SAN FRANCISCO - The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week advanced a sales tax ballot measure that would raise as much as $40 billion to expand highways and public transportation in the nation's most notoriously congested region.

The authority - which is known as Metro - asked the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to put a half-cent sales tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. The California Legislature would also have to raise the county's sales tax cap to 8.75% from 8.25%.

"Today's vote gets us closer to the opportunity to create a greater Los Angeles no longer chained to its cars and dependent on foreign oil," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said after the vote Thursday afternoon. He helped push the measure, which passed with a 9-2 majority, as a Metro board member.

The half-cent sales tax would generate as much as $30 billion to $40 billion over its 30-year life and could be pledged to support bonds. Metro spokesman Rick Jagger said it's too early to say which projects would be bond financed or which might be paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Those calculations would depend in part on the amount of federal and state matching funds each project could attract, actual sales tax collections, and the ordering of projects.

The agency's board approved a project list that could be supported by the measure, including a $4.2 billion "Subway to the Sea," which would link downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Other rail projects include the expansion of Metro Green Line light rail to Los Angeles International Airport and Redondo Beach in the South Bay, and extension of the Gold Line light rail from Pasadena through the San Gabriel Valley.

The sales tax would raise billions - 15% of collections - for local jurisdictions to spend on transportation projects and for bus service - 20% of collections. It would also provide funding for road construction, such as the widening of Interstate 5 to Orange County and adding sound walls for freeways across the region.

The county board is expected to pass the bill without problem. Four of five county board members voted for the measure as members of the Metro board. Los Angeles County needs state authority to raise the tax and to use it to back bonds. The county already levies two half-cent sales taxes, passed in 1980 and 1990.

State Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, was one of the sponsors of the enabling legislation and said the bill is expected to come to a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug. 4. It has already passed the Assembly and policy committees in the Senate. He said legislative approval looks "exceptionally likely" at this point.

Feuer said convincing the electorate, which must approve of the measure by a two-thirds majority, would be tougher. But with gas prices at record highs and record turnout expected for the presidential election, he said this year looks like the transit tax's best chance of passage.

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