transit acceleration campaign goes national

For over a year now, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been spearheading a "30/10" initiative, designed to accelerate the construction a range of urgently needed transit projects (mostly rail transit lines).  The key word is accelerate, not fund.  The projects are already funded, but on a 30-year timeline.  The 30/10 proposal would deliver the projects in 10 years.

The idea begins with Measure R, a 30-year sales tax increment approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008 to fund a large package of rail transit improvements, including the Wilshire subway to the westside.  Villairagosa wants the Federal government to create a mechanism to bond this revenue so that it can be spent in one decade instead of three. 

Well, you can only get Congress interested if the same idea can be applied in many places, so predictably the Mayor and Metro are now presenting America Fast Forward, a national campaign to create a similar mechanism for any urban region that has already put funded projects in place.  Los Angeles Metro's blog Source covers it here, the Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten opines here.  Here's a puffy PDF.

Because it relies on Federal financing rather than spending, and because the funding sources are local tax streams that are relatively stable, it's an approach that could potentially succeed even in lean times.

In a tweet, Cap'n Transit asked me:  Could it be used to build highways?  Yes, it looks like the same mechanism could be used, in theory, to fund any locally supported infrastructure.  I hope it will be constrained to transportation, and if it were constrained to voter-approved funding streams like Los Angeles's Measure R it could well usher in a new era of these measures, in which most voters could vote up or down on a set of plans knowing that if passed, all of them would be built and running in just ten years, soon enough to affect most voters' lives.


12 Responses to transit acceleration campaign goes national

  1. GilbyDM101 March 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t accelerating these transit project be cheaper to construct than waiting the full 30 years? Making it an additional benefit. I can only imagine with inflation what the future costs would be. Plus, with this current economy, construction costs would be lower as well.

  2. NCarlson March 31, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    I like the idea a lot, and it does seems to fit into the idea of creating an infrastructure bank. Frankly I don’t see the reason to restrict it to transportation, make it an infrastructure lending scheme that is restricted only to projects with pre existing full funding guarantees (and possibly voter approve ones, though having referendums on an individual project level always makes me somewhat uncomfortable – as for that matter do a lot of details of local American politics).

  3. Jarrett at March 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    NCarlson.  US counties rarely have referenda on "individual projects."  They usually have them on citywide spending plans consisting of a balanced mix of many projects, to avoid requiring a whole area to vote on a plan that benefits only a subarea.

  4. Joseph E March 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

    Re: “Wouldn’t accelerating these transit project be cheaper to construct than waiting the full 30 years?”
    Yes, GilbyDM101, it will be cheaper. Los Angeles expects to save several billion dollars, due to lower construction costs, as the cost of building infrastructure has outpaced inflation for decades.
    With Federal financing, the very low interest rate loans will be less than the rate of construction cost inflation. (T-bills yield less than 4% now, while construction costs seem to increase 5 to 10% most years)
    And the value of having the infrastructure years earlier will be worth many billions more.

  5. GMichaud March 31, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    What is important from my perspective is that is gives voice to a larger vision, a larger strategy. The problem is that it is easy to get bogged down in details, necessary to be sure, but a tremendous distraction from larger goals at the same time.
    A balance needs to be found so that worry about this or that route or other details do not cover up the overall impact of transit.
    In fact with so many energy concerns afloat, coherent arguments for transit use are more acceptable and easier to make to the public than ever before. I’m not sure transit professionals are fully taking advantage of that situation.
    It is apparently by accident broader arguments have occurred here, in fact the broader arguments are what the public can accept and embrace.
    Accelerating projects has ramifications for energy usage, for movement, and always there is the missing link of city planning.
    The integration of transit with city, regional and national planning is the biggest gap not addressed in a comprehensive manner in my view.
    Strategic goals of transit coupled with a new energy policy defines the future of transit. Yet it will only be successful if transit relates to the physical environment and the people it serves. The question Jarrett raises about public squares is great, but it only touches the surface of the integration of transit and the environment.
    History has given us numerous examples, yet we are also on our own here, it is a new century.

  6. Progressive Capitalist April 1, 2011 at 6:25 am #

    Sure, construction costs should be cheaper on an accelerated plan, if betting on inflation. But won’t debt service eliminate those savings?

  7. Tom West April 1, 2011 at 7:01 am #

    Say LA succeeds in this, and completes it’s 30-year transport plan in a decade. What then? Will ti build no new transit for twenty years? I find it hard to believe that there will be no need for any other new transit in years 10-30.

  8. Joseph E April 1, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    @Progressive Capitalist: “Sure, construction costs should be cheaper on an accelerated plan, if betting on inflation. But won’t debt service eliminate those savings?”
    No, the savings from lower construction costs will be lower than the cost of debt service. United States Treasury bills (t-bills) have such low interest rates, they are barely above the rate of general inflation. Construction costs meanwhile track the cost of raw materials (like oil and steel) and the cost of labor, which both go up as fast or faster than total GDP growth plus inflation.
    So even after servicing the cost of the federal loans, the projects will be about 20% cheaper, if done NOW, instead of in 25 or 30 years, even adjusting for inflation and including financing costs.
    In the case of LA, we expect to decrease the cost from 18.7 billion over 30 years, down to 16.3 billion over 10 years, a savings of 22%, even after the 1.6 billion in financing costs:

  9. Joseph E April 1, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    @ Tom West “Will [they] build no new transit for twenty years”
    I think that the public will be willing to fund further transit expansion, once they 10 projects actually get built. Right now we have funding from sales tax, but I would like to see local benefit districts for property tax or land value tax around each rapid bus or rail stop. And perhaps the State will be willing to raise the amount of gas tax devoted to transit 10 years from now, if this trend continues:
    But without getting the first projects built, it would be hard to pass yet another sales tax increase.

  10. Carter R April 1, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    @ Tom West “Will [they] build no new transit for twenty years
    I’ll chime in here too. My guess is that once the Measure R projects are built out, Angelenos from every corner of the region will appreciate the benefits of transit — basically for the first time since the Red Cars.
    This I hope will spur a virtuous cycle of more and increased transit investment.
    Granted, my answer doesn’t address the practical question of how to get more transit funded. But if 68% of L.A. voters can approve a tax on themselves at the height of the recession, then it seems like anything is possible — if not easier as the benefits of transit become more apparent and as gas prices continue to climb.

  11. Alex B. April 1, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    In many ways, this is a return to the Federal Government’s role in infrastructure finance generations ago, when the Federal Government financed the Transcontinental Railroad with government bonds and land grants.

  12. MU April 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    Could it be used to build highways?
    Measure R is already slated to spend roughly 20% of its funds on highway improvements. 25% on operations and 15% for “local return” which will cover a variety of projects including road work, pedestrian and bicycle improvements, etc.