San Mateo County Boards Embrace Highway-Bloated $2.4-Billion Tax

San Mateo County traffic engineers want to cram even more cars onto Highway 101 and local streets. Photo: Paul Chinn

San Mateo County transportation officials are now pushing a new 30-year, $2.4 billion sales tax increase dubbed “Get Us Moving” that is astonishingly similar to the county’s existing – and failing – 2004 Measure A sales tax. Decision-makers insist that this sales tax measure, bloated with as much as $600 million dollars for highway expansion projects, will finally “relieve congestion” and make public transit practical for more residents.

Measure A, funding projects for over one decade now, has succeeding only in making traffic congestion worse by inducing even more drivers to clog up the highways, mostly by reconstructing bigger interchanges. The measure has failed to expand transit in the county, as both bus service and ridership have gradually declined over the past three decades.

“It took me three hours to get from this building [in downtown Redwood City] to the East Palo Alto City Hall for the city’s 35th anniversary event,” said County Supervisor Warren Slocum at the Board of Supervisors single public hearing on the sales tax proposal on June 19. “I’m comfortable with spending 25 percent on highways – the over-aching goal is to get this on the ballot and get it approved.”

Nearly every one of the members of the two county boards that must approve the sales tax’s Expenditure Plan, consisting of 9 elected and 3 non-elected officials, has dutifully parroted SamTrans’s propaganda that the sales tax won’t be approved by 2/3 of voters on November 6 unless it includes hundreds of millions of dollars for highways along with transit, bicycling, and walking improvements. Exactly half of the tax revenues would be spent on SamTrans bus service or Caltrain improvements – the SamTrans Board of Directors would decide later (after the tax passes) how much to allocate to buses and how much to trains.

“If the highway bucket got reduced to zero, what do you think the chances are of this on the ballot?” asked Board member and Redwood City City Council member Jeff Gee at the June 6 SamTrans Board meeting, knowing that staff would condemn the idea.

“I think we would lose for sure,” responded SamTrans CEO Jim Hartnett bluntly. “The polling is very clear… there would be no way to achieve a two-thirds margin [without highway spending].”

Dozens of members of the public urged the Boards at the June 6 and June 19 meetings to spend just 10 percent of the tax on improvements for walking and bicycling, citing “decades of chronic underinvestment” in these modes of transportation in San Mateo County. A broad coalition of local non-profit groups called the Transportation Equity Allied Movement Coalition (TEAMC), led by TransForm and the Youth Leadership Institute, made the same 10 percent request, urging that an environmentally-friendly and socially just tax measure is critical to support future generations.

“We believe that the funding measure should plan for the future needs of this county, and match our environmental, health, and transportation goals,” said Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Policy and Advocacy Director Emma Shlaes at the June 19 Board of Supervisors meeting. “We would like to see a higher percentage [for walking and bicycling projects] such as 10 percent.”

Bike lanes separated from car traffic, such as this one in Akron, Ohio, are exceedingly rare in San Mateo County, which suffers from disconnected, low-quality networks for bicycling and walking.

“Please consider doubling the [allocation for] bike and ped improvements,” said Menlo Park City Council member Kirsten Kieth at the same meeting. “It’s an important way for people to get around in their own communities.”

Board members dismissed the request, defending their staff’s proposal to put only 5 percent of the future tax towards active transportation, even though it would only mean reducing the proposed highway program allocation from 25 to 20 percent of tax revenues.

“Nobody advocates like the bike community, it’s amazing,” said SamTrans Board Chair and Belmont City Council member Charles Stone on June 6. “If we put 10 [percent for ped/bike projects] in here, I guarantee you they’d be at the microphone asking for 20 [percent]. But part of any process is coming together and learning how to compromise.”

Highway expansion projects are actually drowning in funds compared to the meager budgets dished out for public transit and the peanuts thrown at improvements for walking and bicycling. San Mateo County already dedicates 27.5 percent of the existing 2004 Measure A Sales Tax to highway projects, and virtually all of that money is spent on projects that expand per-hour capacity on highways and through highway interchanges. Highway projects focusing on safety, maintenance, or multi-modal improvements are summarily rejected for funding by Transportation Authority Director Joe Hurley, who even invented his own “anti-Complete Streets” policy in early 2015 in direct violation of state law to strip active transportation components from highway projects.

The SamTrans Board of Directors will approve the final version of the sales tax’s Expenditure Plan and place it on the county’s November 6 ballot at its July 11 meeting. While the Board of Supervisors must also approve the Expenditure Plan, they are expected to do so on July 17 as a mere formality with little or no discussion.