Op-Ed

Newton: Villaraigosa's tarnished transit triumph

The mayor often manages to disappoint even while achieving something worthy, as with his America Fast Forward effort.

The recent passage of the federal transportation bill — and its inclusion of the program known as America Fast Forward — is a perfect microcosm of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's tenure. The program is good for the city and a credit to the mayor's efforts, but it also falls short of the goals he set for it. That, in a nutshell, is the Villaraigosa record.

First, the positives. Anyone who follows Congress these days knows that it's more committed to obstructing progress than securing it. Republican members, who control the House of Representatives, openly boast that their mission is to deny President Obama reelection, even if that means blocking legislation that might help the country. In that environment, winning passage for a transportation bill with provisions that could help a Democratic region such as Southern California seemed unlikely from the outset.

Nevertheless, Villaraigosa lobbied doggedly for America Fast Forward, which was intended to allow Los Angeles to accelerate 30 years' worth of transit projects into a single decade by having the federal government put up the money now and then allowing Los Angeles to repay it with sales taxes over the next three decades. (Voters approved that half-cent sales tax in 2008, thanks largely to the mayor's campaign for it.)

That's an idea only a congressional Republican could dislike: It meant more jobs now, when they're needed, and relief of traffic congestion sooner rather than later — at no long-term cost to the federal government.

The program was known at first as 30/10 because it would compress 30 years of projects into 10 years; once it was broadened to projects beyond Los Angeles, its name was changed to America Fast Forward.

Using his position as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayorsand working closely with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Villaraigosa rounded up support from other mayors of both parties and refused to back down despite initial skepticism in Washington. And in the end he was victorious — sort of. The final transportation bill included money for America Fast Forward, and it cleared Congress this month.

Villaraigosa deserves real credit for both vision and diligence in securing the funding. The bill, said Russell Goldsmith, chairman of City National Bank and of the Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy and Jobs, was "a huge win for Southern California and the country."

And yet — with Villaraigosa, there's always a yet — America Fast Forward, as passed by Congress, won't fully fund the projects it was intended to pay for. The transportation bill contains more than $1 billion that will go to Los Angeles rail lines — the Crenshaw and Wilshire projects — and that's nothing to sneeze at. But because Congress did not enact the bonding portion of the bill that would have allowed the city to use the federal government to borrow against future tax revenues, there's not nearly enough to fulfill the initial promise of 30/10.

"I don't think that anybody thinks all the projects … will be covered by this bill," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. "It's certain that it's not enough to accelerate the Measure R project from 30 years to 10 years."

To do that, Yaroslavsky, Villaraigosa and other leaders are urging passage of another measure, one that would extend the half-cent sales tax beyond its initial 30 years. If voters approve that idea in November, they won't pay a higher sales tax; they'll just pay at the current rate for longer. That will allow the local agency to issue its own bonds, and achieve what America Fast Forward was advertised to do.

Nothing's easy in Washington these days, and Villaraigosa's efforts have been good for Los Angeles, even if they haven't been quite as good as the expectations he created for them. That's often been the pattern for Villaraigosa: He shoots high and comes up just short. He promises a million trees and plants several hundred thousand. He promises 10,000 police officers and delivers 9,947 (as of last week). His supporters point to the progress; his critics emphasize the gap between his promise and the result.

It's not a crime to set ambitious goals, and the mayor can't be faulted for trying. But as the America Fast Forward experience illustrates, Villaraigosa often manages to disappoint even while achieving something worthy. That's the paradoxical record that he's managed to compile.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

 

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