LA Metro's New Sales Tax: When 'Bold' Isn't 'Beautiful'

Vehicles sit in rush hour traffic on the Interstate 405 freeway in this aerial photograph taken over the Westwood neighborhoo
Vehicles sit in rush hour traffic on the Interstate 405 freeway in this aerial photograph taken over the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Friday, July 10, 2015. The greater Los Angeles region routinely tops the list for annual traffic statistics of metropolitan areas for such measures as total congestion delays and congestion delays per peak-period traveler. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The headline reads "Metro details bold plan." Of course, that's the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority tooting its own horn on its own website.

No doubt, the plans for Metro's sales tax increase are indeed bold, but perhaps the boldest thing about the plan is the extent to which it would tax county residents to the tune of more than $130 billion dollars over five decades. In other words, Metro's plan is bold as in "chutzpah" rather than bold as in "visionary."

That price tag is a lot of loot and should buy a lot of multimodal mobility.

One would think that in deciding how to spend $130 billion Metro could solve most of the county's transportation problems. The problem is that Metro's plan has been cobbled together with another objective in mind: getting the tax itself passed, rather than maximizing value for money, transportation-wise. That's why we see various transportation incentive bones strategically thrown about the county, even though the individual projects might not all represent the best bang for our collective bucks.

While Phil Washington, Metro's chief executive, is talking about using the money to build a transportation infrastructure "for the next 100 years," the truth is that the upcoming ballot measure has been framed to deal with today's political realities. Quite naturally, that means it is not necessarily the best plan for the next 100 years, though it might be the boldest, chutzpah-wise. The "bold plan" focuses heavily on -- surprise, surprise -- rail projects, described by the director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, Brian Taylor, as "shiny new things," including an $8.5 billion tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass.

Of course, in the course of 100 years, shiny new things can easily become dull old things or even shiny obsolete things. Our children and grandchildren might very well be paying off Metro's front-loaded spend-fest long after more efficient forms of transportation have transformed how we look at public transportation.

To avoid such an outcome, Metro should not focus on the technologies of the past hundred years. The proposal for spending the $130 billion is backwards-looking rather than forward-thinking and has very little funding set aside for new and developing technologies such as autonomous vehicles, which have the potential to revolutionize public transportation.

The City of Beverly Hills, with the unanimous approval of our Council, passed a resolution earlier this month to develop our own municipal autonomous shuttle system, which would provide on demand, point-to-point transportation within our City, thereby also solving the "first/last mile challenge." We expect to have this system deployed before the first Purple Line station in Beverly Hills opens at La Cienega and Wilshire in 2023. As excited as we ourselves are about the potential of autonomous vehicles to transform public transportation into a first choice for mobility, it's disappointing that Metro just doesn't seem to get it. I'm not sure whether it's simply a singular lack of vision, Metro's single-minded focus on "Show me the money!" or a combination of the two.

Additionally, there is not a little irony baked into Metro's "bold" proposal's funding source. Sales taxes are notoriously regressive. Of the three main forms of state taxes, according to a recent report by the Institute of Tax and Economic Policy, sales tax hurts the poor the most. Poor people, who might benefit from the technological advances slighted by the Metro plan, tend to rely on buses, which themselves are given short shrift by the expenditure proposal. If Metro was really interested in social justice, one wonders why they wouldn't have tried to figure out a financing mechanism, such as a tax on higher earners, which could fund a sensible transportation infrastructure buildout.

What, though, should one expect from a plan that bizarrely changes existing carpool lanes into toll lanes? Those billions in regressive tax money aren't enough?

Despite the numerous flaws, Metro's tax stands a good chance to pass. When one uses buzzwords such as "transportation upgrades," the lesser informed tend to be rah-rah when they hear the outline of Metro's proposal (something Metro is obviously counting on to get the ballot measure passed in a presidential election year).

Yet not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Metro board member and County Supervisor Don Knabe has pointed out that the proposal heavily advantages the city of Los Angeles, to the detriment of the other 87 cities and unincorporated areas of the county. This, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the makeup of the Metro board, which gives Los Angeles outsize voting power and disproportionately turns the rest of the county into second-class transit citizens.

It's time to finally make Metro accountable to the transit needs of the entire county -- not just the most powerful part of it -- through a fair recalibration of its board. It's time to stop allowing Metro to treat the residents of the county like ATMs, and if Metro really wants to build multimodal infrastructure for the next 100 years, then it's time for Metro to stop looking at the past and to start looking to the technologies of the next 100 years. Until all of that happens, the residents of the entire county should simply say "No" to Metro's bold and brazen plan.

This piece first appeared in the Los Angeles Business Journal on April 25, 2016.