A trio of Bay Area planning and business leaders are ramping up efforts to promote a years-long initiative to get a $100 billion tax measure for transit investment on the ballot in Nov. 2020, as opponents of the measure start to push back.
The measure, called FASTER Bay Area, is backed by The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Bay Area Council and nonprofit urban planning thinktank SPUR, and would increase sales taxes in the nine county Bay Area by 1 percent to raise $100 billion over 40 years for transportation projects.
Before the measure can appear on ballots across the region, the state legislators in both the Senate and Assembly would have to agree in a two-thirds vote to allow residents to cast their own vote. Sen. Jim Beall, (D-San Jose) has agreed to author the legislation that state leaders will vote on next month.
“We’re going to know by Jan. 31 whether or not this is dead after three years of work, or if it has legs,” Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said Tuesday morning during a presentation at the Silicon Valley Capital Club hosted by San Jose-based law firm Hoge Fenton.
If approved by state leaders, residents across the nine counties would also need to approve the ballot measure by a two-thirds majority for it to go into effect.
Tax dollars from the measure would fund a slew of transit and transportation projects to better coordinate connections between the region’s various independent transit systems and increase how often buses and trains run, aiming for a maximum 12-minute wait time in most places. The initiative proposes creating new transit lines and swings the idea of a new nine-county rapid bus network running in new express lanes across the region.
“We have been pushing for this for a long time because all these regional systems do not function together,” said Teresa Alvarado, San Jose director for SPUR, in an interview Tuesday. “If we’re going to convert our car culture into transit riders, it has to compete on cost, on time, on safety, on convenience, on all these factors and right now it’s not.”
Gladwyn D’Souza, a spokesperson for No Mega Tax, a group that opposes the ballot measure, agrees that the current system isn’t working. But he and the group, made up of what he describes as environmentalists, good governance advocates and anti-tax people, says the responsibility to fix the transportation issues should fall more prominently on large employers’ shoulders.
“The businesses that are putting these projects together are the cause of the problem,” D’Souza said. “They are the ones attracting the jobs in this area, driving the price of housing up so people have to move to Tracy and commute here. Then they are trying to put together this grab bag of projects so the public takes on the problem of trying to fix this mess.”
Business leaders Tuesday morning sat in a window-lined room on the top floor of 50 West San Fernando to hear Guardino pitch the positives of the initiative, which he said would not only require investment from individual taxpayers, but employers as well.
Already, companies with 100 or more employees must create what’s known as a transportation demand management program to help reduce the traffic impact of their employees commuting to work. The programs may include shuttles or free transit passes, or the company can pay a fee to offset traffic improvements in the area and are generally reviewed as part of a city’s approval process for new office and commercial buildings.
Guardino said backers of the measure want to expand the TDM requirements to generate billions from area employers when the ballot language is drafted. “We are seriously considering how do we require that in this measure,” he said.
Attendees at Guardino’s presentation asked about accountability, and he said the initiative will have accountability because the projects would be delivered within a decade with full funding already locked in place. Advocates of the measure are also “insisting that it include not only the measures that are going to streamline the process, but also that these (transit) systems have to be coordinated,” he added.
Indeed, a lack of coordination is another area that gives D’Souza pause. That’s a major structural change that would need to happen before members of the No Mega Tax group would consider supporting additional resident taxes for transit, he said. Today the Metropolitan Transportation Commission helps oversee transit in the nine county Bay Area, but D’Souza says the governance hasn’t been effective and that billions of dollars have already been wasted.
“In order for these things to happen, you need some change to occur at MTC,” he said. “MTC is made up of about 40 major transit organizations and none of them agree with each other.”
Many of the details of the ambitious initiative are still being hammered out.
But the would-be measure already comes with lofty promises and projections, including that, if implemented, the projects completed would eventually attract hundreds of thousands of more riders onto transit. That would take a significant bite out of the approximately 73 minutes a day Bay Area commuters on average are stuck in traffic, according to the leadership group.
Some San Francisco leaders have raised red flags about the measure, including supervisors Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin, who said in October they were concerned about the governance of Caltrain, an integral train line that connects San Francisco and the South Bay, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Others have criticized the measure for the greater impact it could have on low-income residents. The groups backing the measure say that could be addressed through rebates and discounted transit rides that would increase equity, however.
Now, it’s up to state leaders to decide if the additional tax and transit funding would be good for the Bay Area.
If the initiative indeed “has legs,” that carry it to the Nov. 2020 ballot, more specifics about how the money would be used, safeguards for low-income residents and students and other systematic changes will be nailed down by the time voters show up at the polls, Guardino said.
“What’s interesting about California law is that you only get 75 words on your ballot question,” he said. “But you can have pages of legally binding requirements that support the ballot question and that’s what we’ll have.”