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Sepulveda tunnel, faster subway work possible with Metro's $120 billion measure

Commuters travel south on the San Diego 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass.
biofriendly/Flickr CC
FILE: Commuters travel south on the San Diego 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. Constructing a tunnel with a toll road or light rail line under this stretch of highway could be one proposal funded by a potential sales tax increase Metro wants to put on the November ballot.

Officials with Los Angeles County's transit agency will soon decide on a list of projects they hope will entice Los Angeles County voters to approve a multi-billion dollar sales tax increase proposal in November.

As KPCC has previously reported, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been mulling the $120 billion ballot measure for months, receiving input from its regional partners around the county on which projects should be priorities.

They include a possible tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass for a toll road or light rail, an acceleration of the so-called "Subway to the Sea" Purple Line extension to Westwood and conversion of the Orange Line rapid bus to light rail, among others projects.

Metro staff are still working to finalize the list of projects and the order in which they would be undertaken. The Metro Board is set to vote on the proposal at its March 24 meeting. 

The ballot initiative seeks to extend the Measure R half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2008 for an additional 18 years and add a second half-cent sales tax increase for 40 years, netting about $120 billion over the next four decades. 

In order to pass, the ballot measure would need the approval of two-thirds of county voters, a threshold that was narrowly missed in 2012 by the similar Measure J.

"The main challenge is they have to keep so many different parts of the county happy and that means spreading the goodies around," said Ethan Elkind, a professor at UCLA and UC Berkeley who wrote the book, "Rail Town," about L.A. transit issues.

Thus, Elkind said, Metro must choose a roster of projects that appeal to a wide crosssection of voters, particularly those in politically powerful areas that may not have the greatest need for transit.

"Anytime you're determining projects based on political gains that you get, you’re going to be risking a certain amount of waste," he said, pointing to the recently opened Gold Line Foothill Extension light rail. It runs through less dense areas of the county serving fewer people, but was chosen as a project for Measure R to gain votes in the San Gabriel Valley.

Despite these challenges, agencies around the country have turned more and more to sales tax measures to fund projects as federal and state sources for transit construction have dried up.

"It’s definitely not the best way to run the rodeo," said Elkind. "The problem is there aren’t a lot of great sources of funding out there, so this self-help approach is really the best."

This would be the fourth sales tax increase to fund transportation in L.A. County. Voters approved Propositions A and C, which have no expiration, in 1980 and 1990, respectively. Measure R, which expires after 30 years, was approved in 2008.