TRANSDEF’s first thoughts on the Megameasure

TRANSDEF had a complicated reaction to the announcement of the proposed Megameasure. (All quotes referred to are contained in that post.)

Service considerations

  • We like the focus on world-class transit, but don’t trust that the sponsors of the measure mean the same thing we do. They have no prior history of supporting the cost-effective transit we support. To our knowledge, they have only supported the expensive brands of transit: BART and high-speed rail.
  • Because the fundamental transportation problem of the Bay Area is too many cars on the roads, a solution viable for the long term must facilitate car-free living.
  • That means providing for all trips–not just commute trips–and incentivizing walkable, bikeable land use patterns that reduce or eliminate car use.
  • A measure must protect the funding for local transit service when creating regional infrastructure that facilitates long commutes.
  • A measure should incentivize transit operators to consolidate their operations and fare structures, even if separate governance Boards remain in place.

Funding considerations

  • We’ve always disliked sales taxes because of their regressivity and failure to provide a sharply tuned price signal that acts as a disincentive to driving.
  • Because the growth of large employers is the source of the transportation/housing problems we face, they should shoulder the burden of mitigating that growth. A payroll tax might be the answer, modeled after the Portland’s transit tax.
  • Money raised in the Bay Area should support travel in the Bay Area. In-commuting to the Bay Area from nearby regions should be paid for by employers and the State.
  • Recognizing the difficulty of providing transit in low-density areas, funding cannot be geographically equitable. Those areas that are dense, or willing to densify, should receive disproportionate funding.
  • Any transit measure should generate significant annual operating funds for express buses to use in HOV lanes.
  • Any transit measure should contain language that explicitly phases out Express Lanes.

We attempt to break down that complexity into its component parts:

Choice of language

The language used in describing the proposed Megameasure (see quote by Jason Baker of SVLG) comes right out of TRANSDEF and TransForm.  It appears they want what we want. The words are uplifting and exciting to hear, especially when coming from the mouths of the representatives of Big Business. Has the reality of the need for great transit finally sunk in? That would be truly amazing, after 25 years of resistance to these goals.

Bona fides

TRANSDEF has often noticed that when Bay Area Council (BAC), Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) and SPUR have advocated for a project or tax, we have consistently been in opposition. Finally, we came to realize that the claims these groups were making about furthering the interests of the public were not believable. The promotion of BART extensions to SFO and San Jose, for example, are extraordinarily expensive, yet offer relatively low benefits for the public. Far lower-cost alternatives were available. Even though BART polls well (due to 40 years of marketing, we suspect), the SFO extension has been a fiscal and planning disaster, and San Jose is  about to become one. We were finally forced to conclude that what these groups were advocating was for the business interests of their contractor and engineering members. That meant backing the most expensive projects possible, because that’s where the profits are.

TRANSDEF reached out to John Grubb of BAC, in an effort to share our transit expertise gained from 25 years of advocacy. Grubb replied that “Given your lawsuit against us, I don’t think it’s a good time to talk until that’s resolved.” As a lawyer, he obviously knows the difference between a lawsuit and a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission. TRANSDEF had suggested that the next MTC Regional Transportation Plan would be an opportunity to change direction: “How that process moves forward will in many ways be a measure of the credibility of the desire for world-class transit. TRANSDEF had its Smart Growth Alternative studied in the EIR for the 2005 RTP, and it outperformed the adopted plan. Those principles could easily be inserted into the next plan.” The refusal to talk about collaboration on the next Regional Transportation Plan is a strong indication of a lack of interest in actually moving towards world-class transit. TRANSDEF has been outspoken about past regional plans, and identified many places where improvements could be made.

Ultimately, the credibility of the three organizations comes down to “Are you proposing to radically change direction from decades of your organization’s advocacy?” Recently, the three organizations heavily supported Regional Measure 3, in which so-called Express Lanes were the third biggest expenditureThese are HOV lanes which solo drivers can pay to enter. TRANSDEF has vehemently opposed Express Lanes, because they divert funding away from needed transit while exacerbating the region’s root transportation problem: too many solo drivers for the available highway space.

It would be something of a miracle if these groups suddenly decided in the past year that they had been wrong pushing RM3’s highway-oriented priorities. Perhaps an even bigger question is “Where in any of these organizations’ histories is there any hint of a desire for a world-class transit system?” [Note: SPUR talks a good game, but typically goes along with the other two organizations in supporting the most wasteful public works projects.] It’s true that BAC was the father of BART, but BART is hardly a world-class transit system. In fact, BART led to massive sprawl in the East Bay, all of which is highway-oriented.

While harsh, it’s hard to believe that these organizations’ push for a world-class transit system is anything more than a cynical attempt to cash in on the public’s legitimate desire for great transit. There simply is no evidence to support their claims that they truly want world-class transit, or would recognize it if they saw it.

Until proven otherwise through confidence-building actions to make the next Regional Transportation Plan focus on cost-effective transit, we are forced to assume that the purpose of the Megameasure is to generate vast amounts of new money for building huge wasteful projects that would leave the region in a bigger mess than it is now, only poorer.

Message to Bay Area Council: We’re still interested in talking. We’re willing to be shown you mean what you say.

Campaign Violations

The TRANSDEF complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission named BAC, SVLG and SPUR, as well as public agencies and other organizations. Depending on how the FPPC decides to handle the complaint, this Megameasure could involve campaigning by entities that were fined for previous violations. That wouldn’t inspire confidence in the handling of the huge sums that would result from a successful measure.

Funding Sources

The workshop comments quoted, along with the editorial, speak to a major imbalance in transportation funding in the Bay Area: The large corporations that added so many jobs in the past decade have created a jobs/housing imbalance. While MTC and local governments did nothing about the imbalance, traffic congestion has gotten predictably worse. It should be obvious that a major component of any future funding strategy needs to come from the corporations that caused the problem, and have profited by having done so.

Portland, OR has a payroll tax on employers.  To win TRANSDEF’s support, something along those lines would clearly need to be part of any future measure.

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