DOWNTOWN, LA The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was buzzing with energy, not in anticipation of a religious service, but for what some would consider a divine discussion on how to financially tackle the area’s transportation shortfall.

More than 350 people packed inside the cathedral, representing a rarely-seen mix of leaders from the environmental, business and labor communities, all united in their belief that there needed to be a solution to the long-standing traffic congestion debacle, bringing together some of the most influential political forces in Los Angeles County.

Sitting in the audience at that fateful January 2008 meeting in which Measure R would be born were the faces of Santa Monica leaders and activists who played key roles in the formation and eventual success of the half-cent sales tax.

“There were a lot of Santa Monica fingerprints all over this,” said Denny Zane, a former Santa Monica mayor and public transportation advocate who was instrumental in Measure R’s passage.

Measure R passed in last month’s presidential election with nearly 68 percent of the vote, requiring two-thirds approval. The countywide proposition is expected to raise $40 billion over the next 30 years by raising the sales tax to 8.75 percent, funding rail improvement projects and street and highway repair.

While congestion is a county issue, there was much mobilization locally to find a reliable funding source to pay for public transportation initiatives designed to take cars off the road.

It started approximately two years ago when Zane, a campaign consultant, approached Santa Monica resident Terry O’Day about involving the environmental community in transportation issues, feeling the segment was noticeably absent in the past. O’Day, who is chair of the Santa Monica Planning Commission, serves as the executive director of Environment Now and ran for a seat on the City Council in 2006.

“It was not always clear that you would get an environmental outcome by moving to transit,” O’Day said. “There are some forms of transit that [are] dirtier than today’s clean cars.”

They began focusing their attention on extending the subway down Wilshire Boulevard into Santa Monica, laying the groundwork for the Subway to the Sea Coalition, which they later co-founded. The two men spent the next year recruiting business, environmental and labor groups to the cause, believing the trifecta’s support would prove essential to the success of whatever proposal would be brought forward.

The coalition received financial backing from local real estate developer Craig Jones, whose company, JSM Construction, has built numerous mixed-use developments al in Downtown Santa Monica, most of which are called “Santa Monica Collection.”

Allen Freeman, who worked as managing director for JSM Construction and was living in Santa Monica at the time, said the company took interest in furthering the coalition because of its focus on urban projects that are close to transit, providing its residents with alternatives to the automobile.

“JSM was always encouraged by good public policy and thought encouraging … public transit was a smart bet,” Freeman, who no longer works for the company, said. Jones could not be reached for comment.

money talks

While the Subway to the Sea was gaining steam, its backers soon realized there was a lack of public funding available to move the project passed the Fairfax District.

They decided to shift their attention to addressing funding issues within the entire Metropolitan Transportation Authority, calling together a gathering of 35 business, environmental and labor organizations at the Bradbury Building in October 2007 to come up with solutions. Encouraged by the turnout, the transit advocates decided to convene an even larger meeting, this time at the Los Angeles Cathedral, where approximately 20 different funding options, from parcel taxes to congestion pricing, would be deliberated.

“That got all of the collaborators and potential actors together in a room to evaluate potential financing options for transit,” said Diane Forte, a Santa Monica resident who organized the fundraising for the conference. “There was a lot of interest in transit and interest in the sales tax measure.”

<!– No LPSH –>Forte is also a member of the Subway to the Sea Coalition.

The sales tax proposal moved on to the MTA Board of Directors where it received key support from then-chair Pam O’Connor, who is also a Santa Monica City Councilmember, and Richard Katz, who served as the chair of the state Assembly Transportation Committee and was once head of the Santa Monica Democratic Club. He currently lives in the San Fernando Valley.

O’Connor said it became clear that there needed to be a funding source as the list of projects on the MTA Long-Range Transportation Plan continued to get longer with each look.

“I took a strong position to push it forward because I know other folks on the board were going to be more skeptical, some because they have a lot more to lose,” O’Connor said. “If I was wrong about Measure R, it would not impact my future political career.

“I figured early on that it needed someone … to be a champion, to be a little out there in the sense of going for it and pushing it along.”

One of the projects that gained a lot of buzz as the sales tax was placed on the ballot was the Exposition Light Rail expansion from phase one — which covers Downtown Los Angeles to Culver City — to phase two — which brings the train to its proposed terminal in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica resident Darrell Clarke began rallying for the sales tax measure early on, wearing both hats as the co-chair of Friends 4 Expo Transit and as the co-chair of the transportation committee for the Angeles Chapter Sierra Club.

For Expo, the passage of Measure R would mean that the project would no longer have to seek federal funding, which usually means delays and a more complicated process.

“It can move forward more rapidly without having to jump through hoops,” Clarke said.

Though the sales tax proposal was gaining momentum, it still required a two-thirds vote to pass.

A number of obstacles began popping up in the months leading to the election, including a battle in Sacramento that jeopardized AB 2321 — legislation that would legitimize the measure by raising the tax cap — when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threaten to veto any bill that came to his desk before the budget passed.

A combination that also included the recession and a number of state tax measures on the same ballot elevated fears that a sales tax increase would not be possible.

The measure passed in nearly every community, including in Santa Monica where it received more than 76 percent of the vote.

“Measure R had everything stacked up against it in a way but it still prevailed … because Angelinos are just fed up with congestion and high gas prices and knew there was only one way out,” Zane said.

<!– No LPSH –>melodyh@smdp.com