LA toll roads, light rail eyed in Capitol political dispute

A push by Los Angeles lawmakers to capture hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars has turned into a regional struggle among Capitol pols that transcends party lines.

Publicly, partisans say there is little or no connection between the extension of LA's light rail extension to Azusa, and a push for new toll roads in the San Gabriel Valley. Privately, however, negotiations are afoot linking them together in what partisans say is a classic case of Capitol hardball.

"If they are linked, they are being linked only in the mind of the mayor," said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, referring to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The first project on the table is the extension of the LA Metro's Gold Line east from Pasadena to Azusa, the first phase of the plan to ultimately take the line all the way to the Ontario airport. Planning and environmental approvals for the project have been completed. Legislation to finance to provide a minimum of $328 million for the project through a continuation of a half-penny sales tax increase is pending in the Legislature. Other sources of funding, including federal money, potentially are available, too.

The Gold Line is only one of a number of major projects that would be funded by the sales tax bill, AB 2321 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-West Hollywood. The landmark legislation requires approval by two-thirds of local voters and would provide some $40 billion for transportation over the next three decades.

"This is a historic opportunity," Feuer said. "This is a chance to infuse $40 billion in improvements into the L.A. transportation system."

The second issue is the potential conversion of several existing freeway lanes on the I-10, I-210 and I-110 to toll lanes, a system known as "congestion pricing," in which motorists are charged for the privilege of driving in uncongested lanes. Similar systems existing on stretches of I-15 in San Diego County and state routes 91 and 243, among others, as well as in other states. Drivers set up pre-paid accounts, then are charged electronically through transponders installed in the cars.

Bush administration transportation planners see advantages in congestion pricing, and offered $213 million to establish the pilot project, with the money going for the lane conversions, the electronic toll collections, plus buses, sound walls and other projects. On April 25, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced the federal grant. "This is just the beginning of what I hope is more federal funding for infrastructure projects coming California's way," the governor said in Los Angeles, flanked by federal and local transportation officials. The governor has declined to take a position on Feuer's bill.

Actually, no money has been received. In fact, there won't be any money at all unless the Legislature ratifies a memorandum of understanding between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, and the federal government.

And that's where the two issues of the light rail expansion and new toll roads are coming together.

Earlier, ratification of the MOU appeared to be little more than a formality.

But the 13 lawmakers in both parties who comprise what is known as the San Gabriel Valley Caucus declined to carry the bill to ratify the deal, in part because they sense anger from constituents who don't want more toll roads and in part because they want to put pressure on the MTA to expedite the Gold Line extension. Caucus members met with Villaraigosa last Friday-the day after the MTA board postponed action on the Gold Line–and met Tuesday in Romero's Capitol office for two hours.

There also is some unhappiness with the Feuer bill, with critics contending that the projects and priorities in the bill need to be reworked because they shortchange people in the San Gabriel Valley while giving an advantage to Los Angeles.

"We had a meeting [Tuesday] morning in my office (of the San Gabriel Valley Caucus) and I can tell you that it was very well attended," Romero said. "We agreed that there is much more work that needs to be done on AB 2321. If voters were to approve this now, they would be buying snake oil. It's totally unacceptable in the form it is in now."

Several Capitol sources said Assemblyman Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles, the former speaker, intends to carry the ratification bill, although his office said Tuesday that he has not decided whether to be the author. To date, no bill is in print.

The San Gabriel Valley Caucus members may not want toll roads, but they do want an extension of the Gold Line.

But last week, the Metro board postponed approval of some $80 million in local seed money-money that would have drawn a disproportionate match in federal dollars-to finance Phase 1 of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa; the project carries a $400 million price tag. The postponement was seen in Sacramento as a way of pressuring lawmakers to ratify the MOU. The board's action, to some in the Capitol, was a thinly veiled threat from the MTA: Ratify the agreement financing the toll lanes or you won't get your Gold Line extension.

That allegation was rejected by the MTA, which said the board acted prudently because federal matching money wasn't yet available anyway and that there was a possibility that the Feuer bill would make it to the ballot and win voter approval. The MTA supports the Feuer bill.

"Our board decided to postpone that decision until after November. Our board is currently considering having a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot," said Metro spokesman Rick Jagger.

But waiting may carry its own peril. At least some of the federal funding is contained in the current federal budget, and the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

"I certainly think it's our responsibility to come to an agreement," said Assemblyman Mike Davis, D-Los Angeles, the chair of the Select Committee on Rail Transportation. "We're talking about resources for the region, for the Gold Line, too, and it means we're talking about congestion pricing. In order to reduce congestion, we need more resources for the region. Absolutely, it's a package."
"It's our job to make the public understand the urgency of this," added Davis, a supporter of the Feuer bill.

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