Watching New Yorkers suffer through the Summer of Hell has demonstrated once again how prophetic Horace Greeley was in 1865 when he touted the merits of the West. While Gotham is famously known for thinking, “We got this,” the challenged state of the City’s subways and buses suggests otherwise. There are ample lessons for the City and its beleaguered transit system in Los Angeles County’s experience with Measure M, the Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan. There, I said it.
Thanks to record ridership and the MTA’s decades-long lack of attention to “state of good repair,” Mayor Bill de Blasio and State Senator Michael Gianaris are pushing for a transit tax that would increase the top income tax rate from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent for the richest New Yorkers, married couples who make more than $1 million and individuals earning more than $500,000 a year. Additionally, the New York Governor is pushing for congestion pricing. New York needs both the millionaires’ tax and congestion pricing.
As for the tax, hopefully the politicians will stop squabbling for long enough to let it go to a vote. Similarly, Los Angeles needed Measure M which was passed in November 2016 by over 71 percent of the voters, well exceeding the two-thirds vote requirement of the California Legislature.
A forever tax with no sunset, Measure M won because urban, suburban and rural Democratic and Republican L.A. County voters recognized that the status quo of inadequate public transit and bone-crushing traffic in a dynamic, rapidly growing region was not an option.
The measure succeeded in a famously fractious region because it was a bipartisan initiative led by a liberal Democratic big city mayor, a conservative Republican county supervisor, a gifted transportation agency leader and others in the 88 cities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. What united these disparate leaders in the largest county in the nation was a commitment to creating a comprehensive multimodal transportation system that will address the daily needs of L.A. area commuters and others both today and into the future. Likewise, New Yorkers of all political stripes and income levels need to come together to fix the transit system so that the economy and the system’s six million plus daily riders don’t suffer further.
The need for the MTA to move from an age-based asset management system to a condition-based asset management system that takes into account how well the system and equipment are functioning is manifest. Fighting between the Governor and the Mayor get some of the credit for the sad state of the transit agency, but it was the agency leadership’s failure to focus adequately on the unsexy issue of state of good repair that takes most of the blame for today’s problems.
Watching transit infrastructure and equipment crumble in New York, Washington, DC, and elsewhere, Los Angeles Metro and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) learned their lesson. As a result, Measure M devotes considerable resources to state of good repair, as well as to local community return, reduced transit fares for senior, students and the disabled and first, last mile transportation solutions.
For the sake of New York commuters, the Mayor’s proposal will benefit from a bipartisan campaign supported by a coalition of business, organized labor, environmentalists, transit and equity advocates, faith leaders, students and aging New Yorkers. The plan will need political champions from both sides of the aisle. Key partners of L.A. Metro on Measure M were AARP, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce as well as the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, environmentalists and biking and equity advocates. It will cost money to do the voter polling and focus groups and design ads and messaging that ensure a win at the ballot box. In L.A., the Yes on M campaign, raised over $10 million for the ballot measure in an expensive media market during a presidential election year. Specificity in the plan, down to the most local project, helped Measure M win as well. Voters like to know what they are getting. I don’t see that yet in the Mayor’s press briefings.
The unions, the transportation infrastructure companies who build and repair New York’s trains and buses and subway tunnels as well as Wall Street, Silicon Alley and the donor community will need to be reminded that they need to step up and pay for the professionally-run campaign for this civic venture. These are some of the macro lessons of L.A.’s Measure M experience. How do I know? I am writing L.A. Metro’s Measure M Lessons Learned Report.
Sure New York, “You got this.” And don’t worry, your secret on how is safe with Los Angeles.
Yours in transit,