LA Daily News Opinion: Measure J equals gentrification, racism and pollution with public funds

An Opinion by Sunyoung Yang and Eric Mann

MEASURE J is the latest version of gentrification, racism, and environmental pollution packaged as urban progress. It is Mayor Villaraigosa's swan song for L.A. as he moves on to his next career aspirations -- be it governor, senator, or secretary of transportation while saddling Los Angeles with a 60 year debt long after he is gone. Measure J's sizable war chest comes from powerful real estate developers and construction contractors - AEG and Westfield Corporation, Parsons Brinckerhoff and CH2M Hill - who stand to make a killing from construction contracts as they push out working class people and people of color with a Disneyfied future for L.A. -- tourists, condo construction companies, and upscale restaurants.

In a nutshell, Measure J is MTA's bid for a $90 billion advance from taxpayers just four years after voters handed them $40 billion with the first transportation sales tax Measure R. But why should an agency with such a record of misuse of public funds and a perverse hostility to L.A.'s Latino, black and working class majority be trusted with this blank check? They shouldn't.

According to its supporters, Measure J is all about accelerating job growth. Yet MTA's recent history indicates Measure J will only accelerate MTA's assault on low wage workers and the unemployed - the 500,000 janitors, domestic and hotel workers, and part-time community college students who depend on the system every day to get to the very low-wage jobs that can barely feed their families.They are 90 percent Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific Islander and have an average annual household income of $14,000. Four years ago the same people behind the Yes on J campaign brought us Measure R. They promised transit expansion in exchange for $600 million of our tax dollars each year. What they delivered were the elimination one million hours of bus service and a sizable increase in fares.

The MTA played a shameless game of bait and switch with its budget. First, it promised the public 20 percent of the funds for bus service. But then, with $120 million to improve the bus system it simply took the funds already allocated for bus service and switched them to rail, then claimed a shortfall for the bus system and raised fares and cut service. Then it handed out hefty contracts to Parsons ($90 million) and Hill ($37 million) for projects that haven't even broken ground. In response, the Bus Riders Union persuaded the Obama Administration to conduct a civil rights investigation that showed evidence that MTA knowingly violated federal law.

The MTA claims that Measure J will help the environment. But did you know that the MTA has made a deal with the devil, that at least 20 percent of the Measure J funds will go to freeway expansion? How in the world can we combat greenhouse gases and air toxins by expanding the freeways again and again? When will we restrict auto use? But what if the MTA is really a rail construction agency?

That would explain its nefarious but logical behavior. When the cost overruns on construction pile up and the funds to operate new rail lines turn up short will the MTA ask us for even more funds? And what of 60 years of debt service? By the time the public figures out the catastrophic plans for rail projects that will never be completed and the loss of a chance for bus rapid transit and a 24/7 bus system that could be built with one-third of the funds it will be too late. As Villlaraigosa would say, "Apr s moi le deluge."

Last year, black leaders asked the MTA to upgrade the planned Crenshaw Boulevard Line, citing the potential devastation of local businesses and the threat of deadly accidents as have happened on MTA's shoddily built Blue Line. They were told by the mayor and the West Side forces that MTA simply didn't have the money. In East L.A., residents and local businesses demanded that MTA rebuild affordable housing that had been leveled during the Gold Line construction. They object to bringing in chain stores on property seized by the MTA using eminent domain.

The agency has stonewalled them. In the San Gabriel Valley, demands from a grassroots coalition to halt the advance of the $10 billion 710 tunnel - which would devastate working-class neighborhoods like El Sereno andand Highland Park as much as bedroom communities like South Pasadena - have also fallen on deaf ears at MTA.

Meanwhile, the $9 billion Westside Subway extension - with backing from Westfield Corporation, JMB Realty, LACMA, and other West Side heavy hitters - has moved full steam ahead. Our charges of gentrification are rooted in facts.

A defeat for Measure J, with its enormous advertising budget and false promises of a world class city absent of its own residents would force a public debate about L.A.'s transit future. Doubling L.A.'s bus fleet from 2,500 buses to 5,000, enacting bus only lanes and a network of rapid buses, building bus rapid transit and having auto free days, rush hours, and zones would generate an environmental and social justice plan for the city in which public funds would be used for the public good, not private profits and the careers of politicians. No on Measure J is an important step to de-rail catastrophe.