MoveLA’s Denny Zane on “The Future of Transportation in Los Angeles”

Denny Zane, executive director of MoveLA, speaks at the Los Angeles Central Library last Sunday

MoveLA, headed by Executive Director Denny Zane, is a coalition of environmental, labor and business groups that has, over the last few years, created and championed several big local ballot measures to fund major transit and homeless initiatives in Los Angeles.  (Measure R, passed in November, 2008, created a half-cent sales tax to fund a number of transit projects; Measure M, passed in November, 2016, added another half-cent sales tax for even longer-term transit project funding; and Measure H, passed in November, 2017, mandated $355 million in annual funding for programs to fight homelessness.) On Sunday, January 21, Zane gave a talk at the Los Angeles Central Library, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, on “The Future of Transportation in Los Angeles.” The talk outlined Zane’s history with ballot measures to address big challenges, the issues in transportation that Zane thinks need to be addressed next, and his thoughts about future ballot measures and public policies.

Denny Zane, now the executive director of MoveLA, didn’t come by his current seat at the pinnacle of ballot-measure activism through precise intent.  Instead, he said in his talk at the Los Angeles Public Library last week, his journey started one day when he was stuck in rush hour-traffic and listening to a radio report about how there had been no new funding approved for new transportation projects in Los Angeles in the last 30 years.  It was a light-bulb moment for him.  Soon afterward, Zane invited representatives of 35 different environmental, labor and business organizations (many of whom had never before sat down together for discussions of any sort), to a meeting to talk about transportation in Los Angeles.  And, to his surprise, representatives from 34 of the organizations actually showed up.

Discussions continued after that first meeting, and the new coalition eventually morphed into MoveLA, the non-profit Zane now heads, and which has since realized major successes in convincing voters to support large funding initiatives for future-oriented transportation and housing initiatives in Los Angeles.  Or, as the MoveLA website describes its own work, the coalition seems to have “built a successful civic engagement model resulting in smart, transformative solutions to complex problems in LA County.”

In his talk last Sunday, Zane said one of the biggest lessons he’s learned in the last 10 years or so is that to succeed in the ballot measure arena, “fortune favors the bold”…and that voters love big ideas.  So instead of measures concentrating on funding for just one project, like a single subway line, Zane said MoveLA has learned to formulate and promote measures with a big, broad, county-wide vision, even if the total price tag will be much higher than a single-project initiative.  “In a democracy,” he said, “the bold succeeds.”

Zane also said on Sunday that, looking toward the future, transit – particularly “clean” transit – is still going to be of primary importance to Los Angeles.  Current transit systems, he said are still “the single biggest cause of pollution and climate change,” which means they are definitely a key area for future policy efforts.  For example, Zane says, he thinks the Metrolink regional passenger rail system presents a particularly great prospect to be revamped into “a congestion and pollution buster.”

But Zane is thinking big again, and Metrolink improvements would be just one part of a larger new ballot measure he’s exploring. This one would be crafted to support a 2016 plan proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which seeks to improve air quality by improving the way we move people and goods.  The plan would incentivize the use of zero emissions vehicles, modernize the way we move goods (using both new technologies and implementing changes such as “clean truck only” lanes on major transportation corridors), and electrify and enhance Metrolink systems.  The plan would, he said, create jobs, significantly reduce freeway congestion, and result in significant public health benefits from improved air quality, especially along transit corridors. And if Los Angeles were successful in those efforts, he said, we would also be creating “a model program for the world.”

Zane said the next step toward getting such a measure on the ballot is to create a “straw man” sample proposal, and circulate it for feedback and funding suggestions.  The ultimate goal would be a ballot measure that could raise about $1.2 billion a year to fund the new clean transportation efforts, or about $60 billion over 30 years.

Another transit-oriented goal Zane has his eye on is increasing bus ridership.  (Metro ridership has decreased by 19% since 2013, according to recent reports.)  Zane says Metro bus ridership reached its high point in 1985, after the agency reduced fares for the 1984 Olympics, and then started to decrease when fares were gradually increased in later years, a trend that has continued with each subsequent increase.  Zane said decreasing fares again would help…but wouldn’t solve the whole problem.  In addition to fare reductions, he said on Sunday, Metro should also be targeting several key groups of riders – college students (to help build bus-riding habits when people are young), the disabled (10% of L.A.’s total population), and seniors, whose numbers are increasing steadily in the city as Baby Boomers age (currently about 20% of Angelenos are over 65).

A trial program to get bus passes into the hands of college students in Santa Monica, Zane said, has resulted in 35% of the students riding the bus, a much higher percentage than in other areas.  To improve things even further, he suggests giving every student at Santa Monica College a bus pass with their school registration packet.  In fact, Zane said, other schools are considering this, too — Los Angeles Trade Tech College will be testing such a program soon.

For seniors, Zane suggests a similar effort…with wider distribution of bus passes, combined with subsidies for van-based and Uber-style ride-sharing services.

Another big transportation-oriented idea Zane currently favors is the creation of “Grand Boulevards,” which would combine transportation and streetscape improvements with a major investment in low and middle income housing.   Currently, Zane said on Sunday, many of our busiest streets are almost completely non-residential, and thus present opportunities for both better transportation systems and more housing for the people who need it most, and who are most likely to use public transit.  This could be done, Zane said by combining Transit Oriented Development schemes with Tax Increment Financing (earmarking additional taxes from reassessed parcels as they increase in value).  The TOD-TIF plan, Zane said, would also include  urban greening to make these districts more livable, decoupled or detached parking, improved pedestrian and bike access to transit, and better access for seniors and the disabled. And it could also be accomplished, he said, without the loss of current affordable housing units, or the displacement of those who currently do live in more affordable housing.

Zane’s vision for “Grand Boulevards,” transit and street improvements, along with transit-oriented development projects funded by tax-increment financing to stimulate construction of low and middle income housing.

Would such a plan find favor with local voters?  Zane said he thinks so, and that voters will invest if given a bold plan that will work.  “There is a path forward.”

The Q&A session following the main portion of Zane’s talk on Sunday also raised some interesting points.  For example, in response to a question about how new technologies might fit into the future of local transportation, Zane said he believes policy is ultimately more important than any specific technology.  Also, what is important is how new technologies are used — to really help, Zane said, they’ll need to benefit people across the income spectrum (unlike Uber and Lyft at the moment, which tend to serve a higher-income bracket than most public transit riders).  A successful transportation system, he said, must work for lower income riders, too.

Zane also stressed the need for future transit-oriented dvelopment projects to truly aim for housing equity, and not just the enrichment of developers who want to build high-end housing.  Zane said he believes that the TOD-TIF model can accomplish this, by subsidizing land and construction costs for developers, and will be able to house the people most likely to use improved transit near those transit locations.

One audience member asked what Zane thinks about SB827, a bill now making its way through the state legislature, which would override most local zoning laws and specify minimum (instead of maximum) heights and densities for any new housing with a half mile of major transit routes (which would, by definition, include most of urban Los Angeles).  Zane said that while he welcomes the discussion the bill is generating, he’s not a fan of the bill itself…because he can’t imagine that voters and municipal governments will be willing to essentially turn over local zoning to the state, as this bill would effectively do.  Going back to his original premise that successful legislation should think big but also be appealing to voters, he said he doesn’t think SB827 would meet that threshhold.

Finally, in response to a comment about the overwhelming need for more affordable housing in the city, Zane agreed that the need is there, but said he doesn’t agree that solving the problem is a simple matter of supply and demand, as many have argued.  Instead, he said, housing is a much more complex subject, and “housing is not widgets – you can’t just ramp production up and down” to solve the current problems.  He also said that while many argue that building more high-end housing, as favored by developers and others, will help solve the housing problem, he disagrees, because it will take “two or three generations” before that explosion of high-end housing trickles down to create lower rents in older buildings.  This is why, he said, he prefers the TOD-TIF Grand Boulevards idea, which he believes can keep both land and development costs down, so developers can still profit from building new affordable and middle income housing.

Zane acknowledged that many people might think his ideas may be kind of far out at this point but, he said, people originally laughed when the Third Street Promenade was proposed for downtown Santa Monica…and it proved to be hugely successful.  “It’s like a prairie fire,” he said.  “It just has to grow.”

For more information, detailed slides from Zane’s presentation last week are available at 
https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/movela/pages/7161/attachments/original/1516601978/FortuneFavorsTheBold_V3.pdf?1516601978

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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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