The San Mateo County Transit District’s (SamTrans) propaganda machine is in full swing, with Board members and local pro-highway front groups heaping unanimous praise on the agency’s “Get Us Moving” tax measure at the July 11 Board of Directors meeting. The 0.5-percent sales tax hike would spend between $500 and $1 billion on highway and roadway traffic expansions over the next 30 years, if approved by at least 2/3 of county voters on November 6.
“Democracy can be thwarted by a one-third minority, that’s exactly what we have in this state,” said SamTrans Board Chair Charles Stone, irked that the agency cannot pass the tax with only a 50-percent majority voter approval like Regional Measure 3. “It is not democracy when… one third of the voters can mandate what happens to the rest of us.”
The 2/3 voter approval rule for special taxes which Stone calls “undemocratic” has been in place since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, approved by 63 percent of California voters. Counties have easily cleared that hurdle and approved transportation taxes many times since then, including 14 years ago with San Mateo County’s 2004 Measure A, an existing 0.5-percent sales tax that will remain in effect until 2033.
Despite being hailed by non-profit groups for being based on “visionary core principles” like Complete Streets, funding allocations in the new tax measure largely mirror those in the existing and failing 2004 Measure A. 52.5 percent of revenues would be spent on bus and rail transit, up from 46 percent. Highway spending would be slimmed down from 27.5 to 22.5 percent of revenues, while improvements for walking and bicycling would creep up from 3 to 5 percent of revenues. Alameda County’s 2014 Measure BB dedicates 8.5 percent of revenues to ped/bike improvements and 19 percent to highway expansions.
“Recognizing that we absolutely have to keep highway funding as part of this measure… the taxpayers are getting kind of tired of being taxed and having a lot more congestion just pile up on the roads,” said Board member Zoe Kersteen-Tucker at the agency’s June 6 meeting.
The only major differences between the new and old tax measures include (1) slashing funding for Caltrain grade separations from 15 to just 2.5 percent of tax revenues, and (2) diverting about half the street repaving funds to a new category called “Regional Transit Connections”. Despite the name, this money could be spent on either highway expansions or transit improvements, and the highway-obsessed San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) will determine which.
“The final investment plan lays a solid foundation for San Mateo County in moving it forward in a way that advances mobility, social equity, quality of life, environmental protection, climate action, and public health and safety,” said TransForm Senior Community Planner Chris Lepe. “The core principles include reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, planning for Complete Streets, and an emphasis on solutions for transit-dependent populations.”
While Lepe’s coalition of 28 local non-profit groups, the Transportation Equity Allied Movement Coalition (TEAMC), now calls the tax “visionary” and urges a YES vote on the measure, the group had fruitlessly lobbied SamTrans staff and Board members for months to embrace a measure with more money for transit and none at all for highway expansions. The group argued that state Climate Change laws mandate a sharp reduction in carbon emissions in California, and that many generous funding sources for highways already exist, including the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), Senate Bill 1, and Regional Measure 3, on top of San Mateo County’s own 2004 Measure A Highway Program. The coalition only managed to convince staff to agree to a set of progressive “core principles” that would supposedly guide the tax’s expenditures.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors must also vote to place the tax measure on the county’s November 6 ballot, an action they are expected to take on July 24 with little discussion.