$100 Billion Bay Area Transportation Tax Considered for November 2020 Ballot

Two years after voters in the nine-county Bay Area agreed to hike tolls on the region's seven state-owned bridges, regional business leaders are hoping they will approve a one-cent regional sales tax to fund $100 billion in transportation projects.

July 28, 2019, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

BART System

Fleet of the Future / Wikimedia Commons

With the June 5, 2018 passage of Regional Measure 3, a $3 bridge toll increase for the region's seven state-owned toll bridges used to finance $4.45 billion of highway and transit improvements, transportation advocates are gearing up for a much bigger transportation funding ballot measure in November 2020, when a large turnout is predicted for the presidential election.

"Sensing an opportunity to harness frustration [with packed BART and Caltrain rail systems and clogged freeways], Jim Wunderman, president and chief executive of the Bay Area Council, an advocacy group for major employers like Google and Kaiser Permanente, and other business leaders recently collaborated with transportation agencies and nonprofits to develop a ballot measure for November 2020 dubbed Faster Bay Area," reports Rachel Swan, who covers transportation for the San Francisco Chronicle.

It aims to generate at least $100 billion in 40 years.

Though in its early stages, the measure would likely be a penny sales tax to fund a wish list of infrastructure projects...And with the region’s population expected to swell from 7.75 million to nearly 10 million by 2040, big engineering fantasies like a second trans-bay rail crossing and a stretch of Caltrain tracks through downtown San Francisco have become urgent needs. 

Like Regional Measure 3 (RM 3), which began as Senate Bill 597 in February 2017, state legislation will need to be drafted "to grant taxing authority to a regional agency," notes Swan. "This initial bill would have to pass early next year so that Faster Bay Area could place the initiative on the November 2020 ballot."

At least two other groups are working with Wunderman in promoting the new tax measure, as they did last year with Regional Measure 3.

Both the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area-based urban think tank SPUR, along with the Bay Area Council, were honored last month by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) for their leadership in campaigning for passage of RM 3, which received 55 percent voter support in June last year. That measure was initially launched by MTC at a public workshop meeting in December 2016.

Social equity component?

"While the ballot measure is driven largely by companies trying to get their employees to work, it will also have ramifications for working-class people in the suburbs," notes Swan. "That population pays a greater share of its wealth to sales taxes, so the measure might include some form of low-income rebate," said Stuart Cohen, a transportation policy expert who is helping steer the Faster Bay Area campaign. Cohen was the former executive director of Oakland-based Transform, a nonprofit group that works on transportation, land use, and social justice issues.

[Cohen] and Alicia John-Baptiste, SPUR's president and chief executive, are cognizant of the economic injustice built into the Bay Area’s transportation system, in which lower-income people generally have longer, costlier commutes. Faster Bay Area will need their buy-in if it stands a chance of success.

Another aspect of social equity would be the sales tax aspect. At least RM 3 was a user fee, a toll paid by motorists crossing the region's seven state-owned bridges. Not only are sales taxes regressive, but they are also unavoidable and have no connection to transportation. 

Another challenge would be the supermajority threshold required by specific sales tax measures, no easy task as many California counties have found. RM 3 passed with a 55 percent majority vote, well below the two-thirds needed had it been a sales tax measure rather than a bridge toll increase. However, organizers are not deterred.

"Earlier this year, the Bay Area News Group "partnered with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group on a poll that asked registered voters, among other questions, whether they would support a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects in the Bay Area," reported Erin Baldassari last month for the Mercury News on the Faster Bay Area proposal. "Seventy-one percent of respondents answered, 'Yes.'”

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Hat tip to David McCoard.

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