Can voters countywide be convinced to support yet another sales tax? Supporters of Measure W, a proposed 30-year, countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation that requires a two-thirds majority to pass, hope the answer is "Yes."
Measure W, if passed, would generate about $80 million a year – and $2.4 billion over 30 years – for the San Mateo County Transit District. Revenue would be split based on set percentages, going toward a range of transportation-related projects: 22.5 percent would go to highway congestion projects; 12.5 percent to local road congestion and safety projects, with 2.5 percent of that dedicated to grade-separation projects (the pricey projects that put train tracks above or below the roadway); 5 percent to bike and pedestrian improvements; 10 percent to "regional transit connection" projects; and 50 percent to county public transit agencies – specifically, SamTrans and Caltrain.
The tax would apply to all sales transactions of "tangible goods" that take place in the county, not including groceries or services.
A 15-member independent oversight committee would be appointed to oversee the sales tax spending, with terms lasting no longer than three years.
Supporters of the measure say the funding is needed to continue critical bus and paratransit services in the county, and to adapt SamTrans' capabilities to do more than provide basic bus services. Opponents – from multiple points on the political spectrum – disagree with the tax or don't support where the funding will go as outlined in a proposed spending plan designed to be flexible enough to cover 30 years.
Much of the debate around the measure boils down to questions about what really works when it comes to unclogging the county's transportation networks.
Measure W proposes to put the tax revenue toward a "Congestion Relief Plan," broken down into transportation project types, each intended to receive a designated percentage of the revenue, and each with a list of sample projects that could be funded over the duration of the tax. Determining those percentages and project types were the result of the "Get Us Moving" outreach campaign, headed by SamTrans and the county Board of Supervisors; the effort involved public surveys, town hall meetings and advisory group meetings.
Some of the sample projects for road improvements (22.5 percent of the measure) include building grade separations on Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park; installing express lanes on Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto; reconfiguring Interstate 280 and Alpine Road in unincorporated San Mateo County; making highway interchange improvements along U.S. 101 at Woodside Road and University Avenue; and creating a countywide transportation demand management program to promote alternatives to solo driving.
Ten percent of the funding would go to cities for projects like paving streets, fixing potholes, funding shuttles, sponsoring carpools, promoting biking and pedestrian programs, coordinating signals, and pursuing grade separations for Caltrain. Two-and-a-half percent would be strictly for grade separations. Funding for each city would be determined based on its population and road mileage. About 1.88 percent of the funding in this category would go to Atherton, 3.2 percent to East Palo Alto, 4.89 percent to Menlo Park, 1.49 percent to Portola Valley, 1.79 percent to Woodside, and 12.54 to unincorporated San Mateo County. In areas where roads are bad, the funding would have to go toward paving improvements until they reach a standard level of quality.
Another 5 percent of the funding would go to bicycle, pedestrian and other "active transportation" projects aimed at making walking and biking safer and more convenient in the county.
Ten percent would go toward infrastructure and services to improve transit connectivity in the region. Over 60 percent of residents commute to neighboring counties. Projects will be funded based on a project's ability to reduce congestion and enhance mobility, and on whether it is supported through public-private partnerships. This is the funding pool that could support a Dumbarton corridor project – a collection of proposals approved by the county transportation agency to get people to and from the East Bay along the Dumbarton vehicle bridge and via a potential rebuild of the rail bridge.
According to Board of Supervisors President Dave Pine, this funding pool could generate as much as $240 million over 30 years, substantially more than the $130 million dedicated to Dumbarton corridor improvements that voters approved as part of Regional Measure 3 (the bridge toll tax increase) in June.
The other half of the measure's funding is proposed to go toward supporting operations and capital needs of the SamTrans bus and paratransit service, Caltrain, "and other mobility services administered by the district." Projects in this category include initiatives for SamTrans such as increasing bus frequency, expanding bus service hours, and providing better options for commuters to travel more easily between home, transit and job centers. For Caltrain, those projects include investments to expand service after electrification, and boost ridership capacity.
The county transit district in September approved a new business plan that lays out some of the initiatives SamTrans plans to work on over the next five years.
The business plan's authors point out that nationally and locally, bus ridership is down, while ridership on paratransit services is up, and expected to climb in the future. The county's population of residents over 65 years old is expected to rise 137 percent between 2010 and 2040, the plan states, so it's anticipated that there will be more demand for paratransit services, with many more people who may have difficulty driving and otherwise getting where they need to go. While the district is looking at ways to reduce paratransit costs, it also seeks to improve its offerings for other users by providing affordable transit to those with no vehicle and a viable alternative for those who do have the option of driving.
When it comes to buses, SamTrans proposes to improve youth access by developing a discount bus pass program for college students. Efforts to modernize the transit system include the recent rollout of an app that can be used to purchase tickets and map routes, and a plan to get Wi-Fi on buses in the coming years.
The district is also working on a project to run electric express buses on "managed lanes" on U.S. 101 and the 280 corridor to better connect commuters to job centers.
Another step is to speed up one of the agency's most popular routes, which runs along El Camino Real. The route, which gets about a quarter of the agency's daily rides, has problems with on-time performance. By decreasing the number of stops on the route, it could carve as much as 20 minutes out of its time, the plan reports.
The agency also aims to convert its entire fleet of buses to electric power. On Oct. 15, SamTrans started using 10 new electric buses it had purchased. Pine said the agency has pledged not to purchase any more diesel-powered buses. Converting the fleet to all-electric buses will also require charging infrastructure to be installed too, the plan points out.
But beyond maintaining and improving its traditional bus services, explained Jeff Gee, district board member and Redwood City councilman, SamTrans aims to expand its position beyond bus operator to "mobility manager," taking a more active role in promoting alternatives to driving solo. That means getting involved with projects like improving bus shelters and park & rides, and partnering with Lyft or Uber to help people get that "last mile" to work or home from transit hubs.
One innovative pilot program the agency is working on in Pacifica is called "microtransit," which functions as on-demand transit.
A and W
While such changes may sound intriguing, some county residents may feel a sense of deja vu: A proposal for a half-cent sales tax for transportation, again?
The county already has a half-cent sales tax for transportation: Measure A, which generates about $80 million a year now. The first iteration of that tax was passed in 1988, and it was renewed in 2004 to last until 2033.
That plan breaks down spending differently, with 30 percent for transit, 27.5 percent for highways, 22.5 percent for local streets and transportation, 15 percent for grade separations, 3 percent for pedestrians and bike projects, and 1 percent for "alternative congestion relief programs."
And Measure A isn't going anywhere, at least until it expires in 2033.
Because there are already several sales taxes in the county, a separate state law had to be passed to increase the limit in San Mateo County.
Yet proponents of the measure say that the transit district needs the money.
"If this doesn't pass, we will see a reduction of rail, bus and paratransit in San Mateo County," said Michele Beasley, co-chair of Neighbors for Congestion Relief, executive director of the county's park foundation, and board member of TransForm, a group that "promotes walkable communities with excellent transportation choices" (according to its mission statement).
Simply put, Supervisor Pine said, "Our transportation systems haven't kept pace with the growth of our economy."
"First off, we do have a structural deficit with SamTrans that needs to be addressed," Pine said. "More importantly, we want to initiate programs that will encourage people to use the buses more."
Pine and Gee pointed to the co-dependence of the county's transportation authority on other transit agencies – SamTrans is not just about buses, they emphasize, but its finances are tied to obligations to both Caltrain and BART.
SamTrans is operating at a loss, Pine said, and with current spending patterns, the agency's reserves are expected to be depleted by the 2023-24 fiscal year. And by the 2034 fiscal year, when the agency's debt to BART is paid off, it's expected to be in the red by about $493 million.
One reason for the deficit, Pine said, is that unlike Caltrain, which recovers about 80 percent of its costs from customers – and is itself struggling for sufficient funding, Pine said – SamTrans recovers only a fraction of its costs from fares.
There have been early talks to bring yet another transportation sales tax, tentatively set as a one-eighth-cent tax, in San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Clara counties before voters in 2020. But that hasn't been set in stone, Pine said.
Opponents to the measure raise a number of criticisms, not just with the tax, but with the type of tax, and elements of the proposed spending plan. On the roster of opponents are the usual anti-tax suspects, like the county's Libertarian and GOP party representatives. But others who come from the other, greener side of the political spectrum are on that roster as well. They argue that the measure puts too much funding into highway projects, and not enough into grade separations or bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Harland Harrison, representative of the county's Libertarian Party, said when asked why his group opposes the measure: "We didn't like the taxes and we didn't think they would be properly spent by the government."
Former Menlo Park council member John Boyle, chair of the county's GOP party, said he is bothered by the lack of specificity within each of the measure's spending categories in the plan.
"I think it's a misleading proposition, in the sense that most of this money could be spent on things besides improving roads," he said.
As he sees it, the measure could become more of a "let's get people out of their cars" tax, rather than a congestion-relief measure. A lot of people need cars to get around the county, and initiatives to educate people about why they should ride their bikes or walk places won't necessarily change that, he argued.
"If we're going to cough up that money and sign up for a regressive tax like this," he argued, voters should know what they're going to get out of it. Sales taxes are often characterized as "regressive," meaning they are applied the same way to all people, regardless of income, and therefore take a larger proportion of a lower-income person's earnings.
In response to Boyle's criticism that the sales tax was regressive, Beasley argued that because the public transit efforts are going into services that benefit lower-income people, youth, disabled people and seniors who may not have access to cars, "that offsets that concern."
A broader question is whether another sales tax makes the most sense as a reliable revenue source for the agency. The SamTrans' business plan acknowledges that it is "highly reliant" on sales tax, with sales tax already making up about 72.4 percent of its operating revenues. And sales taxes, the plan states, are known to be cyclical.
"The data indicate that revenues are leveling off currently; sales tax revenues could be anticipated to decline in the near-term. The challenge remains that no one knows how near-term that decline may be," the plan states.
Another key criticism raised against the measure is the allocation of only 2.5 percent for grade separations, which are considered crucial by many to keep roadways safe and not crippled with traffic when Caltrain's electrification is complete and more trains start running along the rail line. Pine said he advocated for more funding for such separations, but only the modest designation was set aside. Cities will be able put their transportation funding allocations toward such grade separations too, he added.
Grade separations are so expensive that no one agency can pay for them, Gee explained. Plus, there's still no clear consensus between cities on what they want, whether that's building tunnels, viaducts, underpasses, overpasses or something else, he argued. In his city, Redwood City, the latest cost estimates to separate the road from the Caltrain line at Whipple Avenue came out to $300 to $500 million, he said. While 2.5 percent is not a lot of funding to go toward grade separations, he argued, such projects are so large that they require regional, state and federal buy-in. Mostly, local jurisdictions have to demonstrate skin in the game, which this small amount of funding could support, he said.
There's ongoing tension between the need to provide regional congestion relief, and the local control of every city, he said. "There's no easy answer with so many cities wanting different things."
"The gestation period for transportation projects is so long," he added. "It takes a lot of foresight to plan and continue to plan until these projects become a reality. ... Once we stop, then we fall decades behind."
Gladwyn D'Souza, who chairs the transportation committee of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, said his group opposes the measure, in part, because of the spending record of the existing sales tax. He said he believes that the county's transportation resources are going toward "continuing to build an incomplete system," and putting more funding into improving roadways for cars instead of fixing the gaps to create a comprehensive public transit network. The problem, he said, is that the only way to effectively get from point A to B in the county now is by car. Other methods take twice as long, aren't safe, or don't get you where you want to go.
"The county has been using tax money for more than 20 years to basically build congestion," he said. "They don't know what they're doing. They are building bigger and bigger roads."
Andrew Boone, an East Palo Alto resident and advocate for biking, said he opposes the commitment of 22.5 percent of the sales tax for highway projects, and wants far more to go toward public transit.
"We supposedly think of ourselves as a progressive, innovative region," he said. "Why do we have to limp along with a crappy bus system a lot of people can't use?"
Meanwhile, he argued, highway-widening projects are well-studied, and don't effectively decrease traffic in the long-term because wider roads attract more vehicles, a concept termed "induced demand." Instead, highway project funding should go toward making them safer to reduce car accidents and fatalities.
He pointed to the report recently released by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which asserts that fast, far-reaching and unprecedented efforts must be made to reduce the impacts of global warming from catastrophic levels, including reducing global human-caused carbon dioxide emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
The 30-year tax, if approved, would last until 2049, when people should no longer be using fossil fuels, he said. "They're ignoring climate change."
In response to the criticism that the measure puts too much funding into highway projects, Pine clarified that the highway projects are primarily focused on addressing bottlenecks. He added, "We're seeing more investment in non-highway projects than ever before."
"It's certainly not a cure-all, but it moves in the right direction," he said.