The Los Angeles Times editorial board came out with a piece today that essentially supports L.A. Metro’s proposed new county sales tax measure [PDF] for transportation. While the writers discuss the controversy over having a “no sunset” tax (as opposed to the 2008 Measure R’s 30-year sunset), they acknowledge that “[w]hether Metro ultimately goes to the ballot with a 40-year, 50-year or permanent sales tax hike, the fact is Los Angeles County needs a great public transit system, and it’s going to take money to make it happen.”
But then in a striking admission, they issue a mea culpa of sorts for coming out against the region’s 1968 transit plan:
Nearly 50 years ago, Los Angeles County voters rejected a half-cent sales tax proposal that would have built an 89-mile rail and bus network between downtown, Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and Westwood, the San Gabriel Valley, and even a route to LAX. The Times Editorial Board at that time urged a no vote, saying “we are an automotive people, unlikely to change our habits.” Imagine if voters had said yes? How many hours of congestion might have been avoided? How much pollution might have been prevented? Now, five decades later, our habits will have to change, one way or another.
I described that plan a bit in my book Railtown, as well as the subsequent sales tax failures in 1974 and 1976. The tragedy is that if any of those measures had succeeded, Los Angeles could have built the rail lines it has today much more cheaply and quickly.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government was offering to pay 80 percent of the cost of new rail projects, with only a 20 percent state or local match required. It was a great deal that many cities took advantage of, but Los Angeles missed the window with all these electoral defeats. By the time local voters approved new rail lines in 1980, that federal offer dropped to 50 percent.
Meanwhile, it was cheaper and easier to build transit back in the 1970s, mainly because permitting was so much faster. Environmental reviews were minimal, and cities didn’t have the leverage back then to extract costly concessions from the county transit agency.
So given the rail lines that the region has today, how much it has spent on them, and how long it has taken to build them, voting down those measures in the 1960s and 1970s was definitely a fiscal and environmental mistake.
Kudos to the Times for recognizing that error.