Proposition K - Transportation Sales Tax

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2003 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Proposition K would extend the existing 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation for 30 years. It specifies which projects and programs would be funded by the tax, estimated to total $2.4 billion to $2.8 billion over 30 years. The proposed tax and expenditure plan would take effect immediately, replacing the existing tax and expenditure plan. The existing 1/2 cent sales tax rate would not change.

The money raised, about 20% of the total needed, would attract the other 80% in matching state and federal funds to implement the long-range vision of the San Francisco Countywide Transportation Plan. The major objectives of the plan are to enhance mobility and accessibility throughout the city, improve safety for all transportation system users, support the city’s economic development and the vitality of neighborhoods, sustain environmental quality, and promote equity and efficiency in transportation investments.

Why it is on the ballot

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to put Proposition K on the ballot. As a special-purpose tax, to pass it needs approval by two-thirds of the voters.

Most Bay Area counties have a half-cent sales tax for transportation. San Francisco’s existing transportation sales tax, approved as Proposition B by voters in November 1989, is scheduled to expire in 2010. This measure has been placed on the ballot now, before the existing tax sunsets, for several reasons.

First, the Transportation Authority says that most of the projects promised in the original tax have been delivered, and it’s time to plan the next round of transportation improvements. After 15 years, the City has new transportation priorities and new opportunities presented by technological advances in traffic controls and transit. An updated expenditure plan would provide matching funds from federal, state, and regional funding programs.

Second, renewing the tax now makes it possible to issue bonds against 30 years of projected revenue. Without a renewal, there is little ability to sell bonds backed by the remaining six years of projected revenue.

Third, it is prudent to bring this issue to voters now. Should the measure fail, there would be time to craft another plan that will garner the approval of voters before the existing tax expires.


Proponents state:

  • This measure was crafted with extensive planning and community input, including neighborhood meetings in every district and extensive debate by a citizen’s committee, which supported the resulting plan unanimously
  • The local transportation sales tax is the single most important local funding source for transportation. It is what we use to match state and federal dollars. We simply will not be able to improve our transportation system without it
  • Without the projects funded by Prop. K, Muni service will deteriorate, ridership will decline, and automobile use and congestion will increase. San Francisco motorists will spend an additional 4,200 hours sitting in their cars every day if the projects funded by Prop. K are not built
  • Proposition K would increase by 14% the number of jobs accessible by transit in less than 30 minutes


Opponents state:

  • The measure won’t bring in enough money to do what we need. A full cent, rather than a half cent tax, would have doubled the amount of progress we could make towards solving the city’s transportation problems. Unfortunately, the polls showed that doubling the tax would have a hard time passing, so the decision was made to go for a simple renewal
  • 1989’s Proposition B did not deliver all the projects promised, because some of the city’s project-delivery mechanisms are too inefficient to complete a big capital project on-budget. As with any bond measure in San Francisco, we risk this problem here.
  • Individual constituencies are likely to oppose the measure because some special interest of theirs is not included

SPUR's analysis

Compared to the process which resulted in the first transportation sales tax in 1989, a great deal of technical planning and analysis by the Transportation Authority staff went into the preparation of this plan.

First, the Transportation Authority estimated the amount of money that can reasonably be expected from every possible federal, state, and local source of transportation funding, including this half-cent sales tax, at $12.4 billion. (By comparison, Muni’s operating costs over the same period are approximately $14 billion.) The most likely estimate of the money generated by this sales tax, $2.6 billion, represents 21% of the total $12.4 billion budget.

Next, the Authority prepared an expenditure plan that can be completed with the projected amount of money. This expenditure plan is not a wish list of good projects, but one that would be completed if the predicted funding is available.

Sixty percent of the total would be used to maintain existing infrastructure and operations:

  • Thirty nine percent would be for repairing and replacing buses, streetcars, trolleys, and overhead wires, and otherwise maintaining the transit system. The failure to replace Muni’s vehicles was one of the main reasons for Muni’s poor performance and drastic ridership decline in recent decades
  • Twelve percent would be used to repave streets and maintain traffic signals and signs
  • Nine percent would be used to provide paratransit service to people with mobility impairments

Twenty-six percent of the total would be for new transit projects:

  • Construct the new Central Subway from SOMA to Chinatown (an extension of the Third St. light rail project)
  • Extend Caltrain to a new downtown Transbay Terminal
  • Create a Bus Rapid Transit system, using special buses that operate like trains: fares are collected on platforms, multiple doors open to quickly discharge and accept passengers, and the buses run on exclusive rights-of-way, unimpeded by traffic. Prop. K provides sufficient funding for Bus Rapid Transit on the heavily-used Van Ness and Geary lines, with the Geary line being built so that it could be converted to rail should more funding become available
  • Transit Preferential Streets would be a citywide network which uses new technology such as bus-controlled traffic lights, and exclusive lanes, to give transit vehicles a speedy right-of-way. Bus Rapid Transit and Transit Preferred Streets will be the most important projects for most residents; they are designed to speed up every transit trip in the city (not just trips to work) in order to make transit a more attractive option for residents and visitors
  • Doyle Drive, the southern approach road to the Golden Gate Bridge which runs through the Presidio National Park, would be rebuilt. It is in critical need of seismic replacement, and is ranked as the most dangerous elevated roadway in California. Prop. K funding would enable the construction of a beautiful parkway (which SPUR has been promoting for over a decade) that would restore historic views and would enable restored wetlands and creeks in the Presidio. Doyle Drive carries 750 bus trips a day. The parkway would significantly improve bus and transit connections

For motorists, in addition to street repaving, signal maintenance, and the Doyle parkway, the plan includes funding for SFgo, a sophisticated, centralized, and computerized traffic-light-control system.

The plan funds construction of a citywide network of bicycle-safe streets, and a substantial amount of traffic calming to slow motor vehicle speeds on residential streets. The funding for bicycle and pedestrian safety projects in Prop. K would increase the existing program nearly tenfold.

Of special interest to SPUR is the connection the measure makes between land use and transportation spending. It provides $33 million for planning and incentives to reduce travel demand through sensible land use planning. And, it requires all agencies that receive funding for transportation projects to consider existing and future land use before receiving that funding. This means that Prop. K would not fund extending a Bus Rapid Transit corridor unless existing or planned population densities support it.

Prop. K is a prime example of good planning, emerging from a far more rigorous and objective capital planning process than we usually see in this city. We believe that Prop. K is essential to preserve the existing transportation system and to complete some of the most important improvements that will improve the quality of life in San Francisco.

SPUR strongly recommends a "Yes" vote on Proposition K.