L.A. Metro is a train wreck.
As new reports showed a rise in drug overdose deaths and crime on the Los Angeles County transit system, a Metro official went to Sacramento to tell lawmakers that the agency is projecting an operating deficit of $400 million for fiscal year 2025, rising to $1 billion in fiscal year 2026.
Recently I wrote a column about Metro’s online “townhall meetings,” which I suspected were actually focus groups aimed at identifying the best messaging to sell yet another tax increase to support the failing system.
On Monday, I heard more support for this hypothesis. Metro’s executive officer for government relations, Michael Turner, testified at a joint informational hearing of the Assembly and Senate transportation committees on “How to Bring Back and Build Transit Ridership in California.” He told lawmakers that the agency is hoping for some immediate flexibility with current funds and assistance with the issue of homelessness on the system, and then, “looking at, in the next couple of years, what are some permanent, long-term solutions to funding our system.”
“Funding” is a euphemism for a tax increase. The reason it takes “years” is that these things have to go on the ballot, which means there’s lot of wheeling and dealing needed to figure out what neighborhood will be promised what project in order to reach the necessary threshold for voter approval of a tax increase.
The state constitution, thanks to Proposition 13, requires local tax increases to go on the ballot. As interpreted by the courts, general taxes require approval by a simple majority. Special taxes, that is, taxes that raise revenue for specific purposes, require a two-thirds vote.
But there’s an ongoing effort in the state Legislature to change that threshold for “infrastructure” and other specified projects, such as publicly funded housing developments. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1, a Sacramento perennial which has failed to advance in the past, would change the constitution to allow taxes for these special purposes to pass with only 55% of the vote.
So it’s entirely likely that Metro’s “long-term” plan over the “next couple of years” includes advocating for ACA 1 to pass. As a constitutional amendment, ACA 1 would need a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature to get on the ballot, and then it would need a simple majority of the electorate to pass.
Just say no, and say it now, and say it to your state representatives. You can look up their names and contact information at findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.
If you think taxes are too low in California and the only thing preventing perfection in government services is the fact that you’re not paying enough, then go ahead and support this proposal.
But if you’re aware that in L.A. County you’re already paying four sales tax increases of one-half percent each, exclusively to fund the Metro system, you may be interested to know why the Metro system is on track to run a $1 billion operating deficit in 2026.
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Despite the multi-billion-dollar build-out of a passenger rail network, Metro’s ridership actually peaked back in the 1980s, when it was just a bus system. The steady decline in ridership was made worse by the pandemic, but even now, according to Turner, the system is at only 70% of its pre-COVID ridership overall.
Last week, Metro’s top safety officer, Gina Osborn, addressed the Metro executive board and presented alarming data about crime, drugs, homelessness and general chaos on the system. So far this year, 21 people have died on Metro trains and buses. Twenty were apparent drug overdoses and one was a homicide. Less than two months into 2023, the number of deaths on the system surpassed the total for 2022. Complaints about drug use and drug dealing, filed on the Metro Transit Watch app, nearly doubled last year over the previous year. Reports of serious crimes rose 24%. On average, transit operators (bus drivers, for example) were assaulted at the rate of 14 per month.
This has to be addressed, but not with a tax increase. It’s time to allow, or require, law enforcement and social services agencies to do the jobs they’re paid to do. Make Metro Metro again.