Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa discussed his transportation legacy and the future of transportation in the city during a presentation at USC on May 1.
The event, which was co-sponsored by the Metrans Transportation Center, was part of the Leading from the West series offered by USC’s Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise.
Villaraigosa, who will complete his eight years as mayor in July, billed himself early on as the “transportation mayor.” He backed up the moniker by making a significant impact on the city’s transportation system, changes that will be felt for decades to come.
“Antonio Villaraigosa has shown strong leadership during his time as mayor on the unique challenges and opportunities of transportation, including issues of sustainability, financing, health and congestion,” said Jack H. Knott, dean of the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Raphael Bostic, director of the Bedrosian Center, and Metrans director Genevieve Giuliano posed questions to the mayor. The Bedrosian Center and Metrans are both housed in USC Price, with Metrans being a joint partnership with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and California State University, Long Beach.
Giuliano provided background on the city’s history of innovation in transportation. In the early 20th century, LA boasted the largest intercity rail system in the United States. In the 1920s and 30s, LA led the nation in the adoption of the automobile and high-speed roads. What is now Interstate 110 was the first freeway that opened in the Western U.S. in 1941. In 1990, Proposition A launched the concept of restructuring LA around public transit, an approach that Villaraigosa has continued.
“Suffice to say that Mayor Villaraigosa has more than carried out the road of innovation and creative problem solving in transportation,” Giuliano said. “With Mayor Villaraigosa we have seen a renewed commitment to a high-capacity public transit system, the development of bike and pedestrian facilities, an unprecedented effort to reduce air pollution at the ports, and a national effort to leverage local funds to accelerate capital investments.”
Careful to mention that these were joint efforts and not just his own doing, Villaraigosa said his two greatest accomplishments in transportation have been Measure R — the half-cent sales tax increase for LA County that was approved by voters in 2008 — and America Fast Forward — the program that allowed for the acceleration of transit projects by using the long-term revenue from the sales tax as collateral for long-term bonds and a federal loan. The results are already being seen in metro expansion, including the Expo Line, the Orange Line and its extension, and the East LA Gold Line, with the second stage of the Expo Line, Gold Line extension to Azusa and the Crenshaw Line on the way.
Smaller successes include signal synchronization, the 405 carpool lane, the introduction of high-occupancy toll lanes, reduced truck emissions, a $2 billion investment and 20,000 jobs to grow the Port of Los Angeles, and $4 billion and 40,000 jobs to expand Los Angeles International Airport.
“It wasn’t just building a transportation system, it was reimagining a city,” Villaraigosa said. “Not only are we building public transportation, we’ve got to get zoning and entitlements around transportation corridors and stations to create a city where vertical density is beautiful, but we’re also going greener, safer and more civic-minded.”
It’s no surprise that Villaraigosa’s biggest disappointment was the failure of Measure J, which would have extended the half-cent tax another 30 years to allow further bonding against the future. It fell less than a percent short on November’s ballot of the two-thirds vote needed to pass a tax increase in California.
“That was a big blow to acceleration and to smart, innovative ways to finance projects at a time when the federal government is missing in action,” Villaraigosa said. “This is the only place where you can have a landslide and still not get something passed. That’s how difficult it is to do good public policy.”
Villaraigosa said he has gone to Sacramento and asked for a bill to lower the requirement on measures to raise taxes to 55 percent — something he will continue pushing for after his two terms as mayor conclude.
Although he aspires to hold higher public office, Villaraigosa said he would always be a promoter of LA. Other areas he will continue to address include public-private partnerships, innovative transportation investments and environmental laws that he called too restrictive on infrastructure projects.
More specifically for LA transportation, he envisions a subway running underneath the 405 Freeway connecting the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles, with a high-occupancy lane running above to generate the needed funds for the rail in a public-private partnership, as well as a rail connector to the airport.
“Those are the kinds of things we’re going to have to think about in a world of gridlock, partisanship and the lack of political will to make investments in infrastructure,” Villaraigosa said. “The things we’re doing here, everybody’s watching us because if it’s successful here it’s going to be successful around the country.”
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