How to Spend the Bay Area’s New Transportation Dollars
By Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director
December 1, 2016

Photo courtesy of Sergio Ruiz for SPUR

This November, Bay Area voters approved more than $10 billion in new transportation funding through sales taxes and bonds backed by property taxes. The majority of the new revenue is for projects and policy goals SPUR supports, but if we have learned anything over decades of being involved in urban transportation, it’s that well-intentioned and well-funded projects can still fail if we don’t get the details right. The subtlest aspects of a transportation project can have a ripple effect across a city: a small bottleneck for a train, a hard-to-access station, a street where cars driving too fast make it impossible for pedestrians to cross.

To make sure our new investments deliver the greatest benefits possible, SPUR will be paying close attention to the following pots of money and projects:

 

City of Oakland Measure KK - $600 million bond (passed by 82 percent)

Measure KK was the first general obligation bond the City of Oakland has put before voters since Measure DD, which passed in 2002. Some of the funds will go to helping address Oakland’s $2.5 billion backlog of unfunded capital needs, including a $443 million paving backlog. Balancing priorities and establishing strong oversight will be key to meeting the measure’s goals:

  • $350 million for streets and road projects (repaving, bike and pedestrian improvements, and traffic calming). This is real opportunity to jumpstart Oakland’s new Department of Transportation to realize the vision of equitable transportation laid out in its strategic plan. The agency will need to balance the important priorities of cost-effectiveness, which could defer repair on low-volume residential streets; social equity, which would raise the priority of badly degraded streets in low-income areas; or traffic safety, especially for those who walk and bike, which preferences streets that are on bus routes or have a history of collisions.
  • Citizen’s Oversight Commission. Measure KK called for the creation of a citizen oversight body, which the Oakland City Council now needs to establish. Ideally the commission would include people who 1) understand capital project oversight, 2) have a firm grounding in finance and 3) can bring an equity lens to the project selection process. The committee will need to develop a clear criteria to guide its decision-making processes.

 

BART Measure RR: $3.5 billion bond (passed by 71 percent)

90 percent of this $ 3.5 billion bond is designated for bringing the BART system into a “state of good repair” (although there remains a few billion in unfunded needs). This new funding should be spent according to the agency’s asset management system. Two other pots of bond money are not as prescribed and need to be developed carefully:

  • $135 million to improve station access. BART recently adopted a new station access policy that aims to do two things: get more people to stations using sustainable modes of travel and better integrate stations with neighborhoods around stations. This funding needs to be programmed for projects that promote sustainable access to BART stations and support safe connectivity between stations and neighborhoods.
  • $200 million to design and engineer projects to relieve crowding, increase system flexibility and responsiveness, and reduce traffic congestion. This pot of money will be used to start planning a second transbay crossing and other next-generation transit projects needed to support growth. In addition to BART, other transportation agencies, cities and civic leaders need to participate in planning the second crossing (a project of statewide significance). A study of a new crossing should consider both BART technology and standard rail (Caltrain/Amtrak/high-speed rail). New station locations should be carefully chosen in cooperation with cities.

 

VTA Measure B: $6 billion – $6.5 billion bond (passed by 71 percent)

Given that the Measure B sales tax revenue will come in gradually over time, a critical question for VTA is: How should the projects and programs in the measure be prioritized? Which should be built first? SPUR suggests starting with the most sustainable and space-efficient projects: those that promote infill development and encourage travelers to shift away from driving. As with the BART bond, there’s a need to think critically about how the different pots of money will be spent:

  • $1.5 billion to complete BART Silicon Valley Phase II (the extension of BART to San Jose and Santa Clara). There remains a question regarding how to get all the federal funding expected for this project. And if funding falls short or costs increase, we need to be incredibly strategic about how to adjust the project to maximize benefits for cities and for travelers, while still getting the project done.
  • $500 million for bus operations. The way these funds are spent should be aligned with the Next Network policy direction recently moved forward by the VTA board (85 percent of resources toward ridership, 15 percent of resources toward coverage). Additionally, the money should be used to expand coverage using new transit service partnerships (ridesharing, micro transit, on-demand transit) and to provide service that is coordinated with BART Silicon Valley and Caltrain.
  • $700 million for Caltrain grade separations and $314 million for Caltrain capacity improvements. When considering the order in which funding is spend, the CalMod 2.0 capacity increase projects may be needed urgently if ridership growth continues apace.
  • $2.7 million for local streets and roads, county expressways, and highway interchanges. This new highway funding should be used to increase safety and efficiency on roads and to manage demand (likely through pricing strategies), rather than to expand roads, a strategy shown repeatedly to result in even more traffic. Complete streets concepts, which help those on all transportation modes to travel safely and have access to neighborhood connections, will be critical in many places.

In addition, AC Transit’s Measure C1, a $600 million parcel tax renewal, passed by 82 percent. This means AC Transit will be able to fully implement ACgo, a program to increase frequency, reliability and weekend service; continue to provide discounted fares to seniors, youth, people with disabilities and students; and engage in long-term planning.

Unfortunately, several billion in transportation funding was not approved by voters: $2.9 billion in Contra Costa County and $2.5 billion in San Francisco. Since, in both cases, the money was already identified for needs (BART cars, capital improvements, pedestrian safety projects, highways, etc.), there is now a hole the Regional Transportation Plan. Filling it will require coming up with much more local and regional funding in the coming years, a reality that calls for creative funding sources such as road pricing, higher gas taxes and/or vehicle miles traveled fees.

A next step for San Francisco, after the failure of the Measure K half-cent sales tax, is to figure out how to keep addressing the needs identified in the city’s Transportation 2030 investment program while also developing much-needed transit expansion projects — such as bus rapid transit, Muni Metro expansion and the Caltrain/high-speed rail downtown extension — and continuing to make its fair and appropriate contributions to the regional transportation agencies. Though they did not pass Prop. K, voters did support Prop. J, which would have allocated Prop. K’s revenues to transportation and homeless services. The city should not lose sight of this support and should move forward with the right revenue source to make needed investments. 

We still don’t know how we are going to continue funding transportation in the Bay Area. Due to financing costs, bonds are an expensive way to finance projects, and they’re only one-time infusions. Sales taxes are regressive, and many counties are hitting the 10 percent sales tax ceiling imposed by the state (although this can be addressed through legislation). Paying for projects locally means we’re less subject to the vagaries of policy and funding changes at the state and federal levels. But the growing reliance on local taxes in the Bay Area leads to decision-making on a local scale, which is not leading to the best transportations choices. If federal funding continues to decline, it will be imperative to accelerate transportation funding in California. One example is transportation user fees such as tolls on road, which are becoming more and more feasible due to technology and could be the most powerful tool we have to grow transit markets and decrease driving and pollution.

Looking ahead to 2018, a regional bridge toll increase (Regional Measure 3) is under discussion. We can also look to the Los Angeles and Seattle regions as models for a grander regional vision. This election, almost 70 percent of Los Angeles voters passed Measure M, a one-cent sales tax that would raise $860 million per year to fund a $120 billion mix of capital and operating funding for transit, highway and local transportation projects over the next 40 years. The Measure M package includes doubling the size of LA Metro’s rail system (100 new miles). Seattle voters approved Sound Transit 3,$54 billion capital and operating program which funds doubling the length of the light rail system (nearly 62 new miles and 80 new stations) over 25 years.

 

Where Is the Federal Government?

Plenty has been written about how the federal government’s transportation funding role is devolving to cities and regions. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has written, “metropolitan areas cannot do everything on their own. They need a reliable partner in Washington that upholds the core responsibilities of the federal government, empowers local communities to live up to their full potential, and helps leverage badly needed investments in innovation, infrastructure, and children and youth.” 

Getting the details right applies to the federal transportation role as well: It’s unclear whether a $1 trillion infrastructure bill (as suggested by President-elect Trump and congressional leaders) would be a net win for big regions that are aiming to grow sustainably, like the Bay Area. One important transportation question for California is whether and where the federal government will advance high-speed rail in the U.S.

 

Focusing on Values for Transportation Planning

Since Election Day, a steady flow of political reflection, exhortation and speculation has filled our inboxes. Many pieces have resonated, not so much because they match our personal views but because they articulate the ways we should develop transportation projects, plans and policy. Here are a two pieces for thought:

 

People, Not Data. Again.People, Not Data. Again.
by Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America

Truly Responsive and Inclusive Planning
by Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute

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