Denny Zane on Measure R and Transit in L.A. CountyNovember 19, 2008
By Andrew Bielak
When people think about Los Angeles County, images of high-speed subway lines extending to the sea and sleek light-rail cars passing through dense transit-oriented development are generally not the first things to pop into their heads.
But thanks to the November 4 approval of Ballot Measure R – a half-cent sales tax increase expected to generate $40 billion for transportation improvements, largely in transit, over the next 30 years – L.A. County’s reputation as the epicenter of sprawling development and automobile culture could be set for a major overhaul.
Denny Zane (right), a longtime community activist and former mayor of Santa Monica, helped lead the fight to win support for Measure R by heading up Move L.A., a coalition of labor, business, and environmental groups that saw a common interest in battling climate change, reducing congestion, and improving transportation options in the region.
In a phone interview this week, Zane spoke to Transportation for America about the process of building a unified front for the effort, the challenges in getting the measure on the November ballot, and the future for Los Angeles County and Move L.A.
What’s your background in local activism, how did it lead you into becoming involved with transportation?
In the late ‘70s, I became active in the rent control battles in Santa Monica, and at one point was the campaign manager for a ballot measure for rent control. We created a little political organization, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, and became the progressive environmental coalition that eventually expanded its issues beyond rent control and housing. Thirty years later, it has a majority of the city council and the elected board of Santa Monica.
That organization is what gave Santa Monica its progressive, liberal reputation. Prior to that, the city had a very conservative city government. I was elected to the city council in 1981 – the first year where we gained what we called a progressive majority – and my primary interests at the time were housing, land use and the environment. I got involved very much then in the objective of moving the city to have the greenest possible fleet of alternative fuel and electric vehicle technology, and very much involved in actually leading the effort to create the Third Street Promenade (the city’s landmark smart-growth development project). Those projects were very important because they were my environmental work and economic development, which gave me a lot of credibility with the business community.
I was also the director of the Coalition for Clean Air – which expanded my environmental relations and history and knowledge – and worked very actively in what was the living wage campaign of Santa Monica, which became a sort of entrée into the labor movement. My father had been a steelworker, so that certainly was a helpful source of credibility.
How did the effort for measure R begin?
The process really started with me and Terry O’Day (the executive director of Environment Now) looking for foundation funding to get the environmental community in L.A. involved with transportation.
We decided to try to hook up with the labor community, in part because the labor community is powerfully politically, and it seemed like a natural alliance. At first we started talking about the Subway to the Sea, because that had been the iconic symbol for Mayor (Antonio) Villaraigosa’s election campaign. We were doing this for clean air purposes and greenhouse gas reduction just as much as congestion relief.
We had a hard time finding a foundation that would be interested in this because there was so little optimism about the ability of Los Angeles to deal with these issues, because it has not really done it before. This is still the automobile capital with an immature transit system – lots of buses, but not much in the way to of rail to flesh out the system. So we had to look for other sources, like the private sector, to support the effort.
A questionable future for transit
At some point, the MTA announced that they had six billion dollars for new capital projects over the next 30 years, which is a pittance. Then they announced that they had four billion dollars – Terry and I looked at each other and said, “That ain’t good.”
And within a month they announced that they now had zero. All of the problems were driven by the cost of materials for construction for permitted projects going up, thereby taking down money that was otherwise available.
We were looking at each other thinking, “This is incredible, the largest metropolitan area in the United States, is saying that it has zero money for new transportation capacity of any sort,” They had money for maintenance and operating what they already have in place, but they had zero money for new capacity. There’s about two million new residents expected over 25 years, so how do you fit two million people into this community and move them around without new capacity? That seems like a world of hurt.
Finding a direction
At that point we were no longer talking about the subway as the iconic project driving a transit agenda and we’re talking about finding money.
The only real money we could get would be from the voters, and in most cases that means you have to get a two-thirds vote. That wouldn’t happen if it were just a subway – people in the other outlying parts of the county would be unlikely to give it two thirds vote – so that means our thinking had to shift away from the subway to a comprehensive countywide plan.
It was very clear that November 2008 was a golden opportunity, because there would be substantially higher turnout in that election than most. But nobody would make the preparations because the general assumption was that two-thirds vote was too much, especially, considering the economy. This was all before the banks collapsed, even before gas prices started to rise – this was only the normal depressing economic situation. There were lots of other money things to be on the ballot – college bonds, schools bonds, etcetera – so in general, the political leadership thought “Well, two-thirds vote was too steep a climb, we wouldn’t make it, so sorry gang, but this has to be figured out some other time, some other way.
Uniting for a common interest
We were feeling like 2008 was too much of an important opportunity that we couldn’t simply accept that judgment at face value. We didn’t want the election to come and go and do nothing by default.
The decision was made to try to convene this business labor environmental dialogue, in order for this coalition to have a fighting chance to come together for November 08. We invited 35 organizations for a meeting in October last year, which was composed equally of business, labor, and environmental representatives.
At that meeting I proposed to the group, that we needed to expedite the discussion about…transportation funding, and (we decided to try to) put something on the ballot.
Developing a strategy
We decided we could have this conference, which we had a couple months later in January. Three weeks before it happened, we thought we’d get about 125, but it turned out we got 350, so we were clearly exceeding our expectations.
It was a very interesting group of business leaders, multiple unions, and multiple environmental organizations, and the people who spoke were really starting to get with the program, including the mayor. The mayor had long wanted this to happen, but had felt there wasn’t evidence the constituencies and the voters were ready to make the kind of campaign that needed to happen. People frequently want election officials to do everything, but don’t appreciate the fact that elected officials can’t do everything – they need their constituency leaders to take initiative as well.
This time we had to create the parade ourselves, so the elected leadership would have a constituency to work with. The conference showed there was a parade, there was a constituency coalition ready to get to work, and there was such good energy in the room.
Movement towards November
My organization got funding to do its own poll, and we came in with 69 percent supporting a sales tax for a broad county plan, and that was encouraging. That led Metro to do its own poll a couple weeks later, and they came in at 71 percent, and that was encouraging. And the mayor’s office, being a bit skeptical about some of these polls, decided to do one of its own, so they did one a month later that showed 73 percent supporting the sales tax.
So now we had a group of numbers showing it was reachable.
There were lots of places where this could have just fallen apart completely. The legislature could have sat on the legislation, there was some efforts to pork barrel the legislation, which were resisted. When the bill passed, the governor was trying to veto everything until the legislature passed the budget, which held the whole measure up for a couple months and meant that no one could really be sure if there was going to be a campaign.
Thanks to the extra efforts of the mayor, and thanks to the efforts of the labor movement, we got five million dollars ultimately pulled together which was sufficient to have a decent TV and radio campaign. The key thing was we always knew that there would be a strong turnout and that the Obama factor was in our favor. The new voters going to the polls to support Barack Obama were voters that would give us very strong support and could push us to a higher threshold, and that’s exactly what happened.
Building a Future for Los Angeles County
The program is between two-thirds and 70 percent transit, which is remarkable for Los Angeles County, in the heart of automobile culture. About 15 percent of the money will go to the local governments for use as they see fit for transportation services. Many of them will use the money for transit. A conservative estimate is that if five percent of that local money goes to transit, than we are at 70 percent transit.
That will help keep the system solvent, the fairs low, and the service robust. Otherwise what we would be having is a rise in fares and services cutbacks just because of the economic situation, but now we can avoid that. The really new thing is there are multiple light rail systems in the measure, there are multiple bus rapid transit systems, high capacity bus programs, and of course, the iconic subway to the sea, although Measure R only funds it from Westin to Westwood. With federal help it will be able to make it to the coast?
A lot of this is electric, which I refer to as zero emission transit, which has got to be the direction for anyone serious about reducing greenhouse gas emission.
What do you think really made you successful? Do you think it had a lot to do with the political environment, with rising gas prices, with a growing interest in transit in general, or with traffic problems in the area being particularly acute?
One, the traffic congestion was so acute that everyone knew it was going to get worse. I think that made it believable that people would vote two-thirds, and the fact that there was going to be a presidential election with a high turnout, and the fact that you had a mayor who had campaigned on and was consistently prepared to support such a system.
And then I think there was something about the political maturation of the community. Until now, none of the environmental organizations had staff devoted to transportation. That’s sort of remarkable, that there’s so little about transportation on their agenda.
The idea of the labor movement and the environmental community working together was pretty remarkable in Los Angeles, it hadn’t happened before and here it happened, and that’s a function of political maturation. It sort of feels like L.A. is growing up.
What do you think was the strongest arguments in terms of framing this issue?
Congestion was a universal problem throughout the county, not just in one part of the county, so the argument that we needed a comprehensive countywide plan rang very true. People knew that we had reached the limits of the freeway system and if were going to get new capacity and relief, it would have to come through transit. I think that people also that the argument for clean air was also a compelling argument.
Did you have to shift your message once the financial crisis started wreaking havoc on the economy?
No we didn’t have to shift our argument. When we did polling three weeks out, we had lost ground among some older demographics, but we gained ground among younger, so we started doing a lot of focused messaging to media that reached all their audiences. With the older audience, the message was a lot about clean air, because while they were certainly worried about the economy and whether they could afford the $25 bucks a year, which is the average cost of this sales tax, they were also concerned with the long-term health implications from the air quality.
What was opposition’s central argument?
There was only one argument, which came from certain parts of the county. Certain elected officials would say we weren’t getting their fair share, and it was specious argument. When you looked at the actual projects, and funding commitments, those parts of the county were doing just as well as any other part of the county, but it was reflective of, a history of political rivalry and of mistrust. They didn’t get some things they wanted so they started to argue they didn’t get anything they wanted, when in fact they got as much as anybody else did.
Do you see any broader implications from your victory, any lessons that a larger movement for transportation reform could learn from your campaign?
Well it was certainly was true that here in Los Angeles, the business community, the labor community, the environmental community all saw a common interest. Especially when the concern that might have unsettled them would have been how much highways versus how much transit, but in our case, nobody was really arguing for expanded highway construction. Assuming you need maintenance and repair, and interchange improvements, but significant freeway projects – all that had been done in previous epochs.
So everybody was of accord that the future of transportation had to be dominated by new transit, and this case, fixed guideway transit. It was just a question of how much.
What happens to Move L.A. now that Measure R has passed?
Now we really have to get organized. There is lots of implementation issues that need to be wrestled with, not simply by MTA board but by constituency groups. Measure R doesn’t address all that needs to be addressed, for example it doesn’t address except in a tangible way the good movement issues, and it doesn’t address the opportunity created by the high-speed rail project.
There are other both planning and funding issues – there needs to be a dialogue about the new administration, Obama administration will certainly create some opportunities, so have a constituency coalition that can play a role in that discussion rather than just leaving it to elected officials is one of those things.
And as big as 40 billion is, it’s probably about half of what we need. The subway doesn’t get completed with that, the ground access to our aviation system has got to be remedied.