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October/November 2016

Ballot Box Traffic Jam

By Cecily O’Connor

The November ballot is significant for Bay Area transportation. Big measures from cities, counties, and agencies are seeking billions via sales taxes, bonds, and other revenue-generating measures to fill funding gaps. While the specifics vary, a common thread among 2016 transportation ballot measures is a priority to make investments that help the region be a sustainable, livable, and equitable place.

Transportation officials are hoping to appeal to voters and their pocketbooks in order to compensate for diminishing gas tax revenue and a lack of stable funding in general. In January, the California Transportation Commission cut $754 million from its five-year project budget, a move that’s put big upgrades on hold. Roads and highways throughout the region are congested and crumbling, while public transit requires maintenance and modernization.

As a result, “more and more, communities are trying to take charge of their infrastructure future and lay out a plan before voters,” said Keith Dunn, executive director of the Self-Help Counties Coalition, which represents 20 California counties with transportation sales taxes.

A proposed measure from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, for example, would raise up to $6.5 billion through a ½-cent, 30-year sales tax measure to help pay for extending BART to Silicon Valley, patching local roads, and improving bus service. Similarly, in Contra Costa County, transit officials are proposing a ½-cent, 30-year sales tax to pump $2.9 billion into transit upgrades, congestion relief, and local road repair.

At least a dozen cities, meanwhile, are pitching their own measures. Many want to increase or extend existing sales taxes with transportation among potential eligible expenditures, according to memos from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

San Francisco wants to repair its transportation network, make it more reliable, and alleviate crowding issues on public transit that stem, in part, from rapid growth in ridership. The city’s proposed sales-tax package would increase the sales tax by 0.75 percent and syphon the revenue into a fund for transportation improvement and homeless housing.

Suisun City is proposing a new, 1 percent general sales tax for which some proceeds would go toward street repair and crack fills. The commuter community is looking to make up for the fact that it has a lower total revenue per capita than the average California city, according to City Manager Suzanne Bragdon.

“That’s what we’re struggling with in terms of our revenue,” she said. “Our last four budgets have been status quo, and we’ve not been able to make headway after reducing staff and working on a shoestring.”

Suisun City is part of Solano County, which failed to pass a general ½-cent sales tax in June. Vallejo, Vacaville, and Fairfield are among Solano County cities with sales tax pitches this November.

“Every community has roads at risk and every community has a shortfall,” said Daryl Halls, executive director at the Solano Transportation Authority. “That’s why we need a state bill and local funding sources.”

Overall, the proliferation of local measures on the upcoming ballot underscores a trend to tap engaged voters during notable election years.

For example, in 2006 when former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for re-election, voters weighed Proposition 1B. It was a $20 billion transportation measure that was part of California’s largest general obligation bond package ever offered on a single ballot. In the Bay Area, the measure gained an average of 62.9 percent support among the nine counties, compared to 60.9 percent statewide.

“In past transit measures, the gut reaction is to vote ‘Yes’ with anything that might help with transportation, specifically with traffic,” said Terry Christensen, professor emeritus at San Jose State University (SJSU) and the host of “Valley Politics” on CreaTV.

However, there’s a limit on how much spending voters are willing to approve, especially when they face multiple funding requests. In certain jurisdictions, transportation measures will compete among themselves and with other local needs like education.

Oakland residents, for example, are being asked to step up on three separate fronts. They will decide for or against an AC Transit measure to extend an existing $96 parcel tax by 20 years. They also will consider a $600 million city infrastructure bond, more than half of which would spiff up local streets and roads. And they will weigh in on Measure RR, which is aimed at rebuilding the 44-year-old BART system.

Measure RR is seeking approval for a $3.5 billion general obligation bond that’s funded by a property tax increase among homeowners in San Francisco, Contra Costa, and Alameda counties. The measure would need to pass a two-thirds vote in the three counties, a big undertaking, even in a region with a history of endorsing transportation financing.

“What’s at stake is the well-being of our ability to get around in Oakland and the Bay Area,” said Liz Brisson, co-founder of Transport Oakland, an advocacy group. She claimed Measure RR is intended to make the system safer, more reliable, and offer relief from conditions that, in her experience as a BART rider, “are sardine-like, at best.”

BART bond opponents like David Kersten, president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy, said the proposal doesn’t offer long-term financial stability and leaves the door open to future fare increases. The measure, as written, contains loopholes for funneling bond revenue into labor costs, he said, citing recent news articles.

“I think BART is a great system with a lot of potential,” Kersten said, “but I also believe we need a viable long-term plan to fund BART.” He added that “if we don’t correct the issue of financial management, BART will not be sustainable in the long term.”

MTC proposed a long-term expenditure plan of its own this spring. It suggested a regional 5-cent gas tax that could generate $140 million annually to pay for road repairs. But concern about a crowded ballot was among several reasons MTC chose not to move forward. Polling showed the idea was within “striking distance of getting passed,” said Rebecca Long, MTC’s government relations manager. Given other big local measures, the agency “just didn’t feel like the timing was right,” she said.

Petaluma officials also scrapped a sales tax measure aimed at road repair, citing low polling data in support of the plan, according to July city council meeting minutes. The measure is on hold until 2017 or 2018, and community engagement remains a focus to make the case for improvement during a future election.

Even with some measures off the table, so-called ballot fatigue is a concern. This occurs when voters grow tired of reading the different choices on the ballot, and either ignore decisions or make them arbitrarily.

“On a ballot such as this with 17 statewide propositions, as well as local measures, you get in that fatigue factor,” said Melinda Jackson, an SJSU political science professor. “It’s quite burdensome to do homework on all the issues.”

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.

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