic congestion in LA County,” said Robles. “We have the 405 South Bay ‘Curve’ that has been promised to be addressed for decades, but under Measure M it will be a half a century before any work is done to mitigate that.”

But Metro’s Phil Washington says in a place as big as LA, with so many places where congestion is awful, tough decisions have to be made in prioritizing transit projects.

“You are always going to have people who don’t quite agree, but we must move forward,” said Washington. “And our hope is people will recognize we have some tough choices to make.”

Because it involves a tax increase, Measure M faces a big challenge on Election Day. To pass, it needs two-thirds of voters to vote for it, not just a simple majority. Voters have approved tax increases in large enough numbers in the past to improve transportation and create alternatives to the freeway commute. Measure M supporters hope they’ve seen enough benefits to do it once again.