Denny Zane can pinpoint the moment when the famously heavy traffic in Los Angeles changed from slushy to solid. It was the summer of 2007, and the back-ups on the I-10, through the city's west side, snaked back over 20 kilometres and reappeared day after day after day, with no obvious cause.
"Not just bad," recalled Mr. Zane, an activist and a former local councillor, "but, like, 'wow!' It was the talk of the town. We'd crossed the threshold."
To make matters worse, L.A.'s regional transportation authority, known as Metro, had just announced it had run out of funds for future transit expansion, despite an expected influx of 4 million new residents in coming decades.
With congested highways in Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, L.A.'s dilemma is painfully familiar to many frustrated urban Canadians.
L.A., however, has embarked on a fix of historic proportions, and did so with astonishing speed. After those brutal back-ups, Mr. Zane, now executive director of Move LA, hustled to assemble a broad-based coalition of business, labour and environmental groups spearheaded by L.A.'s mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a populist Democrat.
The group delivered something of a miracle: They persuaded a car-addled region of 10 million people to overwhelmingly back a ballot initiative in November, 2008, proposing a half-cent sales tax hike – roughly $25 per person per year – that will net $40-billion over 30 years for transit expansion, highway improvements and other local upgrades, including bike paths. (Two-thirds will go to transit construction and operating subsidies; the rest is for highways, bridges and roads.) Since "Measure R" passed, Metro has started planning or begun construction on no fewer than 12 light rail and bus rapid transit lines, and expects to break ground on a new subway next year.
"This is the most number of simultaneous [infrastructure]projects that have been under development at any time in L.A.'s history," said Jaime de la Vega, the general manager of the city's department of transportation and a former transit adviser to Mr. Villaraigosa.
The sheer speed of L.A.'s transformation into a transit city is a textbook example of metropolitan consensus-building, and stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Toronto, where municipal politicians have spent roughly the same period mired in a feud over the relative merits of LRTs versus subways. (Council earlier this month voted to back a provincially funded plan to spend $8.4-billion on an LRT network opposed by Mayor Rob Ford.) Indeed, with Greater Toronto facing similar growth, congestion and funding problems, the L.A. story could also provide some practical lessons on how decision-makers can break the political gridlock over funding future GTA transit plans, expected to cost over $50-billion in the next two decades.
A significant piece of L.A.'s solution has been an innovative borrowing arrangement with the federal government that, in effect, allows the city gain access to billions of dollars in up-front loans instead of waiting for years for the sales tax revenue to flow in. L.A. and California officials persuaded Washington legislators that the strategy, known as the "Fast Forward America" plan, will create half a million construction jobs and help lift the region out of its economic doldrums.
L.A. once had the largest streetcar network in the United States. But the car industry lobbied to have it dismantled in the 1950s. Starting the early 1990s, L.A. County planners began developing a bare bones transit infrastructure – mainly buses and one light rail line – using a regional sales tax.
Mr. Villaraigosa came into office in 2005 promising to build the so-called "subway to the sea" on L.A.'s affluent west-side, but the 2007 funding crisis proved to be a game-changer, said Mr. Zane. Instead, Mr. Villaraigosa set to work selling the sales tax plan based on a much broader vision that proposed transit projects serving the entire area, including a three-kilometre "regional connector" – an underground downtown LRT that will link L.A.'s other rapid transit lines into a network.
Local officials, said Mr. Zane, were emboldened to take the plan to voters after three successive polls pegged support for the sales tax hike at about 70 per cent.
Notably absent from the debate about how to deliver Mr. Villaraigosa's transit strategy: any discussion about private sector partners, or a bitter fight over the urgent need for subways, as has been the case in Toronto. While construction on the first of three phases of the Westside subway will begin next year, the project could take three decades to complete, depending on federal funding levels.
As for light rail, Mr. de la Vega said that ideally, transit planners prefer grade-separated heavy rail (i.e., subways) instead of transit vehicles running down busy streets. But to confront the crisis, L.A. politicians adopted a pragmatic stance. Indeed, last year they approved a bus-only lane on heavily used Wilshire Boulevard because planners said the buses move more people than the cars do on that route.
Business leaders, for their part, are supportive of Mr. Villaraigosa's game plan, relieved that LA County is finally seeking a solution to the gridlock that bedevils shipping companies and local manufacturers.
"I think there's a consensus that going with surface is a lot better than not having [transit]at all," said Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the 1,600-member L.A. County Chamber of Commerce, who helped by lobbying Congress for additional funding. The modest tax hike, he added, "was not a hard sell for our members."
Special to the Globe and Mail