A Regional Ballot Measure Could Sustain and Transform Bay Area Transit — But There Are Many Details to Get Right

4th Street, San Francisco

SF Muni and BART account for more than two-thirds of all transit ridership in the Bay Area. They’re also the two systems most at risk of significant service cuts if a measure authorizing significant new transit funding fails.
Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR

Elected officials and transit advocates have long been contemplating a major, Bay Area-wide revenue measure to transform transit. In 2019, following the success of significant regional transportation measures in Los Angeles and Seattle, SPUR partnered with the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group to advance a proposal for FASTER Bay Area, a proposed 2020 ballot measure that would have raised approximately $100 billion over 40 years. The measure aimed to transform the region’s overcrowded and disjointed transit system through an ambitious program of capital projects, operating support, regional network management, and other reforms. In early 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt end to the FASTER campaign, and plans for a regional ballot measure for transit were placed on hold. Five years later, a regional revenue measure to transform the region’s transit system is once again under discussion — this time with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) leading the process — but both the context and content of what is being considered have changed substantially.


What’s Different in 2024?

First, the fiscal outlook for the region’s transit systems has worsened significantly since 2019. In the wake of the pandemic, many of the Bay Area’s largest transit operators are facing a significant long-term operating deficit, primarily driven by changed travel patterns that have resulted in fewer commuters taking transit to central business districts and office centers. Region wide, transit ridership is slowly recovering, standing at 63% of pre-pandemic levels across all operators in October 2023, but it is still generating far less than the nearly $1 billion in fares that the region relied on to sustain transit operations in 2019. A thriving transit system is essential to a productive, sustainable, and equitable region, and for that reason, SPUR led what became a successful campaign to secure a one-time infusion of transit operating funding from the state to avoid imminent service cuts. This state funding, along with a $300 million contribution by MTC of regional discretionary funds, has combined with operator efficiencies and slowly increasing ridership to help push transit back from a fiscal cliff — but only temporarily. Many Bay Area operators, including BART and SF Muni, still face looming deficits. Without a new source of operating revenue, they will be forced to begin service cuts as early as 2026.

Second, Bay Area transit has made significant progress since 2019 in becoming a more integrated and connected system. In 2020, MTC convened the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Taskforce, resulting in delivery of the Bay Area Transit Transformation Action Plan in 2021. The plan outlines a program of reforms and integration efforts — many researched and advocated for by SPUR — to be undertaken by the region’s transit operators to make their systems more connected and customer oriented. MTC and transit operators subsequently established a Regional Network Management (RNM) structure to implement action plan programs and to provide a unified decision-making approach to advancing improvements in the regional transit system. Although the RNM is currently making significant progress on multiple efforts such as regional wayfinding, transit priority improvements, and fare integration, additional resources will be needed to accelerate transformative change at scale.

In this context, MTC has led exploration of a regional revenue measure that could go to the ballot in 2026 to provide substantial funding to both sustain and transform the Bay Area’s transit system. MTC’s efforts began in 2022 and last year included initial polling and outreach, leading into an intensive process since September 2023 to develop key input to the state legislation that will be needed to authorize the commission to place a measure on the ballot. California Senator Scott Wiener has agreed to author the legislation — Senate Bill 925 — which is pending committee referral and will be considered during the current legislative session.


Maintaining Flexibility, Navigating Uncertainty

On January 24, MTC approved a summary of proposed elements that were provided as input to shape SB 925. The summary reflects extensive outreach and stakeholder participation and includes important recommendations based on the following principles:

  • Transit focus: The vision statement and accompanying materials adopted by MTC emphasize the centrality of transit — specifically transit operations and transformation — to any future revenue measure while also providing for funding to be used for safe streets, climate resilience, and connectivity projects that benefit other forms of mobility.
  • Accountability: MTC’s recommendations aim to further strengthen and center the commission's authority to act as a regional network manager overseeing policy related to many of the customer-facing aspects of transit.
  • Travel demand management: MTC has recommended that legislation include a requirement (subject to voter approval) that employers in the Bay Area with more than 50 employees give their employees a subsidy to encourage alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle trips.
  • Flexibility: Notably, MTC seeks to maintain flexibility regarding many fundamental aspects of a future measure:
    • Specifics of a future expenditure plan beyond broad categories, including projects, percentages, or dollar amounts
    • Timing of a potential ballot measure, which would occur no sooner than 2026 (MTC has left open the possibility that enabling legislation could authorize multiple future ballot measures and has asked that sunset provisions capping the duration of a tax not be included in legislation.)
    • Whether the measure will include all nine counties in the Bay Area or a smaller subset of the region’s geography
    • Source and amount of revenues to be raised, including options for a sales tax, payroll tax, income tax, or even a regional fee on vehicle miles traveled. (MTC has also asked that legislation not cap the amount of funds to be raised.)
    • Whether the measure might be placed on the ballot via a citizen’s initiative process, thereby lowering the voter threshold from two-thirds to 50% plus one.

The degree of flexibility MTC has requested in enabling legislation is in part driven by the sobering results of recent polling. It reveals that voters in the region are in a pessimistic mood and that transportation has fallen in priority compared with issues such as crime, homelessness, and affordable housing. Although an encouraging 78% of the poll’s respondents said they felt that transit was “important,” only 51% to 55% said that they would vote to approve a revenue measure, far below the two-thirds threshold required for passage. Given current polling and the significant amount of time before a 2026 vote would be held, maintaining flexibility on many aspects of a measure is a prudent strategy.


How Is SPUR Thinking About the Measure?

SPUR has not yet taken a formal position on SB 925, but we have worked to ensure that any legislation or subsequent measure aligns with our policy positions. We have participated in MTC’s formal stakeholder group, helped advocacy groups coordinate their efforts, engaged directly with operator and MTC staff, and provided input to the commission via a series of letters.

SPUR has generally supported the framework approved by the MTC Commission in January, but while we appreciate its flexible approach, many details remain to be addressed before a measure can succeed at the ballot. As we have engaged in the measure development process, we have consistently emphasized three areas requiring additional attention:

  1. Strengthening network management: SPUR supports a regional network manager for transit in the Bay Area, and we want to see this structure strengthened and resourced in conjunction with any new revenues. MTC’s recommendations point in this direction but significant further detail is needed to specify exactly how SB 925, or any subsequent process, will strengthen the decision-making authority of the regional network manager. SPUR believes that transit funding from a regional measure must be tied to compliance and participation in regional programs.

  1. Avoiding funding for highway expansions: The recommendations adopted by MTC emphasize transit but also include ambiguous language about “connectivity” that suggest some monies from a regional measure could be used to fund highway expansions. Adding new lanes and interchanges to our highways would result in more vehicle miles traveled and would undercut the viability of transit, directly undermining California’s ability to meet its climate goals. SPUR has joined with dozens of other advocacy groups to call for a measure that does not include funding for highway expansion.
  1. Having a “Plan B” for transit operations: A regional measure that provides significant funding to transform transit is an exciting prospect, but we have to be clear-eyed about the risks inherent in tying the fiscal future of the Bay Area’s transit operators to a single ballot measure. BART and SF Muni are the two systems most at risk of significant service cuts if a measure fails, yet these two operators alone account for more than two-thirds of all transit ridership in the region. We hope that the polling for a measure will improve over coming years, but the region also needs to have a plan for keeping our critical transit systems running in the event that a measure in 2026 is simply not viable.

While there is much work to do and many questions remain, MTC, transit operators, and regional stakeholders have made tremendous progress over the last year by advancing a regional measure from a concept to an active piece of legislation. With guidance from our Board, SPUR will continue to engage with the regional measure development process as SB 925 advances and any subsequent campaign takes shape.