Philbrick: New mega measure for transportation can succeed

Surrounded by cars with only a sea of brake lights in the distance, minutes ticking by as anxiety levels rise and feelings of frustration intensify – a situation Bay Area commuters know all too well. Congestion here is pervasive and worsening, and in 2017 the average Bay Area driver spent 79 hours stuck in traffic.

But it’s not just the wasted time that hurts; studies have linked being stuck on congested roads to a number of health problems, including heart disease, obesity, and decreases in general well-being. What can we collectively do about this? We can commit to shared rides, using public transportation, and using our legs to bike, pedal, or scoot, but what can be done on a macro level to more comprehensively address the gridlock that is choking us, literally and figuratively? The answer lies, in great part, with the development of a multimodal transportation system that seamlessly connects the region, allowing commuters to reclaim hours of their lives, increase their productivity, and improve their cognitive and emotional well-being.

To that end, recently we have seen voters across the country take a stand on road congestion, voting to tax themselves to help pave the way for a 21st Century transportation system. In fact, approximately 70% of nationwide transit ballot measures passed in 2016 and Santa Clara County was no exception with the passage of Measure B, a 30-year, half-cent sales tax expected to generate $6.3 billion to enhance transit, highways, expressways and active transportation. Similarly, voters in the Seattle area passed Sound Transit 3, a 54-billion plan to build out the light rail system throughout the region and Los Angeles residents approved Measure M, a 120-billion plan to expand transit and bike networks via a sales tax increase.

And then, in 2018, Bay Area residents once again voted to tax themselves by passing Regional Measure (RM) 3, a 4.45-billion toll increase to fund highway and transit upgrades. In fact, a recent Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) report shows that Bay Area residents have voted to approve the last five statewide transportation ballot measures, dating back to 2002. And now, Bay Area residents may get their chance to vote again, this time on a mega measure — Faster Bay Area, a $100-billion transportation plan being crafted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Bay Area Council, and SPUR.

Could this mega measure finally provide a comprehensive solution across the nine-county expanse? Despite the staggering cost of the endeavor, there are a number of strong indicators that it can garner enough public support to do just that.

A recently published Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) report on tax options to support transportation, the tenth instalment in an annual trend analysis, finds that voters nationwide are likely to support tax increases towards transportation. Importantly, the study found that 70% of survey respondents would “strongly” or “somewhat” support a federal gas tax increase dedicated to reducing congestion. The study also notes that in the past decade, support for transportation-oriented tax hikes has steadily increased.

These are good signs for Faster Bay Area, whose main funding source may be a sales tax increase, which is usually more popular than a fuel tax alternative as the amount levied tends to be smaller and the funds are guaranteed to be used for projects locally/regionally.

In addition to reducing traffic congestion, what other benefits would attract voter support? Interestingly, MTI researchers found that supermajority support for tax increases can be achieved if that increase is linked to an objective deliverable. For example, in addition to linking the investment to reducing congestion — research shows that a strong majority of respondents would also support the same tax increase if it were dedicated to reducing transportation-related local air pollution or mitigating the impact of transportation on global warming.

Overall, there’s clear evidence that Faster Bay Area can succeed. As noted, there are a number of transportation issues that voters will bring out the checkbook for. For the plan’s proponents, it’s a question of focusing on the right ones, and, crucially, following through on the lofty promises that come with a $100-billion bill to reduce congestion in an area partially defined by it.

Because, after all, where human beings are concerned, the difference between having and lacking mobility is no less than the difference between having and lacking opportunity.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her columns appear every first Thursday of the month.

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