THE BLOG

LA Mayor Travels to DC; Good News for Denver?

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For those of you in Denver worried about the future of FasTracks, I've got good news: Los Angeles' mayor Antonio Villaraigosa just took a trip to Washington, DC.

I know you're asking yourself, "Why should I care?" But the outcome of Villaraigosa's trip could mean good news for Denver.

Just like Denver, Los Angeles has plans for the construction of multiple new rail and bus projects. And, just like in Denver, voters approved a sales tax increase to make it happen. Now Los Angeles wants to complete its transit projects in ten years instead of thirty, as had originally been planned.

Villaraigosa is asking Washington lawmakers to extend a loan to Los Angeles to speed up the rate of construction and to build out all of the new lines simultaneously. L.A.'s mayor touted the 166,000 construction jobs that the project would bring to the recession-wracked region.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa insists the deal presents little risk for the federal government. The reason: Los Angeles County voters in 2008 passed a half-cent sales tax to fund the rail project over 30 years. But Los Angeles leaders say it can be done in 10 if they get the money up front. The city would pay back the loans over 30 years using the sales tax.

Denver is currently considering raising the transit sales tax from .04 percent to .08 percent in order to complete all of its planned rail projects. Declining sales tax revenue and escalating costs have resulted in a $2.4 billion gap in funding for Denver's ambitious, but much needed, transit plan. If the tax is not raised, several of the currently proposed lines may be eliminated. The Denver Post reported last October:

Local officials, RTD and area voters should acknowledge that money from the initial 0.4 percent FasTracks sales-and-use tax, approved five years ago, is flowing into one "bucket," as Tauer called it, to construct roughly half of FasTracks.

The other half? Those lines are currently unfunded.

Currently there is doubt about the likelihood of voters approving a sales tax increase. As The Economist put it recently, without the sales tax increase, "The project's completion could be delayed until 2035 or scaled back to just one or two new lines." But if voters know that all their rail lines would be constructed sooner rather than later, perhaps public opinion would be behind increasing the tax.

And if Mayor Villaraigosa is successful, if the federal government finds a way to extend Los Angeles a loan to complete its project in ten years instead of thirty, the Denver could make a similar ask of Washington lawmakers.