Will Washington fund a Los Angeles subway expansion?

A planned Los Angeles subway expansion could cut traffic and greenhouse emissions and give jobs a boost, but Mayor Villaraigosa wants it now, instead of waiting 30 years. He is in Washington Thursday seeking funds to accelerate construction of the 'Subway to the Sea.'

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talks about the city's budget on Feb. 19. The mayor's plan to accelerate construction of rail lines to reduce Los Angeles traffic and greenhouse emissions needs a federal loan to advance.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa heads to Capitol Hill Thursday in search of federal transportation funds that, some say, could profoundly change the nature of America’s most air-polluted and car-dependent city. With L.A. facing $250 million in red ink, any success could also help produce jobs to revive the local economy and, eventually, reduce greenhouse gases that will help the state cut its carbon emissions.

Voters approved Measure R here in 2008, accepting a half-cent sales tax increase for 30 years. It will generate $40 billion for 12 projects that will add rail lines north-south, east, and west, connecting neighborhoods heretofore linked only by freeways.

“The public clearly wants our transportation system fixed,” says Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). “Surprisingly, over two thirds of L.A. voters voted to increase their sales tax to pay to end gridlock.”

Mayor Villaraigosa is now trying to accelerate the timeline for such projects from 30 years to 10 by asking the federal government for a bridge loan to get started. He's set to speak before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Thursday. Besides accelerating the start and finish dates of several projects, the loan would save millions and create between 150,000 to 200,000 jobs, according to Richard Katz, board member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“This is a visionary idea that plays directly into the hands of what Congress needs right now,” says Mr. Katz. “The US can’t pull itself out of recession without California, and California can’t pull itself out without Los Angeles.” He notes that unemployment in the city is between 15 and 20 percent, and possibly much higher.

“The multiplier effect of over 150,000 men and women working on all these projects would have a major impact on L.A. County and the whole state,” he says.

Critics say Congress should be asking tough questions.

“Why should Los Angeles … get a lavish loan on a mass transit system that most Americans will never use?” asks Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “If the government is going to be handing out loans, why not make loans to school districts so they don’t have to increase class size? Outside the L.A. metro area, are there lawmakers who have any incentive to support this plan? All over the country, states and localities are facing tight budgets and making painful cuts.”

But proponents say they are not asking for funds outright.

“We are not looking for a federal handout, but rather just ways to maximize what our voters have already approved,” says Katz.

Some independent analysts applaud the effort.

“I think this falls under the category of, 'it is worth a try," says Jessica Levinson, Director of Political Reform at CGS. “Even if we get a portion of what the mayor is asking for, it could help Los Angeles start on this important transportation project. The money could provide a much needed infusion of capital for a vital public works project.“

She and others note that quality-of-life surveys in Los Angeles find that the public perceives a need to alleviate traffic.

Moreover, the state’s dirty air cost $193 million in hospital and emergency room visits between 2005 and 2007, according to a recent RAND Corp. report. These data also reinforce what the American Lung Association has found since it began grading air quality in all US counties in 1999, and will likely be shown in this year’s State of the Air Report, to be released April 28: California continues to struggle with a serious pollution problem, harming the health and well-being of citizens, and costing the state millions.

“California needs to focus on cleaning up pollution sources like motor vehicle engines and fuels, especially dirty diesel engines, to meet clean air standards, improve health of our citizens, and reduce healthcare costs,” says Jane Warner of the American Lung Association.

Unlike in cities such as Chicago or New York, where public transportation is easily accessible and reliable, in Los Angeles it is primarily the poor who use buses and subway lines, sociologists say. More rail interconnectivity could help break down the walls that separate many of the city’s disparate communities from the affluent West side to the gangland regions of South Central to Korea town.

In his daily blog, Villarairgosa claims his ideas are being well-received from Capitol Hill to the White House.

“Members of Congress showed encouragement and great interest,” he wrote Feb. 26 of his last trip. “They understand what 30/10 means for local jobs – 166,000 of them – local air quality and mobility throughout the county.”

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