Thoughts on a Santa Clara County transportation tax 2016

After the success of transportation funding measures earlier this month in San Francisco and neighboring Alameda County, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in Santa Clara County began scoping out a proposal for a new transportation tax for the rapidly growing South Bay that the call Envision Silicon Valley.

San Jose / Santa Clara Bike to Work Day May 8 2014

VTA funding backgrounder

VTA is the transportation planning and traffic congestion management agency for Santa Clara County, California, which is located at the south end of San Francisco Bay. The agency operates bus and light rail public transportation, and manages funding, design and construction of the highways in this region.

In addition to the various funds redistributed out to local agencies by the Federal government and the state of California, VTA currently collects a number of local sales taxes.

  • ¼¢ Transportation Development Act (TDA) funds mostly go to transit operations. 2% of this TDA tax — about $1.5 million annually — are earmarked for “Article 3” bicycle and pedestrian projects.
  • 1976 Measure A ½¢ funds transit operations.
  • 2000 Measure A ½¢ for public transit capital improvement and operations expires in 2036.
  • 2008 Measure B ⅛¢ to fund operations and maintenance for BART Silicon Valley. Expires 2042.

East Bay and San Francisco Transportation Funding 2014

In California, any new tax or tax renewal requires a two-thirds supermajority to pass and become law. San Francisco’s Proposition A, allows the city and county of San Francisco to borrow up to $500 million for transportation projects and increase property taxes to pay for the bond obligations. This bond measure is tied to the city’s 10 year transportation improvement plan, so spending will primarily be on improvements that will benefit cyclists, walkers, and those who ride public transportation. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition endorsed Prop A, which passed with 70% earlier this month.

Alameda County voters also endorsed their new transportation tax, Measure BB, with 70% of the vote. Bike East Bay endorsed this measure, pointing out that 48% is dedicated for transit, 11% for biking and walking, and 9% for freeway projects. This is encouraging given that 83% of trips in Alameda County are made via automobile.

Envision Silicon Valley Stakeholder Meetings

Emboldened by these successes in nearby communities, VTA are now planning a similar transportation tax for the South Bay and have met with stakeholder groups. I’m encouraged by what I see so far. In their meetings with community organizations, representatives from these organizations have specifically asked for more frequency in low income communities, retaining BART Alum Rock, improving transit for all users, and better bicycle infrastructure for those using transit and those who don’t. These community groups also specifically listed out “improve air quality near highways in low-income neighborhoods” and “against freeway widening.” These “community groups” aren’t radical environmental groups asking for these things, but organizations such as La Raza, disabled advocacy groups, a group representing South Asians, and the African American Community Services Agency.

In another stakeholder meeting, representatives from transportation advocacy groups and chambers of commerce gave their input. Again, I mostly see good stuff in those notes, with a focus more on the benefits for employers and businesses: “Remember why we need transit – work, entertainment, personal travel/errands,” “Take into account the need for Silicon Valley employees to access the county on a daily basis from other counties within the region,” and so forth. The only mention of car traffic was in the context of bad congestion and “total gridlock,” although this was followed by a suggestion that any new transportation funding plan should “maintain existing transportation system.” If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

Silicon Valley Highway 101 Traffic Hell

Otherwise, there’s lots of happy stuff about improving the cycling network and safety for cyclists and pedestrians. This chamber of commerce group also talked about improving last mile connectivity, especially for seniors and the disabled.

One interesting note caught my eye — “anti-displacement strategy for those who are forced out of areas where there is more transit because housing is becoming unaffordable” — suggesting that some stakeholders understand that transit is a path to gentrification commercial growth.

I like the direction the discussion is going, with an emphasis on active transportation over “maintaining the existing system” and a realization that continued economic development in the South Bay will absolutely depend on more efficient and smarter modes of transportation. They’re probably already looking at it, but I encourage VTA to look at AC Transit’s Measure BB and their outreach efforts as a possible model of this effort.

For more about Envision Silicon Valley and read those stakeholder meeting notes for yourself, visit the VTA blog: Stakeholder Groups Share Principles, Help Envision Silicon Valley.

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