Seven southern Los Angeles County cities are suing Metro over its proposed half-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 8 ballot, arguing the language is misleading and the agency didn't specify most of the transportation projects it would fund.
The ballot description takes a kitchen-sink approach, saying Measure M is needed "to improve freeway traffic flow/safety; repair potholes/sidewalks; repave local streets; earthquake retrofit bridges; synchronize signals; keep senior/disabled/student fares affordable; expand rail/subway/bus systems/ improve jobs/school/airport connections; and create jobs ..."
But it doesn't mention that the vast majority of transportation improvements won't touch the southern portion of the county, opponents say. It also doesn't mention that it would take an estimated $860 million a year from taxpayers.
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 26 on behalf of Carson, Torrance, Rancho Palos Verdes, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Commerce and Norwalk, says Measure M will force those communities to subsidize transportation projects for other regions. It also would indefinitely extend a 2008 half-cent sales tax increase for transportation approved with Measure R, which would otherwise sunset in 2039.
"The title, 'Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan,' conveys a false impression of equal distribution of tax dollars to improve traffic conditions throughout the county," the suit states. "Measure M tax dollars will be spent disproportionately on high-dollar value projects in the more affluent western and northern regions of the county."
On Wednesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge said she needs more information before ruling on a request by the coalition of seven cities for an accelerated hearing.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel questioned why the petitioners waited so long to file their case when they knew the ballot language as of Aug. 16. Lawyer G. Ross Trindle, on behalf of the petitioning cities, said it took time for the communities involved to hold meetings and vote on whether to participate.
Yusef Robb, of the campaign on behalf of Measure M, called the lawsuit "a political stunt that has nothing to do with the law or reality.''
"Measure M represents the type of strategic planning that County residents deserve," said Thomas S. Sayles, Chair of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, at a press conference Wednesday. "It's time that L.A. County had the type of comprehensive, interconnected transportation system that other metropolitan areas use to create jobs and reduce traffic. Measure M is a smart investment that will greatly improve our County's economy and our quality of life."
In the South Bay, work to ease congestion on the "South Bay curve" centered at the 405 and 110 freeway interchange won't begin until 2045 and the transit line connecting Artesia Boulevard with downtown Los Angeles won't be finished until 2041 under Measure M. The Green Line extension from Redondo Beach to Torrance won't be done before 2030.
Meanwhile, Torrance residents will pay about $25 million a year more in sales tax under the measure, according to Torrance Public Works Director Rob Beste.
"They've really left the South Bay out of its fair share of funding," Beste said. "The city of Los Angeles represents 35 percent of the county's population yet they get over 50 percent of funding. We don't even get a fraction of that."
In Carson, which initiated the lawsuit, residents would pay about $12 million a year, said City Manager Ken Farfsing. The county returns a small portion of sales tax proceeds to cities.
"What regional projects is Carson getting out of this? There's no light rail, no additional bus services," Farfsing said. "There's some work to the 405 and Harbor freeway but that's in 2030 or 2040. Where's the regional equity? Where's the fairness of this?"
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said they cannot comment about pending litigation.
The South Bay and Gateway Cities councils of government, which represent more than 40 of the county's 88 cities, have passed resolutions opposing Measure M.
"Multi-modal projects that would benefit the Gateway Cities are being leapfrogged by higher profile projects in more affluent areas, which are already being given priority access to federal funding," said an ordinance approved in July by the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, which represents cities largely along the 710 Freeway corridor. "This is simply not geographically equitable."
Gateway region projects like improvements to the 5, 105 and 710 freeways won't start for decades under Measure M. Meanwhile, the Purple Line rail extension to Westwood is set for completion in 2024 and the Gold Line will be extended to Claremont by 2025.
Another point of contention is that the ballot measure does not clearly state that it would indefinitely extend the half-cent county sales tax increase approved with Measure R. That tax would sunset in 2039 unless Measure M is approved but the ballot language is foggy on that point, stating it would: "authorize a Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan through a 1/2-cent sales tax and continue the existing 1/2-cent traffic relief tax until voters decide to end it."
The only way for voters to "decide to end it" is if 10 percent of county voters sign a petition to add a future measure to the ballot to rescind the tax, opponents say.
Rancho Palos Verdes City Manager Doug Willmore said City Council members voted to join the lawsuit because they feel the county is ignoring the needs of southern cities. Not only did Metro prioritize transportation projects in northern communities, but it also added more than $1 billion to $14 billion in planned transit construction.
"The big city is taking sales taxes from smaller cities. What's wrong with this picture," Willmore said. "It's kind of a head-scratcher. Good government demands that Metro be more accountable for its decisions. We recognize the value of large regional projects but that also means it has to be looked at regionally and done fairly."
Others disagree, such as Mary Leslie, president of the Los Angeles Business Council.
"We see Measure M as an imperative for the region," Leslie said on Wednesday. "It will fast-track vital rail and road projects necessary for a modern transportation network and make our region more economically competitive. In doing so, Measure M will enhance our attractiveness to employers looking to expand or relocate here, while enhancing the quality of life for all Angelenos."
The lawsuit seeks a court order that the ballot language be modified to clearly state how much taxpayer money will be generated by the measure, the semi-permanent nature of the sales tax increases and greater priority given for projects in the south portion of the county.
City News Service contributed to this report.