County floats sales tax hike for transportation projects | January 31, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - January 31, 2018

County floats sales tax hike for transportation projects

by Kate Bradshaw

San Mateo County is considering asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to help fund transportation improvements, a measure that might reach the ballot by November.

The San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors have launched a public outreach program called "Get us Moving SMC" to try to gauge what transportation projects county residents might be interested in funding through a sales tax and to develop a spending plan.

A new state law approved last year and authored by state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) grants SamTrans the authority to pursue a half-cent sales tax measure for transportation improvements in the county. It allows the county to exceed the standard 2 percent tax limit, pending the development of a spending plan and voter approval of the measure.

San Mateo County is growing, state and federal grant funding is limited and competitive, and the need for transportation upgrades and improvements grows as the county's roadways are increasingly jammed, according to a presentation made to the Menlo Park City Council on Jan. 23 by county supervisors Warren Slocum and Don Horsley, joined by public outreach consultant (and Palo Alto councilman) Cory Wolbach.

By 2040, the population in San Mateo County is expected to increase by 26 percent over 2010, and the population of people over 65 years of age is expected to grow by 137 percent, Mr. Wolbach said.

With the half-cent sales tax, the measure could generate $80 million a year, or $2.4 billion over 30 years, for transportation improvements.

But even a preliminary list of the estimated costs of possible projects indicates such funding would be devoured quickly, he said: $400 million for Caltrain modernization, $500 million for managed lanes on U.S. 101, anywhere between $16 million and $160 million to make improvements to U.S. 101 and state Route 92 interchange, plus annual costs of $20 million for Caltrain and $25 million for SamTrans to keep operations and equipment in a "state of good repair."

All of that doesn't even include the behemoth infrastructure undertaking costing an estimated $2 billion to implement the recommended changes SamTrans adopted in December to ease congestion along the Dumbarton corridor.

One question is how long such a measure would be in place -- whether it would be 10, 20 or 30 years, or even in perpetuity. Councilwoman Kirsten Keith cautioned against having a measure last "in perpetuity."

"When you're having a tax, you need to come back to the people that you're taxing and let them know what you're doing, and when you do something in perpetuity, I think that becomes a source of irritation for people," she said, citing the example of the Menlo Park City School District's proposed parcel tax that failed to pass in a May 2016 special election.

"I know when our school board tried to do that, it failed. And it never fails here in Menlo Park. But it failed and a lot of it had to do with that word," she said.

Weigh in

People can fill out a basic survey, which asks respondents to rank by priority a series of broad areas for transportation improvement. The county plans to close the survey at the end of February.

Go to to take the survey.

The county and transit district will also host three more public outreach meetings in the coming weeks to gather more comments:

• Thursday, Feb. 1, at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of the Pacifica Community Center (540 Crespi Drive, Pacifica).

• Thursday, Feb. 15, at 6:30 p.m. in the ballroom of the Menlo Park Senior Center (110 Terminal Ave., Menlo Park).

• Thursday, Feb. 22, at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers of the Municipal Services Building (33 Arroyo Drive, South San Francisco).

According to Dan Lieberman, SamTrans spokesman, for a measure to make it to the ballot, it has to be approved by SamTrans and the county Board of Supervisors, and be submitted by a deadline 88 days before the scheduled vote.


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