If you ask David Fleming about L.A.'s infamous traffic congestion, he'll tell you it is one of the most complained-about problems of doing business here. In fact, Fleming, who's chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, said when that organization last year surveyed its members, traffic was the No. 1 concern.

Heck, it's a big issue for just about every one of the 10 million of us who live in this county and who spend countless and needless hours inching our way along streets that seem more like moving parking lots.

So that's why he was flummoxed last week about what's been going on in Sacramento. State legislators are seriously toying with the idea of pinching off a funding source for L.A. County's Metropolitan Transit Authority, the agency that runs buses and commuter trains.

It looks like the MTA could lose about 16 percent of its budget not only now but in the future, and that upsets Fleming, who also is a director on MTA's board. (Believe it or not, the guy sits on 14 boards.)

The background: Democrats in Sacramento want to kill taxes that motorist pay on each gallon of gasoline and replace them with user fees. The user fees would be higher than the current gas taxes. So that would have the effect of raising taxes.

Why do it this way? Because the Legislature needs a two-thirds majority vote to approve new taxes, and Republicans won't sign on to higher taxes. But if the Democrats manage to kill the old taxes on gasoline and replace them with a different user fee, that doesn't count as a new tax and therefore doesn't require a vote. Cute, huh?

But there's one teensy problem. User fees must be spent to benefit those who paid the taxes, i.e., the users. That means the new taxes excuse me, the replacement fees must go to build and repair roads and bridges and the like. They cannot flow to agencies that, for example, operate rail lines and buses. So an MTA funding source will be choked off.

Now, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the plan a few weeks ago, but not for a reason that had anything to do with the MTA's problem. In fact, he seems comfortable with the idea of stopping funding for mass transit. The situation last week was fluid, but Fleming and the MTA seemed resigned to the likelihood that the plan will come back in some fashion and they will get hurt in the end.

"I can't say it'll be good news for us," said Roger Snoble, the outgoing chief executive of MTA.

This year, the MTA can get along by using money set aside for future projects, but the future? "It's a big hit," said Snoble. "There will be consequences."

If those consequences result in fewer buses and reduced schedules, well, you know the impact on traffic.

The irony, of course, is that a majority of Angelenos have demonstrated a willingness to do what it takes to help break up gridlock here. Just three months ago, voters approved Measure R, the half-cent sales tax increase that makes L.A. County tied for the honor of charging the highest sales tax in the state. Measure R money will go for traffic improvements.

"The big issue is that they're breaking faith with the voters," said Fleming of the state. "The voters here stepped up to the plate."

Yeah, and now Sacramento is about to throw a bean ball at the voters.

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at
ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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