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Will Los Angeles Revolutionize U.S. Urban Transit Funding?
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is fighting hard for federal loans, grants, and bonds to build 12 transit projects  in 10 years; without the federal support, the projects will take 30 years to complete. Image via

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is fighting hard for federal loans, grants, and bonds to build 12 transit projects in 10 years. Without the federal support, the projects will take 30 years to complete. Image via

“We can’t wait because traffic is unbelievable and the environmental problem is too severe.”

Denny Zane, Director of MoveLA

On Friday, we wrote about value capture strategies as a form of alternative funding for struggling public transit agencies around the nation.  Nationwide, transit agencies are exploring non-traditional financing options as federal and state funding for transit remains low.

And Los Angeles is closer and closer to providing a stellar example of an innovative way public transit agencies can pull themselves out of budget crises, provide improved services, create jobs and cut transport-sector carbon emissions.


Los Angeles — the nation’s second largest and most congested city — is working on a plan that U.S.  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says “has the potential to transform the way we invest in transportation projects across the nation.”

The project — called 30/10 — relies on revenue from a new half-cent sales tax from Measure R, which LA County voters passed in late 2008 to increase funding for public transit in the car-clogged city.

Why 30/10? Because Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who recently made it big in TheCityFix after he was knocked off his bike and broke his elbow, is pushing to build 30 years worth of transit projects in the next 10 years.

In that time, the sales tax should generate about $5.8 billion to fund these projects, as the New York Times reported last week. But to fund the 12 mass transit projects planned under 30/10, LA wants to use future sales tax revenue as collateral for long-term bonds and a low-interest federal loan totaling  $8.8 billion, which it would repay from the Measure R sales tax revenue over the next 20 years.

Among the plan’s projects is the long-awaited Westside subway extension — the so-called “subway to the sea.” If the funding plan does not work, this subway could only be completed in 2032.  Other projects include a regional connector linking three downtown rail lines, a light rail extension to Los Angeles International Airport and new bus-only lanes along various corridors. In all, the 30/10 would add 78 miles of rail and bus-only lanes — a 75 percent expansion of the current 102-mile system. And according to LA Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega, construction bids in anticipation of 30/10 are coming in about 15 to 30 percent lower than expected, which may let the city construct even more transit than expected.

30/10 projects include a much-awaited extension of the Purple Line subway to the west side - the "subway to the sea." Image via TheTransportPolitic.

30/10 projects include a much-awaited extension of the Purple Line subway to the west side - the "subway to the sea." Image via TheTransportPolitic.


Meanwhile, the project would achieve significant outcomes: create 160,000 new jobs; add 77 million new annual transit boardings; reduce annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by at least 191 million miles; reduce annual gasoline used by 10.3 million; and reduce annual mobile source pollution emissions by 521,000 pounds.

These impressive numbers are adding momentum to the movement. Initially treated as a “pie-in-the-sky” idea, Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan is quickly looking more and more likely.  Just this summer,  Ray LaHood voiced enthusiastic support, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said LaHood is “working with me on finding every opportunity under current law so we can accelerate 30/10 now.” President Obama reportedly called the plan a “template for the nation,” and the Federal Transit Authority agreed to provide a single, accelerated environmental review of all three segments of the 9.3-mile Westside subway extension, making funding for the entire project more likely.  LA-based lawyer and public policy analyst Joel Epstein is working to get more entertainment industry leaders to sign-on to the petition to support the plan; the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is already on board.


“We don’t need big roads; we need political will.”

— EMBARQ Senior Transport Engineer Dario Hidalgo, discussing the importance of political will to implement BRT — rather than wider roads — to truly improve urban transit.

If successful, Villaraigosa’s transit project will provide a model for U.S. cities, demonstrating that local leaders who take political risks by backing such projects can achieve phenomenal, groundbreaking accomplishments — quickly.

Dedicated local leaders who are willing to put their reputation on the line by backing such public transit overhauls are always crucial players in the most promising transit improvements in cities around the world. From TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia to a new high-tech bus system from an innovative public-private partnership in Indore, India to a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Amman, Jordan, influential local leaders with a passion for improving public transit were critical to the success of new systems.

One main hindrance to political support for transit is the time it takes for projects to be completed and gain public acceptance; traditional transit systems take so long to complete that many politicians don’t see any point in backing them. But busway improvements like New York’s Select Bus Service, BRT systems around the world, and now LA’s innovative 30/10 plan have provided leaders with models of sustainable transport that can be quickly implemented, allowing them to reap political returns from the projects they support.

Now, other U.S. urban leaders are already seeking advice from Villaraigosa.  The Mayor’s staff has discussed the plan’s potential for replication with officials from Chicago, New York, Houston and other cities desperate to fund public transit.

The project has broad-based backing from transport experts. To make such projects scalable, Michael Replogle, policy director and founder of the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), recommends measures, such as ensuring that federal loans go to programs that will reduce carbon emissions and support smarter growth and public health improvements; promoting the use of value capture strategies near transit; and designing a clear and transparent selection process for projects seeking this type of funding.

These recommendations also apply for a future National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which President Obama supports but needs Congressional approval to institute.

For more information on how to support the plan, you can visit Move LA.

Watch L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa testify before House Ways and Means Committee in May: