Measure R: 2008 Content

It must first be said that the very possibility of as well as the victory for Measure R in 2008 began with and depended heavily on the leadership of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  His election inspired and made credible the Measure R effort in the first place;  his influence in Congress, where barriers to the development of the “subway to the sea” were resolved, and his history of leadership in the state legislature and at the Metro Board, enabled the forging of the compromises and the convening of strong majorities needed for success;  his capacity for inspiration as the public voice of a transit transformation envisioned in Measure R; and his efforts to raise the $6+ million needed for a successful campaign were the foundations of victory for a transformative measure like Measure R.  The coalition that was built was cognizant that the Mayor of Los Angeles supported the effort.

Still, it was Denny Zane, Move LA’s founder, who successfully pulled together the coalition of environmental, labor, and business leaders to partner with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to launch and build the necessary support for what would become Measure R on the November 2008 ballot. LA Metro’s most recent Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) had been approved in 2001 and included a list of rail, bus, highway, and other transportation improvements and expansions, including the Regional Connector, which had been envisioned as early as 1984. However, none of these projects had funding – that is, not until LA County voters approved Measure R.


The Move LA campaign for Measure R started in 2007 when Zane, a former Mayor of Santa Monica and an environmental and affordable housing advocate, was stuck in impossible traffic on Olympic Blvd.  He lamented what looked to be a worsening future for the region, but then was reminded that Antonio Villaraigosa, the recently elected Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, had major transit ambitions.  Zane had worked with Villaraigosa when he was Speaker of the California State Assembly on the Carl Moyer Program, a clean air program to facilitate the development of clean alternatives to diesel-powered trucks.  Zane knew the new mayor was a devoted yet pragmatic environmentalist with an aspirational agenda for the region’s transit system – especially for the “Subway to the Sea” along Wilshire Blvd.  What Antonio would need to realize this vision would be very significant new funding, the scale and reliability of funding that only a ballot measure could provide. Making a successful ballot measure campaign possible would require a broad-based coalition. Organizing such a coalition became Zane’s mission.

report issued by the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy at Northeastern University identified  “a coalition of environmental, business and labor groups called “Move LA” whose enthusiasm got the ball rolling for the ballot measure”  that would come to be called Measure R. 

In the fall of 2007, Denny Zane convened 34 business entities and organizations in the office of Dan Rosenfeld, Chair of the LA Chamber Transportation Committee.  These groups represented the diverse leadership of the Los Angeles business community.  Zane presented to them the idea of a ballot measure campaign to raise very significant funding to implement Metro’s LRTP.  All present expressed their support for the idea.

Zane approached the President of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Maria Elena Durazo, with whom he had worked while she was the president of Unite HERE Local 11.  Denny convinced Maria Elena that to address our county’s transportation needs, LA County voters would need to approve significant new funding to invest in the county transit system.  Maria Elena convened the necessary committees at the LA County Fed and set it up for Zane to make a series of presentations and gain support from her membership.  Led by Sergio Rascon, Business Manager of Laborers Local 300, the LA-OC Building Trades Council would soon also join the growing coalition.

These were the first big steps toward the development of a Measure R coalition. 

But the transformational moment was a major conference in January 2008 entitled “It’s Time to Move LA” at the Los Angeles Cathedral Conference Center.  The program was organized to make a cogent case for a ballot measure:  LA Metro should ask LA County voters to approve a half-cent sales tax measure to fund major transit investments, including the “Subway to the Sea” along Wilshire Blvd.  The effort worked.  People left the conference largely convinced.  California State Assemblymember Mike Feuer left the meeting and initiated the authorizing legislation in Sacramento necessary for Metro to sponsor a local sales tax measure.  The new Metro Chair Pam O’Connor, Mayor of Santa Monica and a longtime colleague of Zane’s there, prepared a motion to get the process started at the next Metro Board meeting. 

But LA Supervisor and Metro Board member Zev Yaroslavsky and Metro Board member Richard Katz were still skeptical, doubting whether voters would vote to tax themselves. 

Zane knew he had to convince Yaroslavsky and Katz (who was actually a willing partner in the effort to convince Zev).  He knew he needed to find funding for polling on the potential measure to show voter support – and he found it from an unexpected source:  the new President of Santa Monica College, Dr. Chui Tsang, agreed to provide $25K to fund the poll.  Dr Tsang and the college were hoping the measure would complete funding to extend the Exposition Light Rail to Santa Monica with a stop within walking distance to SMC. (A good bet as it turned out.)

When this first polling was complete, it determined that 69% of LA County voters said they would vote Yes on a 1/2 cent sales tax to invest in major transit and other improvements in LA County.  Great, but still just a little above the 2/3 voter approval that would be needed. After Zane shared the Move LA polling results, Metro itself and Mayor Villaraigosa did their own polling, each of which found support over 70% Yes.  The Measure R ball was now rolling!

The Dukakis Report said “it is fair to say that without Zane there would not have been a Measure R campaign. Zane’s ability to bring people together and his willingness to take a risk kick-started this effort and likely carried it through. Zane’s success in bringing together representatives from the environmental, labor, and business communities, who had never worked together before and literally had never visited each others’ offices, and getting them to agree to collaborate, sent a powerful signal to decision-makers. As a result, elected officials, including the Mayor and Metro board members, realized that tackling the transportation revenue problem in 2008 had legs, which brought to the table not only their support but also their leadership.”

Move LA was born out of the need to get a two-thirds majority to pass a tax measure in California —an incredibly high threshold.  This necessitated a broad coalition to appeal to voters throughout the entire county. As Denny recounted for this story written by David Dayen in the American Prospect, he had to “scrounge a $15,000 grant for meeting space and $25,000 for a poll”  to show decision makers what was possible, and the rest was history:

 “Move LA's plan proved compelling enough to persuade the Metro board to devise Measure R (for “relief”), which would go before voters on the November 2008 ballot. Metro's board settled on a 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase, raising $30 billion to $40 billion for 12 specific rail, subway, and road projects. Zane initially balked at the regressive tax choice, but studies showed that businesses and tourists paid more than half of all sales taxes because of California's many exemptions for necessities.”

Measure R, which provided the major funding for the Regional Connector, which opened this past June 16, and the Exposition Light Rail Line and is providing the major funding for the Wilshire Subway and several other light rail and bus rapid transit lines, passed with 67.9% of the vote in November 2008.

It was the promise of a bold vision—one that would reduce traffic by connecting Los Angeles in one seamless system with a Long Beach to Pasadena, or East L.A. to Santa Monica trip without a transfer, provide a direct connection to the airport and a subway from DTLA to Westwood—that won over community leaders, elected officials, and voters.