Guest Op-Ed: The Lessons of Measure M: How to Fix the Subway

June 19, 2018

As New York struggles to fix the subway and several proposals are circulating, a close look at what Los Angeles is doing is instructive. In November 2016, Measure M, the Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan, was approved by 71.15 percent of voters (a two-thirds vote was required).

Measure M, a transportation sales tax, creates a permanent source of funding for the construction of 40 major transit, road and walking/biking projects over the next 40 years, with a push to accelerate completion of many of the projects in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics. Measure M commits to:

  • New transit construction, including 100 miles of Metro Rail and 65 miles of Bus Rapid Transit.
  • Highway improvements, carpool lanes and goods movement.
  • Local city transportation improvements.
  • Support for rail and bus operations.
  • State of good repair.
  • Keeping fares affordable for seniors, students and the disabled.
  • Active transportation projects.
  • Regional rail projects.

The plan’s focus on state of good repair to keep Metro’s system in good working condition stems from Metro’s leadership watching other agencies including the MTA suffer the consequences of kicking the maintenance can down the road. Measure M also includes funds that are returned directly to local cities for their own transportation projects.

Measure M is a collaborative initiative by the 88 cities and unincorporated areas of LA County, the largest county in the nation, to tackle the region’s crippling traffic problem. The plan was developed through a “bottom up” approach that ensured that the whole County had a hand in shaping the plan.

Funding transportation infrastructure requires support from the private sector, local and state funds, and federal dollars. With passage of Measure M, LA Metro can say to the Federal government, “Look at LA with its hat already half filled.” This is increasingly important to securing funding.

Early strategic planning, a broad and strong coalition of bipartisan support, a robust public education program, and disciplined leadership by the Metro Board and staff made possible the passage of Measure M. The plan also represents an unusually collaborative regional plan, a team effort by Metro, the County’s nine subregions and area partners from the business, labor, environmental, faith, transit, equity and philanthropic communities. Measure M is a civic enterprise. Fixing the subways must be as well.

New York would do well to heed the lessons learned from the Measure M experience:

Find Opportunity in a Setback

The narrow defeat of Measure J, an earlier transportation funding initiative, was an opportunity to do things differently, with a “bottom up” approach to engage the County’s diverse cities in the process of identifying needed transportation projects.

Foster Bipartisanship

Coalition-building between Republicans and Democrats is paramount to the success of a sales tax ballot measure. The responsibility for improving transportation belongs to everyone.

Drive Home Local Return; Make it Regional and Personal

Local return was critical to Measure M’s passage. It meant that the entire County had skin in the game and gave Metro a response when the local community asked, ‘Where are the local programs?’ Metro could point to subregional fact sheets to show there was something directly in it for them.

Consider a Longer Time Horizon, No Sunset

Metro’s draft plan shifted from a 40-year plan to a 50-year plan and ultimately to a no sunset provision, “Until voters decide to end it.” No sunset further extended the agency’s borrowing ability.

New York’s transit needs will never go away. We should be realistic and bold and go with a no sunset funding provision as well.

Elevate State of Good Repair

State of good repair isn’t sexy like a new train, but it is critical. Reliable service delivery, safety and quality of service keep a system in good working condition.

Let the Public Weigh In

Providing stakeholders and the public with opportunities to react to and comment on the draft plan built broad public support for and buy-in of the plan.

Find Common Ground, All Politics is Local

Metro’s coalition partners found they could unite behind a plan with sometime-adversaries if the plan benefited everyone.

A Bigger Vision, A Political Champion & Leadership Matter

The willingness of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti to traverse the County explaining the plan and garnering support for Measure M made the Mayor a regional leader. Garcetti understands that what is good for the region is good for the City.

To win, there has to be a political champion—a likeable, charismatic leader who understands the psychology of convincing voters that a bold vision, a critical civic enterprise, is a good idea. Also central to Measure M’s success was Metro’s CEO Phil Washington, a gifted leader and manager.

Embrace the Partners

The Yes on M campaign found tireless partners all over the County and in groups like AARP which had never before supported a sales tax measure.

A Real Campaign Costs Real Money

In the second most expensive advertising market in the country, the campaign cost an estimated $10 million.

Timing is Everything

Timing the campaign for a large turnout election is critical. While New York commuters can’t wait another New York minute for the MTA to fix the subway, determine the best time to put the measure on the ballot.

A Monumental Problem

Having a problem to solve as monumental as LA gridlock helped Yes on M win over voters. The need to fix the subway is equally dire, if not more so.

Keep It Simple and Create Good Optics

Don’t talk with voters using the alphabet soup of transportation. Use plain English:

  • More rail lines and more rail stops make moving around simpler.
  • There is always going to be traffic, but are you better off doing nothing about it?
  • Local return will fix your potholes and pave your streets.

Be Nimble

When things don’t go as planned, pivot and embrace Plan B.

Counter the Opposition

People trust their faith leaders. Metro’s engagement with the faith community helped counter the opposition’s message that Metro couldn’t be trusted with its money.

Traffic Impacts Everyone

LA’s legendary traffic requires solutions that are not the status quo.

Build a Road Map

Be transparent. Developing a Program Management Plan (PMP) before taking a ballot measure to the voters shows how a major program will be implemented.

Hard Work Pays Off and the Role of Government

Measure M passed because voters had confidence in LA Metro and its partners. At a time when some have lost faith in government and its ability to deliver, Measure M is rehabilitating the reputation of the public sector, offering nothing short of a new Los Angeles.

As Rusty Hicks of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has put it, “There is not a business or private entity that can move this sort of project on its own. It takes a large, experienced governmental entity to achieve a project of this scale that will benefit the 17 million people who live within an hour’s drive of Los Angeles. That’s what’s critical about this being done right.”

Joel Epstein is the author of How to Pass a Mega Transportation Measure – LA County’s Measure M Lessons Learned. The views expressed above do not necessarily represent the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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