Bill Boyarsky
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Enough money for transit jobs?

A reader called to complain about my recent column proclaiming Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a big winner. I had cheered the mayor after President Barack Obama signed a transportation bill supported by Villaraigosa aimed at speeding transit and road construction projects here and creating an estimated 260,980 jobs. The reader said the bill would do hardly anything. Villaraigosa had conned me.

I should have checked it out, he said. He reminded me of the ancient journalistic adage that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I told him I always thought that was stupid advice, probably originated by a drunken reporter pontificating in some old-fashioned newsroom. How would you check it out? Ask your father? Your grandparents? Your pediatrician? Require mom to take a love detector test?

Still, the caller was an official in an important government office. Maybe he knew something. In addition, this is one of the most important stories in Los Angeles. At stake are 177,700 jobs on highway projects and 83,280 on transit construction.

At the heart of our dispute was the mayor’s proposal to speed up work on local transportation projects, finishing 12 in 10 years rather than 30 by borrowing funds from the federal government to start work quickly, The money would be repaid from revenue from a half cent sales tax increase approved by the voters in 2008. Projects would be speeded up and workers would have more jobs in an economy hard hit by the recession. It was an important part of the transpiration bill but my caller said there was not enough money to accomplish the mayor’s goal.

Actually, as I learned, there was money, although not as much as Villaraigosa sought. I talked to David Yale, executive officer for countywide planning for the MTA, the regional transportation agency. He explained there were two elements in the transportation bill that would help Los Angeles. One provided money for the loans. The other would float bonds to finance transit. The ultra-conservative Republican-controlled House killed the bonds. “We didn’t get what we wanted,” Yale said. “The House shut us down.” But Congress approved the loan provisions, making $750 million available this year and $1 billion next year.

But Yale cautioned, “Without the bonds, it’s not possible to do the 12 at once,” What’s needed, he said, is voter approval of an extension of the half cent sales tax, on the ballot in November. It would extend the tax beyond its 2039 expiration date.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Richard Katz, who helped write portions of the transportation bill, had a different slant. “Congress didn’t do the bonds,” he conceded. “We were going to build 12 projects in 10 years. That is still our target. We never said we would start 12 projects at the same time.” He said the plan was to “finish 12 projects in 10 years and that is still our intention.” If the extension of the sales tax fails in November, will the work schedule still be accelerated? “Acceleration is underway,” he said, “If the extension of the sales tax passes it will be acceleration on steroids.”

Big projects are involved. Among them are Gold Line extensions, the Expo Line, the Crenshaw line, the Green Line extension to the airport, the subway, and I-405 improvements.

I’ve been writing about this stuff for a long time. People in the transit business cloak it with what they hope is an impenetrable fog of language and statistics. They make it hard to figure out. But from what I’ve learned, the new transportation measure backed by Mayor Villaraigosa provides money to get projects moving quickly.

This is a national emergency. The transportation projects will improve traffic conditions and provide badly needed jobs. Get off your rear end, MTA, and put people to work.

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