Friday, October 7, 2016

On Measure M

Los Angeles County voters will decide the fate of a far-reaching transportation plan on November 8th.  Measure M would be the fourth half-cent sales tax for transportation in LA County and would make the sales tax rate in most LA County cities 9.5%.  Measure M is similar to 2008's Measure R in what it does.  In a nutshell, Measure M would dedicate 37% of its revenue to transit construction and repair, 28% of its revenue to transit operations, 17% of its revenue to highway construction, 16% of its revenue to local governments for their own transportation projects and 2% for active transportation projects to encourage bicycling and walking.  It would also remove the 30-year sunset on Measure R.  The formula changes a bit in 2040 with some of the highway money shifting to local return and funding the Metrolink commuter rail system.

This is a complex measure with a specific list of projects, and my goal here isn't to explain it comprehensively.  Instead, I'd like to take a step back and talk generally about what I like and don't like about it.

Arguments For Measure M
Measure M builds on the trend of LA County getting serious about having a good public transit system.  It would cause or accelerate the construction of many subway, light rail and bus rapid transit projects.  My two favorite things that Measure M does are accelerate the construction of the Purple Line subway to Westwood by a decade to about 2024-2026 (versus 2034-2036) and guarantee the construction of a light rail line to Whittier.  The Purple Line project is the most worthy project in the whole program.  It has the population and job density, existing and planned, to truly merit a heavy rail subway, and I have dreamed about this project opening since I was an undergrad at UCLA more than a decade ago.  The Whittier line from a purely objective standpoint isn't the most important (transit lines and systems work best when they pass through areas with a high density of population and jobs), but I would benefit directly from it, so it appeals to my self interest.  Metro went to great pains to ensure that every part of the county will have projects that appeal to that same sense of self interest.  I also like the Sepulveada Pass transit project (which would serve an important bottleneck between West LA and the San Fernando Valley), the West Santa Ana Branch light rail line (which would serve some dense, low-income communities) and the eastern extension of the Green Line (which would connect the Green Line to Metrolink).

Taking a step back, public transportation is important as a strategy to reduce pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and to support the growth of the city.  We already have a housing crisis which we need to address by building more housing.  Measure M provides infrastructure to do that both through infill (in places like Downtown LA and near new rail and rapid bus stops) and through sprawl (particularly in north county around Santa Clarita and Palmdale).

Some of the highway projects are actually progressive in the sense that they convert carpool lanes to toll lanes (e.g. on the 105 and 405).  Road pricing in response to demand is what actually reduces congestion, not adding capacity.

The dedicated bike/pedestrian funding and dedicated transit repair funding are new features and make a lot of sense.

Arguments Against Measure M
Measure M dedicates billions of dollars to freeway construction and widening projects which will increase driving, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and induce urban sprawl, which will harm the environment by destroying habitat and causing further growth in driving.  For example, Measure M provides funding to add four lanes to the 710 Freeway from the ports north.  While these are billed as "zero-emission truck lanes," I have yet to see a "zero-emission truck" in all my years driving the freeways of LA County.  The 710 south widening project will burden many already overburdened low-income communities of color with added pollution and noise, which is an environmental injustice.  To take another example, Measure M will provide funding for a new freeway called the High Desert Corridor which would run east from Palmdale towards Victorville in San Bernardino County, in all likelihood unleashing a massive wave of sprawl across the desert.  This sprawl will create affordable housing opportunities for many, but it won't be great for the environment or traffic, since in all likelihood these people will be in car-dependent communities.

Some of the transit projects are really questionable in their utility.  For example, I really question the need for a streetcar in Downtown Los Angeles.  Streetcars don't have their own rights of way and are usually less reliable than buses because if someone breaks down on the tracks, the streetcar is stuck.  Why not open an electric trolleybus line instead?  The cost would probably be much lower and the reliability would be better.  I also have to question the project to convert the Orange Line to light rail.  It wouldn't happen for decades under this plan, but we just built it as bus rapid transit in 2005.  Why are we spending hundreds of millions of dollars on busways, just to decide we don't want them as busways a few years later?

Finally, and this is probably my biggest concern: we still haven't figured out that there is an essential connection between land use and transportation.  We can build all of the trains in the world, but if we surround them with single-family homes, the system isn't going to be financially viable or particularly useful in the long run.  Transit makes sense when you concentrate large numbers of jobs and residents in close proximity to stations.  It works even better when you do this with affordable housing and little to no off-street parking.  LA County has some rail stops with good transit-supporting development around them, and others that are too suburban to really work well as transit stops.  Metro doesn't control land use, local governments do, and many of them aren't on board with the need for density.  So, why are we spending all this money and making our sales tax rate even more noncompetitive with Orange County, if we're not serious about doing what it takes on the land use side to make it work?

My Call
I love transit and walkable urbanism, so I'm leaning towards voting for Measure M, despite the drawbacks.  It'll be tough since a 2/3 vote is required to pass it.  On balance, I think it does more good than harm, and it provides the infrastructure for a serious shift to a different kind of city.  I still wonder though: will we embrace the land use changes that are necessary to realize that city?  And for the deep future folks: when are we going to realize that to truly take our city to the next level, we need to be thinking less about expanding freeways and more about taking the freeways out and replacing them with complete streets?

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