When Los Angeles transit advocate Richard Katz took a whirlwind tour of Toronto's downtown transit network Monday, what caught his eye as he rode the Yonge line is a sight that most battle-weary Toronto commuters regard as routine: "There's a lot of people at 2 p.m. in the afternoon."
L.A.'s transit system, by contrast, is barely used in off-peak hours, and not much busier in rush hour. Yet L.A. these days is awash in expansion capital – a whopping $40-billion over the next 30 years, thanks to a half-cent regional sales tax hike, known as "Measure R," which was backed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and ultimately approved in a 2008 plebiscite by 67.3 per cent of voters.
The funds will be spent on 12 major projects, including LRT lines, a subway expansion and major upgrades to one of L.A. busiest highways.
As one of the key architects of that deal, Mr. Katz, a former California assemblyman who now sits on L.A.'s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had some pithy advice for Greater Toronto policy-makers who are trying to figure out how to find revenue sources to underwrite local and regional transit projects: "It starts with being transparent and straight with the voters."
In Toronto Monday for a speech organized by the University of Toronto's Institute for Municipal Finance and Governance, Mr. Katz said GTA politicians looking for new revenue sources should "make the public part of the planning process so they feel the ball's not being hidden from them."
L.A.'s campaign focused not just on one form of transit, but all aspects of the region's transportation network, including light and heavy rail, articulated buses, car-pooling, and cycling. "It's all part of the mix," he said.
Fifteen per cent of the $40-billion will go back to L.A. County's lower-tier municipalities, to use at their discretion to make whatever transportation improvements they require, from fixing potholes to building bike lanes, he said, characterizing the plan as "equal parts policy and politics."
Toronto Council budget chair Mike Del Grande, who attended the session, said the notion of a region-wide referendum and revenues targeted at transit could prove to be a viable combination. "If we could come up with a similar type of plan that would promise to do X, Y and Z, you'll get people on side." But York Region chair Bill Fisch, who was also in the audience, said a regional sales tax is just one of several potential tools that could be used to generate funds for the 25-year GTA-wide transit strategy that Metrolinx approved in 2009.
While L.A. once had the largest streetcar network in the United States, the region's evolution into a multi-centred megalopolis linked by congested freeways powerfully militated against transit ridership.
But Mr. Katz said that for transit advocates, the 1984 Olympics – during which there were restrictions on car usage – offered a glimpse of what was possible. "In the Olympics, we only took 5 per cent of cars off the road and people thought they were in paradise."
When he and others in Mr. Villaraigosa's team began pushing for the sales-tax hike, they set up a campaign organization, raised funds for TV ads and focused on a few key messages: that increased transit usage would make the highways less frustrating for drivers, improve L.A.s' legendarily poor air quality and create jobs.
The broad-based campaign had the backing of environmental, labour and social justice organizations, and also targeted such transit-friendly constituencies as university students.
Today, several of the projects are under way and an expansion of one of L.A.'s LRT routes, known as the Expo Line, opens next week.
But has L.A. succumbed to the belief that if they build it, transit riders will come? Mr. Katz disagreed, noting that it is mostly younger Angelinos who are more likely to eschew the car in favour of transit. He noted the case of a North Hollywood bus rapid transit line, known as the Orange Line. MTA initially projected 5,000 riders a day. But when it opened five years ago, the Orange attracted 11,000 riders daily, and that figure has since grown to 24,000 – far surpassing medium-term ridership targets.
"In that case," he said, "[we]built it and they're riding it."
Special to The Globe and Mail