Being Misled by Transportation Tax Initiatives

Written by Ken Alpern, The Transit Coalition President

It shouldn't be that hard to figure out how to enamor, and how to infuriate, voters when it comes to public investments--be they Angelenos, Californians, Americans or anyone else.

Alpern's Law of Taxes (and certainly a law shared by many, if not most, taxpayers) is as follows: There is only one issue that bothers taxpayers more than the amount of the taxes they spend--the perception on how appropriately their taxes are being spent.

Take, for example, the calculation that Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar and his aides made when they "were reluctant to incorporate higher estimates (of the proposed Los Angeles Downtown Streetcar) into public discussions, partly because of concerns they could slow the streetcar's progress". A price tag of $100-125 million price tag showed up, but we now know this was a "back-of-the-envelope" figure and not a proper figure based on the true cost of utility relocation and inflation. It was based on the cost-per-mile of the Portland, Oregon streetcar which opened over five phases from 2001 to 2012 and cost a reported $251.45 million, according to the LA Times.

Well, as so many of us have learned with respect to the reality of LA, our big city--with its larger size and longer infrastructure history--is just NOT Portland. It's a fair argument to say that New York City, Los Angeles and other larger cities get unfairly treated when it comes to costs because they get compared to medium-sized cities like Portland, Salt Lake City and Phoenix...but it's also a fair argument to say that voters don't like to be deceived. Does this sound familiar?

Kind of like an otherwise venerable notion of California joining the ranks of nations and states throughout the planet and getting an expensive but necessary High Speed Rail project for $33 billion or so dollars. A very, very slim majority of our state's voters favored it in 2008 (like me), and we've been hideously lied to ever since. The cost and the project have morphed significantly since then, to the fury of voters.

Do I favor a Downtown transportation initiative?  Do I favor higher-speed rail trains in our state?  Of course--most of us do. And we also favor puppy dogs, cuddling with our kids, sunshine, and beautiful music to boot.  But we don't like being lied to--and a bait-and-switch is just that, whether it be from Downtown Los Angeles or from Sacramento. 

Read more from Los Angeles City Watch.

Editor's note: It's also worth noting that California transportation infrastructure and operations costs are higher in part simply due to state policies that divert or inflate public works fiscal resources away from the streets and rails and into public employee wages and pensions that exceed the marketplace rate. More on that at a later time. Of course, we don't dissent the individual hard working public employees for their tireless service; it's the power grab, obstruction of affordable transportation infrastructure, and encroachment of the free democracy by the leaders of the public labor unions that needs to be brought into the debate.