Measure R - the half-cent sales tax increase approved in 2008 - was sold to frustrated motorists in Los Angeles County as relief for highway bottlenecks and progress for regional transit. Estimated to generate almost $40 billion by 2039, Measure R is among the few funding sources that state raids on local revenue can't touch. It's money in the bank for each of the county's 88 cities.
That's because cities share some of the funds Measure R will raise over the next 27 years. Metro gets 85 percent for its big transit projects; the rest is apportioned to cities by population. They can spend their piece only for transportation, however, defined as improving traffic flow, expanding transit services, and repairing streets.
Los Angeles will get about $2 billion in Measure R funding by 2039, but that's a many, many election cycles away. Mayor Villaraigosa's second (and final) term ends in mid-2013, and there's the immediate future to consider.
Calculated that way, it makes sense for the mayor to propose borrowing against the Measure R "bank" to help finance a last-minute legacy of street improvements he calls L.A. Road Works - potholes filled, trees trimmed, and sidewalks repaired . . . all of it begun before the mayor is termed out.
Of the $1.5 billion needed for L.A. Road Works, about $150 million would come from existing funds. $750 million would come as a loan backed by Measure R income. Interest and other charges on the borrowed money would consume about $650 million in future Measure R revenue, according to David Zahniser's recent reports (here and here) in the Los Angeles Times
The mayor has been pitching this plan to council members over the past weeks. City council members are now making their own calculation of the political benefits versus the obvious costs. $800 million in highly visible, neighborhood-centric street improvements carefully apportioned to council districts may soften the hearts of at least some voters when they go to the polls in 2013 and after.
The cost is obligating 27 years worth of Measure R funding to a crash program that will be over in two years or less.
As needed as street repairs are now, future Los Angeles has claims of its own.
A generation from now, other mayors and council members will argue that the city was sold out for narrow and transient political gains. They'll say that owing nearly as much in interest as was raised by borrowing should be called waste. They'll lament that spending on L.A. Road Works gave mayors and city council members license to ignore critical street improvements in the years following. They'll point to the quick fix "slurry seal" laid down on 225 miles of arterial roads - essentially asphalt paint that fills minor cracks and blackens the roadway but with a lifetime of less than a decade. And when those streets need reconstruction, there was be no Measure R funds to spend on them.
But the future is a distant, phantom voice. The real and insistent voice today argues that political cover - if only two years - is well worth the price.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.