Uphill Climb for Downtown Streetcar

On The Move
On The Move| Photo: YVR | Flickr: Creative Commons License

The framework to pay for a $125 million streetcar loop from City Hall to AEG's L.A. Live is is expected to be approved tomorrow. $10 million will come as a legacy from the city's dead-and-gone redevelopment agency. Another $52 million in federal funding is being sought, despite having been denied in two rounds of transportation grants already.

But to complete the financing scheme, voters along the streetcar's right-of-way will have to assess themselves about $62 million in "Community Facilities District" taxes over the next 30 years. Proponents of the district will have only a few months to make their case. Creation of the taxing district is expected to come before voters by the end of the year.

Portland's Best.
Portland's Best. | Photo: Parker Michael Knight/Flickr/Creative Commons License

District formation, if approved by voters, will create a tiered rate structure based on distance from the proposed streetcar line and the size of the property.

As Richard Guzmán writing in Los Angeles Downtown News, notes, "Property owners closest to the streetcar tracks would pay 59 cents per square foot annually, with the assessment based on parcel size rather than a building's overall square footage. For example, if a 10-story structure was on a 10,000-square-foot lot, the tax would be based on that ground level figure, not the 100,000 total square feet of space in the building."

But owners of condominiums in the district would be taxed individually, based on the size of their unit, or roughly $100 to $200 a year for the 30-year life of the taxing district.

No tax would fall on property owners outside the district (about three blocks on either side of Broadway and Hill Street from First to 11th streets and in a wide loop west to Figueroa Street). The route is shown as Alternative 7 in this posting from Los Angeles Streetcar, Inc.

The formation of a "Community Facilities District" dedicated to a single project won't be easy. District formation -- because it imposes a "special tax" under state law -- will require approval from a super-majority of 66 percent. Condo owners will be expected to pay 25 percent of the $62 million to be raised through the district. Renters in the district will be able to vote but commercial property owners (unless they also are district residents) won't.

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There are structural impediments, too. The streetcar's route has been trimmed to exclude Grand Avenue and Music Center, Disney Hall, the Broad Museum, the Grand Park, and the cathedral (leaving the impression that the real destination all along has been AEG's corporate sellscape on Figueroa). The streetcar will travel in a one-way loop south on Broadway and north on Hill Street, diminishing its utility for commuters. There will be inevitable compromises in fitting a slow-moving streetcar (5-8 miles an hour) in car-clogged traffic lanes that also must have room for a growing number of cyclists. The streetcar may be a one-off project, since expansion west from the civic center is blocked by downtown's hilly profile. And voters may wonder about the value of another transit system in a area of downtown already highly networked with local, express, and inter-city buses; city-operated Dash vans; the subway and light rail; and the "regional connector" that will add new subway stops across the northern part of the streetcar route.

A downtown streetcar -- heavily backed by Councilman José Huizar -- has not yet convinced a majority of property owners or voters in the facility district's boundaries. Some of them object to the cost, others wonder about the business and political interests that determined the streetcar's route, and those who don't live there resent their inability to vote on taxing themselves and their tenants.

All of these concerns, directly or indirectly, will influence those who can vote when they weigh the value of a streetcar loop to their quality of life.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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