SAN FRANCISCO - The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $40 billion sales tax measure has been caught in a traffic jam. It's unclear whether the 30-year, half-cent sales tax will make it to the November ballot.

The board of the MTA, known as Metro, approved the sales tax referendum last month. But state lawmakers have yet to increase the county's sales tax limit to allow the vote, and the county Board of Supervisors this week refused to put the measure on the ballot because some supervisors said their districts wouldn't get enough funding.

The measure would raise $30 billion to $40 billion to fund construction of new subways, light-rail lines, freeway interchanges, bus lanes, and local transportation projects in the nation's most populous - and most famously congested - county. Critics say Metro plans to spend too much of the money in the city of Los Angeles and not enough in the suburbs that pay most of the taxes.

Metro spokesman Rick Jagger said his agency will sue the county board to force it to put the measure on the ballot. He said Metro can hold the election on a separate ballot if it doesn't win in court.

"We're moving ahead," he said yesterday, adding that time is short. "The last date to get this to the county registrar is Friday, and the last date that we can either amend it or pull it off the ballot is the 13th."

Backers of the sales tax plan want the measure to go on the ballot alongside the presidential election, the Los Angeles Unified School District's $7 billion bond election, and other local, state, and federal measures. They think an expected record turnout will help them garner the necessary two-thirds majority to impose the new tax.

"There is simply no legitimate basis for failing to consolidate the November ballot," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a backer of the tax, in a letter to the county board Tuesday. "Either the taxpayers will be stuck with costly legal bills resulting from the MTA's litigation against the county on this matter, or the taxpayers will be on the hook for an additional $3 million required to run a confusing dual-ballot."

Some of the sales tax revenue is likely to be used to back bonds, but Metro has not yet revealed precise financing plans.

Action on the measure has also faced delays in the California General Assembly, where state lawmakers must approve an increase in the county's sales tax limit to allow the election.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was scheduled to consider the measure Monday, but delayed it until Thursday amid continued state budget negotiations and disagreements among Los Angeles County lawmakers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week proposed a temporary increase in the state's sales tax to close a $15.2 billion state budget deficit, raising questions about conflicts with Metro's proposal. He has not yet said whether he will sign the Metro plan if it passes the Legislature.

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