The process by which the East Bay funds transportation infrastructure and transit services is similar to industrial sausage making. All kinds of ingredients are ground into the initiatives that voters must either approve or deny in their entirety. Almost every voter will, if they read the long list of transportation projects in the expenditure plan attached to these massive regional sales tax initiatives, find something they don’t want to see built. But for a transportation package to be approved, 66.67 percent of voters have to feel like they’re getting more of what they want compared to what they don’t. Alternatively, it helps if voters simply don’t read the complete list of ingredients. When you notice that 10 percent of your hot dog is made of rat tails, you tend to throw it all out, even if the other 90 percent is organic apples and grass-fed beef.
It’s a dysfunctional process because it often results in voters striking down much needed transportation funding over relatively small objections in the big list of projects.
Next month Alameda County voters are being asked to approve one of the state’s biggest transportation initiatives in history. It’s called Measure BB, and it’s very similar to Measure B1 from 2012 that fell short of its needed two-thirds vote by a razor thin 0.14 percent.
If passed, Measure BB will raise Alameda County’s sales tax by half a cent, creating a total 1 cent sales tax dedicated to funding transportation capital projects and services, just like Measure B1 would have done in 2012.
But unlike Measure B1 from 2012, Measure BB sunsets the half cent tax increase after 30 years, instead of continuing the tax forever. Measure BB also eliminates a poorly-planned and expensive rail project that would have run across the Dunbarton Bridge in the South Bay, replacing it with bus services that will likely serve more riders at lower cost.
Measure BB is good, and you should vote for it. Most of what Measure BB will fund is desperately needed. It’s better for the climate, and more equitable because it expands transit services that lower income communities, youths, and seniors, rely one.
Unfortunately there’s still rat meat in the sausage, and you can’t pick it out as you eat. If you want the money for bikes, buses, youths and seniors, you’ve gotta swallow the rodent flesh too.
Measure BB will set aside 10 percent, or $749 million in total revenue to fund BART. Some of this money will go toward improving the existing BART system, which is without a doubt another good reason to vote for Measure BB. However most of the BART money will be spent expanding the BART system out into Livermore and down through Fremont toward San Jose.
TransForm, an Oakland-based transportation advocacy organization that has endorsed Measure BB, objects to using these dollars for BART expansion.
“BART has multi-billion dollar shortfalls to maintain their existing system,” the group explained in its analysis of Measure BB released in June. “These shortfalls are already causing maintenance and capacity problems. If BART does not refocus its attention on maintaining the existing system, the problems will get worse, endanger rider and worker safety, slow down the trains, make it even more cramped, and reduce the number of people BART can carry at rush hour.”
This all might lead to another BART strike, to say nothing of the crowding on trains, broken escalators, long delays, and numerous other problems.
Gerald Cauthen, a transportation engineer and perennial critic of big transit initiatives, opposes Measure BB for numerous reasons, but BART’s cut of the tax dollars is a big red flag for him.
“The total cost of the BART extension to Livermore is 3.2 billion, of which $400 million is a down payment,” said Cauthen. “It’s a total waste of money to run a bart line out to a low density area.”
Cauthen calls other recently built BART projects like the Oakland Airport Connector “boondoggles,” and said the agency should learn from past mistakes rather than continuing to waste resources.
“The legacy here is one of wasting money on these transportation projects caused by politicians who simply don’t stop, gather professionals, study the options, and pick the best ones,” complained Cauthen.
But there’s one other problem with Measure BB besides what gets funded. Measure BB is a regressive tax to finance transportation. To paraphrase a famous economist, it’s best to tax bad things and use that money to pay for good things that broadly benefit society. Bad things are those that pollute, like burning gasoline and taking up road space in a private automobile that causes wear and tear on streets and endangers pedestrians and bicyclists.
And if ever there was a good thing in Alameda County, especially in revenue-starved cities like Oakland, it’s consumer spending at local retail stores. Retail sales are a sign of job creation, and the circulation of money in the local economy. The regressive impact of taxing retail spending is well known. Sales taxes force low-income households to pay a higher share of their total income than affluent households.
So why use sales taxes to subsidize transportation and transit? And can’t we find a more equitable and robust source of funding?
“That’s the fundamental question that every transpiration agency is grappling with right now,” said Tess Lengyel, Deputy Director of Planning and Policy at the Alameda County Transportation Commission. “What used to be a silver bullet, the gas tax, it no longer works.”
“These kinds of measures result in part from devolution and de-funding from the federal and state levels,” explained San Francisco geography and environment professor Jason Henderson in an e-mail. “They are often called ‘self help’.”
Self help has become increasingly necessary as federal and state gas tax revenues dwindle.
Lengyel said, however, that Measure BB shouldn’t be characterized as a regressive a tax.
“You have to look at what this pays for and who benefits,” said Lengyel. “A lot of people called these sales tax measures regressive before because the expenditures had a lot to do with highways, and the people paying the tax were paying for something they mostly weren’t using.”
Now, said Lengyel, a fair share of the revenues that will be raised by Measure BB will fund transportation projects that benefit lower income workers, urban residents, bicyclists, pedestrians, bus riders, and others who will pay a big share the tax.
Even so, the land values created by transportation infrastructure and transit services are a windfall to property owners who pay low taxes since 1978’s Proposition 13. Meanwhile sales tax measures have come to subsidize a growing percentage of all transportation expenditures in the state. At the same time politicians have found it popular to cut gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, cratering transportation funding while doing nothing to address climate change. And they haven’t replaced these taxes fully with new revenue sources, leaving infrastructure in disrepair.
As for more equitable revenue streams to pay for the transportation projects we need?
“The state has been looking at vehicle registration fee, and a vehicle miles traveled tax,” said Lengyel. She added that cap and trade funds may be used to fund transit and transportation projects also. But to build a bridge from here to there, it looks like we’re stuck with the self-help retail sales tax.