Sales Tax for Transit: Boon or Bust for Low-Income People?

LAThrives_Graphic3.pngAt a candidate forum for the Sheila Kuehl/Bobby Shriver race for LA County Supervisor last fall, someone in the audience expressed concern about relying on sales tax measures to expand LA County's public transit system because sales taxes are considered “regressive,” meaning lower-income people pay a higher proportion of their income on sales taxes than those with higher incomes. But I would argue that in fact low-income people in LA County are big winners with the half-cent Measure R sales tax for transportation for three reasons:

1) Metro lines connect low income neighborhoods to jobs, schools, stores, and many other important destinations.

2) A Metro pass is good for both bus and rail transit.

3) The state of California recognizes the regressive nature of the sales tax and has exempted the “necessities of life” — including rent, food, medical services and prescriptions, and transportation — from taxation.LAThrives_Graphic1.png

Three quarters of Metro riders who regularly commute to work by transit have household incomes of less than $25,000/year. These are core transit riders who are also spending most of their income on rent, transit and food — which are not subject to the sales tax in California. Moreover, the bus and rail system the sales tax helped to build connects the urban core neighborhoods where many of these transit commuters live — the highest number of low-income people live in South LA — to job centers in downtown, along Wilshire, at LAX, in North Hollywood, Pasadena, Long Beach and on the Westside:

  • The 25-mile-long Blue Line crosses South LA to connect the downtowns of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It has the 2nd highest ridership of any light rail line in the US, and most riders are low-income people of color.
  • The Red Line subway connects Union Station in downtown LA to Westlake/MacArthur Park, Koreatown and North Hollywood — all of which were low-income neighborhoods when the lines were planned and many still are.
  • The Green Line crosses South LA to connect Norwalk and Redondo Beach.
  • The Silver Line connects downtown LA to the Harbor Gateway neighborhood along the 110 Freeway to the south and travels east to El Monte.
  • The Gold Line serves the low-income communities of Chinatown, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights and Highland Park on its route between downtown LA and Pasadena and the Eastside Extension serves the low-income communities of Boyle Heights, East LA and Monterey Park.
  • The Orange Line busway connects the Red Line to North Hollywood and Warner Center on a dedicated right of way.
  • The Expo Line serves South LA and is the first rail connection to the jobs-rich Westside.

South LA is served by no less than three rail lines, with a fourth, the Crenshaw Line, under construction now. Plus there are Rapid Bus lines and numerous local bus lines that connecting people who live in jobs-poor communities to jobs-rich areas.


Moreover, Metro fares are lower than fares in most large cities, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Denver, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Santa Clara and Seattle, and keeping fares affordable is a must for both ridership and social justice reasons. Metro has been able to keep these fares low in part because of Measure R revenue: 20% is dedicated to bus operations and 5% for rail operations.

Lastly, Measure R will provide 16,000 full-time construction and transit operations jobs over 30 years — good jobs with benefits since all Measure R construction is done by union members under a formal project labor agreement. And because of Metro’s “Construction Careers Policy,” 10% of the work on Measure R projects is being done by people who have at least two barriers to employment: They may not have graduated from high school, they're an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran, they're a single parent, or homeless, they have a criminal record, are chronically unemployed, receive welfare, are emancipated from foster care, or are an apprentice needing more hours to move to journey level.

For all of these reasons, transit expansion is bringing opportunity to low-income communities, which is why 70-80% of voters in these communities backed Measure R!


  • Beth Steckler
    commented 2015-03-25 14:30:52 -0700
    I know what you mean about construction and temporary stops. Because of street work in downtown LA my bus stop was four blocks away, which was ok for me because I love to walk, but not for the older woman with a walker who was catching that bus for the first time. Construction is hard, but we need to get it right, not just for the riders but also for the businesses and neighbors. And yes, we need better service which is why money is set aside for bus and rail operations in Measure R. Although Measure J didn’t pass, 66.1% voted for it countywide and an even higher majority in South LA— 75% of voters in the 8th, 9th & 10th LA City Council Districts and the unincorporated areas voting yes.
  • Yvonne Ellett
    commented 2015-03-21 19:32:10 -0700
    The points to your argument are sound, however, SouthLA has some of the worst transit schedules and equipment in the Region. Let’s not pretend who will benefit from the Crenshaw/LAX light rail. With only 2 stations between Vernon and Florence, the line is definitely not being built for area residents’ commutes to/from work in more ‘job-rich’ areas of Los Angeles; instead it is being built to whisk travelers to/from LAX. In addition, the current Metro Construction closures on Crenshaw reroutes bus service without clear temporary stops. Voters may have approved Measure R, but they did not approve Measure J. Low income voters not only want the service they have been paying for at Retail, but that they also pay when boarding.

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