Sunday, April 12, 2020

Demystifying the City of LA’s Transportation Budget: Budget Advocacy in the Wake of COVID-19

Guest Blog Post by: Katherine Stiegemeyer

The current COVID-19 crisis has laid bare many of the faults in our economic structure that low-income households have long known intimately. These faults are inextricably linked to what happens at our state and federal levels. But in Los Angeles they have resulted in a scramble to shelter some of the City and County’s unhoused populations in empty hotel rooms and rec centers, while renters continue to face an uncertain future and the possibility of themselves falling into homelessness in the face of lost income and no rent forgiveness. Lacking any meaningful safety net, Angelenos everywhere are facing decisions no one should have to make, as the Los Angeles Tenants Union’s “Food Not Rent ” campaign is demonstrating.


As the economic impacts of COVID-19 begin to be fully realized in the coming months, the way in which the City of LA responds to this crisis will have wide ranging effects for years to come. It is beyond a doubt that the City will see its revenues shrink, and likely shrink dramatically, as its funding is highly dependent on rigorous economic activity. Funding sources such as the Transient Occupancy Tax — which is a 14% tax on hotel, motel, and other short-term rental rooms and made up 3% of the City’s total revenue in the 2019-2020 fiscal year — will see dramatic reductions, as the coronavirus has already forced these businesses to close and will likely dampen travel for a long time to come. In LA, where so much of our transportation network is funded through voter-approved sales tax measures such as Measure M, Measure R, Proposition A, and Proposition C, as well as state level gas taxes, the coming recession will have a potentially crippling impact on our City’s ability to maintain this network. 


Organizations across LA are working hard to organize around issues crucial to the survival of our City’s most vulnerable through the thick of this public health emergency. Many of these organizations are coalescing power through formation of the Healthy LA Coalition. But it will also be of critical importance moving forward that advocates involve themselves in the City’s budgeting process. We have only to look to the previous financial recession of 2008 to know that the decisions made regarding how to balance the budget in the face of this crisis and ensuing recession will have deep impacts for equity.


In the wake of the last recession in 2008, the City of LA responded with significant cuts to staffing. And with cuts to staffing necessarily comes cuts to city services. One of the services that the City ended up identifying for cuts was tree trimming. This decision had ripple effects that disproportionately affected our most vulnerable travelers: the low-income mobility-disabled. The City’s sidewalk infrastructure had been falling into disrepair for decades due to a lack of dedicated funding as, frequently, unmaintained tree roots caused sidewalks to crack and buckle. This can make sidewalks impassable for someone using a wheelchair or crutches, pushing a stroller, or who otherwise requires a flat and unobstructed path in order to move safely. These cuts to tree trimming saw the problem escalate as, increasingly, no one was there to make fixes. This culminated in the City being sued in 2010 by disability rights advocates over the inadequate state of the City’s pedestrian infrastructure. After settling the case in 2015, the City is now obligated to pay between $31 million and $63 million every year for a 30-year period in order to fix its pedestrian infrastructure to minimum ADA standards.


Understanding the City of LA’s Transportation Budgeting Process for Advocates

Over the last several months, I have been working on a research project with Investing in Place that has sought to better understand the City of LA’s transportation budgeting process and how advocates might best intervene within this process. This blog post is the first in a series of three in which I will discuss this project and my findings.


Throughout the course of the interviews that I have conducted for my research, LA City officials knowledgeable on the budget have underscored that pedestrian and cyclist safety projects from the City’s Vision Zero program have been suffering not from a funding problem per se, but rather from a staffing problem. Some emphasized how the City struggles to compete with the private sector in terms of salaries for positions such as transportation engineers, and so many such positions within the City that would help implement these critical projects remain vacant. We know what the stakes are for mobility equity — and for economic justice more broadly — when the City chooses to further cut such crucial roles.


Now more than ever this work has become critical as advocates will find it imperative that they can steer the conversation on how our budget should respond to our current situation. While it is almost certain that there will be some degree of cuts to City services, advocates can push the City towards creative and alternative ways of balancing the budget. And for those budget cuts that will ultimately be necessary, advocates should ensure that they are implemented with equity concerns front of mind and with the foundational understanding that we must be moving towards a more just restructuring of our local economy.


In my next two blog posts to follow, I will be sharing more of the findings of my research. I will also be sharing the educational tools that I am creating with Investing in Place to help increase knowledge of the City of LA’s budget, transportation funding’s role in the budget process, and potential strategies for you and other community advocates to get involved. I look forward to connecting with you about this work as we come together to start building a more just Los Angeles. You can reach me at


References & Further Reading:


Bus Shelter Blitz: A model for improving transit in communities most affected by climate change

by Jessica Meaney

COVID-19 and Metro - More questions than answers

by Jessica Meaney