transportation funding ideas

First, some background. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) publication: Transportation Funding in California (2019), documents what funding is currently available in the state, but mostly serves to reflect how complicated the whole funding stream is. I don’t think this is an unintended consequence, but a design feature, as a complex system benefits engineers, planners and politicians by obscuring inputs and outputs.

Next, there are many useful sources of information on potential funding, but two I find useful are: Key Local Funding Options, by Transportation for America, and A Guide to Transportation Funding Options, by Texas Transportation Institute.

I don’t claim any expertise in transportation funding, but I am reading and thinking, and am presenting some ideas for your consideration.

This exploration is both the result of Sacramento Transportation Authority (SacTA) to pull the ordinance and request for ballot measure for the 2020 Measure A transportation sales tax, as well as an ongoing dissatisfaction with our current funding models. The current Measure A is a 30-year (2009-2039) transportation measure for the county of Sacramento which implements a half-cent sales tax. Though there are minor amounts of funding from other sources at the county level, and in the cities, this measure is the main source of local funding for transportation.

Sales taxes are regressive, in that lower income people spend a higher percentage of their income on sales tax than do higher income people. Of course most of our tax system is set up this way, as the higher income people, particularly the top 1%, buys politicians with political donations who will make sure that their tax burden remains as low as possible. The Trump tax cuts are just one example, where nearly all of the benefits went to high income individuals and large corporations. The huge income and wealth disparity in the US is no accident, it is the design of the taxation system. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to talk about less regressive taxes.

A few alternative potential sources are listed. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, please see the leading documents if you want a fuller list. Rather, it is ideas that appeal to me.

  • Income tax: While. in theory, income taxes are progressive, they have been made less and less so over time, and in fact are currently regressive because high income and high wealth individuals, and large corporations, write tax code that reduces their obligations. In fact many large corporation pay no taxes at all. Because California largely follows the federal tax law, California’s income tax is also regressive. Nevertheless, income tax is less regressive than sales tax. However, California does not allow local income taxes.
  • Property tax: Property tax is based on the value of land and improvements (at least theoretically, though assessment practices actually muddy the waters). This is the least regressive tax available, since the value of the property being taxes correlates highly with income and wealth. It is what should be funding most of our government services. But as you well know, Prop 13 corrupts that by holding the taxation rate on some properties to artificially low values. Proposition 15 (2020) will remove that limitation on commercial properties, but does not touch residential properties. Most of the billions in income from Proposition 15 will go to education, as it probably should, but some can be made available for transportation.
  • Property tax increment: When the value of property increases due to a specific transportation investment, the additional property tax collected can be used to pay for the investment, usually through bond repayment. Sounds good, but in California the tax increment has been so corrupted by giving tax breaks to large corporations that almost no one trust the funding mechanism anymore.
  • Property tax assessment: Taxes are raised on parcels that are expected to benefit from a transportation investment. This seems like a great idea, but from my understanding Prop 13 limitations mean that this is rarely done, and special assessments default to parcel taxes. Worth learning more about.
  • Parcel tax: These are flat rate taxes on property. Because every parcel pays the same amount, these taxes are incredibly regressive. Unfortunately schools and many other local taxing districts use parcel taxes. Their regressive nature should preclude their use for transportation.
  • Vehicle registration fee: These include a number of related fees, see https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/vehicle-registration/registration-fees/ if you want more details. These fees are based in part on vehicle value, so they are more progressive than many fees/taxes. It is not clear whether counties/cities/regions can charge vehicle fees. As a highly visible fee, this one tends to get a lot of attention from anti-tax people.
  • Fuel tax (or mileage fee): This tax, or fee, relates to fuel used or miles traveled. These taxes/fees are therefore a user fee, the user of the transportation system pays for the transportation system. However, I don’t think California allows such taxes/fees at the local level.
  • Parking fees: Parking charges are a variety of user fees, but instead of based on the vehicle when moving, based on when the vehicle is still. Parking fees are collected and expended at the local level, so this a strong nexus. In California, parking fees are theoretically only allowed to cover the cost of administering the parking, and not even the cost of constructing and maintaining the parking space, however, this is widely violated and is probably a ripe are for reform. Parking is in many ways a wasted part of our transportation system, socialism for car owners, so this one should be at the top of the list.
  • Congestion pricing: A fee changed to vehicles entering a defined area of the city where there is congestion of some sort. I think the term ‘congestion’ is unfortunately in this context, as it implies that congestion is something to be solved, but it is, for now, the commonly used term. Transportation use fee or something else might be better. At any rate, sometimes the fee is per vehicle, and sometimes it is adjusted by the weight (= pavement damage) or pollution output of the vehicle. Congestion fees have been criticized for having an inequitable impact on lower incomes, but this idea has been widely rebutted by the realization is that the most inequitable transportation system is on that requires people to own and use private vehicles.
  • General Funds: Cities and counties may of course, spend general funds, raised by any variety of taxes and fees, on transportation. But they rarely do. Part of the reason has to do with federal and state grants being a ‘free’ source of funds, that the local entity doesn’t have to raise or be blamed for, but flows freely from a higher level of government to the local. I would argue that at least some general funds should be spent on transportation, to provide at least a basic level of services and infrastructure.

This is just a quick run-through. Next post is about what I think should be emphasized for Sacramento county.

no Measure A in 2020

The Sacramento Transportation Authority decided today in a special meeting to “Repeal Ordinance No. STA 20-001 And Withdraw Request To The Board of Supervisors To Place The Measure On The November Ballot”. So Measure A is dead for the 2020 election. I celebrate this decision, but not for the reasons that most of the commenters online and by email gave.

A lot of the people opposed to the measure are simply opposed to any taxes, of any sort. The claim was made by a number of commenters that no roads had been fixed in the county. This is simply not true. Several roads have been paved, and a few reconstructed. The reason it looks like not much has been done is that there is so much need, so much deferred maintenance, that available funds can make only a small dent in the backlog. This is a significant point, as there is no amount of money, even if every cent went to fixing roads, to maintain the sprawling road and freeway infrastructure that the county and the cities have created. The economic value of these road investments is too small to maintain them. Economic productivity lies in places where there are a lot of jobs and a lot of small businesses, and that takes at least moderate density. The suburbs and exurbs of Sacramento county can’t provide that economic value, their value is just too low. Most of the commenters are under the illusion that someone guaranteed that their roads would be maintained even if their property taxes and sales taxes and other taxes were not sufficient to cover the cost. This is delusional. A lot of commenters suggested that the politicians are lying to them, and that the money is going somewhere else. Well, what the politicians are doing is not telling the truth that the infrastructure cannot be maintained on any conceivable tax. There are too many miles of roads, running through low density development, that can’t pay its own way. There are too many miles of freeway and expressway, serving to get commuters from their low-tax haven in the suburbs to their high value job in the job centers such as downtown Sacramento, and parts of Rancho Cordova and Folsom.

I know that a number of SacTA board members want to bring the same measure back in two years, when they hope (and I hope) that we are out of the current health and economic crises, and voters are more willing to vote for a transportation sales tax measure. I sincerely hope that is not what happens. I hope that instead people see that sales taxes are a dead-end road, and that the projects proposed were not the ones needed. I’ll have at least two more posts over the next two days about what I would like to see happen.

Against Measure A

The Sacramento Transportation Authority (SacTA) has developed an ordinance and transportation expenditure plan for a new half cent transportation sales tax, intended for the November ballot. All of the cities and the county have supported the measure (some overwhelmingly, some closer), and SacTA has voted to forward the measure to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for placement on the ballot. There are reluctance to put a tax measure on the ballot when so many other tax increases have happened over the last few years, and in such a time of uncertainty. But it is also being sold by boosters as a jobs creation program. I can’t predict what the supervisors will do. Nonetheless, it is my time to speak out against the measure.

Here is what I believe to be wrong, first as a tax measure:

  • The proposed Measure A is in large part an attempt to bail out the existing Measure A, which is nearly out of money because almost all projects were bonded (a gift to wall street), rather than being pay-as-you-go with a few exceptions for large or very high priority projects. There is no reason to think that financial mis-management won’t continue under the new measure, and there is nothing in the ordinance language to prevent it.
  • Sales taxes are inherently regressive, and we must stop funding government with sales tax. It is time to move to property tax and other taxing mechanisms. Sales tax places the greatest burden on those least able to afford it, as low income people pay a much larger percentage of their income to sales tax than do higher income people. This is not an argument against all sales taxes, but I think we have gone far enough down that road and it is time to STOP.
  • The anti-tax arguments against the measure, however, are a red herring. The anti-tax suburbs and exurbs exist because of subsidies of their infrastructure and transportation system by the rest of the county. For these people to now object to the measure because it doesn’t continue to provide them the high level of subsidy they demand is disingenuous, to say the least.

Second, as a transportation measure:

  • Measure A perpetuates, for 40 years, the cars-first model of transportation, continuing to expand lane miles and interchanges. The fact that there is money for transit and to fix roads does not change the climate-killing expansion agenda of the measure. Transportation expenditures should now be 100% for mitigating the effects of our past misallocation of transportation funds, not reinforcing them. Anyone who is paying any attention knows that the global climate change is going to slam our existing habits and infrastructure, and to me, the idea of continuing down the road of capacity expansion is criminal.
  • No amount of transit expenditure will bring us to a balanced system so long as we continue to fund (subsidize) the competition to transit, personal motor vehicles.
  • Freeways are inherently racist, since they were created and continue to serve to allow suburban and exurban whites to access central city jobs while not have to fund or support central city infrastructure. We have seventy years of catering to the desires of suburban whites, and it is time to shift to supporting those who were disinvested.
  • Though the transportation agencies continue to give lip service to maintenance, or ‘fix-it-first’, no sooner does the tax start then they are trying to undermine maintenance. It has always been this way and will continue until there are absolute and irrevocable commitments to maintenance. Measure A contains no such commitments.
  • Substantial portions of the Measure A TEP are for highway interchanges. These projects exist solely to benefit private development, often the sprawl development of greenfields (agricultural and open space lands). Citizens are forced to subsidize private development, and that development is always large developers and large corporations, never small developers and small businesses.
  • The Capital Southeast Connector is probably the worst transportation project this region has ever seen. Its purpose is to fuel long distance commutes between El Dorado Hills (which is not even in the county) and Elk Grove, and to develop the agricultural land along the alignment. The amount of money going to the project from Measure A has been scaled back a bit, but a stake needs to be driven through the heart of this zombie project, which has been built little by little under the nose of taxpayers, without the required evaluation of the entire project.

And lastly, SacTA ignored most of the input from the SacMoves coalition that could have improved the measure. The input, based on Los Angeles County (Metro)’s successful Measure M and the perspectives of the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change, was developed over a long period of time by a large variety of community advocacy organizations. Of the model proposals, only a small part was adopted. This despite the board members saying that they wanted to see a Measure M-like effort. When push came to shove, the board fell back on reliance on the the highway building lobby and its city and county minions.

What will happen if the sales tax measure does not go on the ballot, or if it does but fails in November? Well, I know SacRT is so concerned about this that they have placed their effort behind the measure. But the failure, either way, actually opens the window for a transit-only ballot measure, maybe with a source of income other than sales tax, and covering the parts of the county (and maybe part of Yolo County) where people actually want a successful transit system. The very recent court ruling that citizen-origination measures only need 50% plus to pass providing an intriguing possibility for a citizen-led effort to support transit.

I realized I’ve said some very radical things there. Comments that help illuminate the issues or give different perspectives on progressive change are welcome. Comments from suburban NIMBYs and people who believe the right to drive was written into the constitution and bible will be deleted, so don’t waste your time.

Though I have been or am a member of the SacMoves coalition, and several organizations which are members of the coalition, I do not speak for any of them. The words are my own.

more highways

In contrast to the climate-friendly awards under the TIRCP program (SacRT awarded TIRCP funds for light rail), the Congested Corridors Program and Local Partnership Program are larded up with climate-unfriendly highways.

In the Congested Corridors Program, the SACOG region did well, receiving $15M for ‘Sac 5 Corridor Enhancements/1-5 HOV Lanes-Phase 1’, and $110.3M for ‘US 50 Multimodal Corridor Enhancements’. Not funded were additional ‘US 50 Multimodal Corridor Enhancements’, ‘US 50 Camino Corridor Safety and Community Access Mitigation’, ‘South Watt Avenue Improvements, Phase 1’, ‘West Capitol Avenue Road Rehabilitation and Safety Enhancements’ and ‘Electrifying Bus Transit in the Capital Region’.

In the Local Partnership Program, the SACOG region received $1.1M for ‘Placerville: Western Placerville Interchanges Phase 2’, $20M for ‘Capital SouthEast Connector Expressway’, $5M for ‘Downtown Sacramento Grid 3.0 Mobility: Network Improvements on the Grid’, and $2M for ‘Woodland: West Main Street Bicycle/Pedestrian Mobility and Safety’. These amounts are relatively small because they are matches for local funding in the self-help counties, counties which raise funds through transportation sales taxes. Not funded were ‘Pioneer Trail / U.S. 50 Intersection Safety Improvement Project’, ‘U.S. Highway 50 Camino Safety Project’, ‘Upper Broadway Bike Lanes and Pedestrian Connection Project’, ‘Broadway Sidewalks Project’, ‘Ray Lawyer Drive Overlay Project’, ‘Highway 65 Gap Closure Project’, ‘Hazel Avenue Improvement Project – Phase III’, ‘Watt Avenue Complete Street Improvements, Phase 1’, ‘South Watt Avenue Improvement Project, Phase 1’, ‘Downtown Sacramento Grid 3.0 Mobility Project: Network Improvements on the Grid’, ‘White Rock Road Four and Two Lane Improvements’, ‘Greenback Lane Complete Street Improvements, Phase 1’, ‘White Rock Road Two Lane Improvements’, ‘Grant Line Road Operational Improvements Project’, ‘Elverta Road Widening Project: Dutch Haven Boulevard to Watt Avenue’, and ‘North Beale Road Complete Streets Project- Phase II’. These rejections might be a sign that capacity-expanding, traffic-inducing, sprawl-promoting projects are less popular than they once were, though the Capital SouthEast Connector Expressway argues otherwise.

ATP regional projects

The California Transportation Commission approved additional projects under the ATP (Active Transportation Program) statewide program, including these in the Sacramento region:

  • Yolo, Davis: Providing Safe Passage: Connecting Montgomery Elementary and Olive Drive
  • Placer, Roseville: Washington Boulevard Bikeway and Pedestrian Pathways
  • Sacramento, Citrus Heights: Citrus Heights Electric Greenway (Class 1 Multi-Use Trail); had received planning money only in original award
  • El Dorado: El Dorado Trail – Missouri Flat Road to El Dorado
  • El Dorado, Placerville: Upper Broadway Pedestrian Connection
  • Sacramento: Folsom Boulevard Complete Street Improvements, Phase 1
  • Sacramento: Two Rivers Trail (Phase II)

And one will receive advance funding so it can start earlier:

  • Yuba: Eleventh Avenue Pedestrian and Bicyclist Route Improvements

Other projects are funded at the regional MPO (SACOG) level. 

transportation development impact fee

The City of Sacramento is working on a Transportation Development Impact Fee (TDIF) for the entire city, and with somewhat different requirements for subareas including downtown, river district, and North Natomas. The Sacramento Bee clued me into the proposal with Sacramento asks developers to open wallets to keep city streets from clogging (SacBee 2016-12-08). My initial guess was that this is in response to the failure of Measure B, but this proposal has been worked on since at least August, so that is not the case. The city has a webpage on development impact fees, with two documents specifically about the transportation DIF. I have not had the time to delve into the details, nor do I have any expertise in this area, so these are my initial thoughts.

Continue reading “transportation development impact fee”

Missing the message on Measure B

This is a letter I sent to my representative on the Sacramento Transportation Authority (SacTA) board of directors.


I read the Measure B report from Executive Director Jeffrey Spencer, item 12 on Thursday’s agenda, and I have to say I’m rather disturbed by it. (here, or page 41 of the SacTA agenda packet)
In paragraph one, he is completely incorrect about the voter turnout. It was 74.5%, similar to past elections, both on-year and off-year.

In paragraph three, he claims $35K spent by Measure B opposition, and though he doesn’t provide any reference for this, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he did an FPPC records request and used that info. However, he does not mention political spending by the pro-B group, as well as “educational” spending by SacTA, SacRT, Sacramento County, and the cities such as the glossy mailers that clogged my mailbox. His implication is that pro-B got outspent, but that simply cannot be true.

In paragraph three, he also stated “These news releases and reports are not always factual and can rely on conjecture. Although providing untrue statements, the general public cannot decipher the facts and may rely on this group’s opinions.” That is a pretty amazing statement coming from a public official. Is he really accusing anti-B of lying? He fails to mention that the pro-B glossy mailers had a number of factual errors, mis-statement, straw-men, and questionable implications.

In paragraph four, he says “Discussions with voters after the election…” What voters, whose discussion? I would think there would be documentation here. Though I’m certainly not claiming anything but anecdotal evidence, I heard two things from voters after the election: 1) anti-tax sentiment, and 2) opposition to a measure that spent so much on roadway expansion and so little on transit. Voters got that there was a focus on fixing roadways, and the pro vote was probably in large part due to that, but they also recognized that there was unnecessary roadway expansion larded onto the measure.

You can’t solve a problem if you misidentify what that problem is, and in my opinion, Mr. Spencer has failed to admit failure, has mis-identified the reasons for that failure, and therefore, cannot solve the problem.

If SacTA is to have any chance of moving forward WITH the community to address transportation issues, they need to a) listen to the public, and b) come up with innovative solutions rather than the 1970s thinking represented by the failed Measure B.

Measure B and air quality

Warning: nerdy detail ahead, but nerdy detail of critical importance to acheiving air quality goals in the region.

In the April 2016 draft Measure B included the following language:

Federal Air Quality Requirements. Measure_ Expenditure Plan funds programmed for a project construction phase that must be included in a federally approved air quality conformity determination to either the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) or Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) shall have consistent project descriptions to the listing in the MTP & MTIP before the Authority allocates construction funding for the project phase.

The final Measure B language is:

Federal Air Quality Requirements. Measure_ Expenditure Plan funds programmed for a project construction phase shall not impair the ability of the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) and Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) to meet federal air quality conformity, as determined by the Sacramento Transportation Authority Governing Board.

The difference may seem subtle at first glance, but it is not! The original language meant that:

  • projects must be considered as a whole, not piecemeal
  • all projects must meet federal air quality goals
  • SACOG would make the determination of whether the project met federal air quality goals

Instead:

  • projects can be considered piecemeal
  • a specific project need not meet air quality goals as long as the overall program does
  • the Transportation Authority rather than SACOG will determine whether a project meets air quality goals

Why is this important?

The Capital Southeast Connector! The Capital Southeast Connector, at full build-out, would be an environmental disaster for the region. It will induce traffic, create more long distance commuters and further separation between housing and jobs, and very likely prevent the region from meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals.

How did it happen?

The language was changed at the Sacramento Transportation Authority board meeting on April 28. Region Business, which is a front group for greenfield developers, and California Alliance of Jobs, which represents employers who build roads, threatened board members with loss at the next election if they did not kowtow to the demands of the developers. This is not speculation: Kerri Howell, board chair, specifically said that the threat was made that candidates would be put up against her at the next election, and many other board members reported similar threats or nodded their heads in assent. And sadly, the board caved to these threats. After considerable non-public negotiation (the board members gather behind the dais), including discussion with the board members who had supported the original language and SACOG staff, compromise language was developed and passed, and is now part of Measure B ballot text.

What does it mean?

It means that Measure B has been tailored to the needs of greenfield developers. It was clear from the beginning that project allocations followed the old and discredited model of sprawl and cars-first development, but with this change it is now clear that Measure B will damage air quality in the region and prevent us from reaching greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Myth: driving is supported by user fees

Another myth promulgated by people who support roads over transit is that transit has to be subsidized while motor vehicles pay their way. “Transit, particularly rail transit, is very expensive to build, operate, and maintain. While driving is pretty much self-supporting through user fees, transit must be heavily subsidized by taxpayers.”

Roads for motor vehicles are anything but self supporting. For the state and federal highway system (from the interstates all the way down to some arterial streets that many people don’t realize are designated highways), gas taxes pay for roughly half of constructing those roads. Where does the other half come from? Out of our pockets, from the general fund, through income taxes and other fees. You may have heard that the federal highway trust fund is out of money, but highways are still being built. How is that possible? Well, money keeps getting dumped into transportation to make up for the lack of gas tax income. Though it is now down to 50%, if the gas tax is not raised, it will be a continually declining percentage until nearly all of our transportation funds come out of the general fund.

So if the gas tax doesn’t pay for maintaining roads, what does? Nothing! Very little money is being spent on maintenance, and our roads have deteriorated in a way that is obvious to anyone who drives, or rides a bike, or even walks. Politicians give lip service to fixing roads, but when it comes to spending money, it is all about big new roads and ribbon-cutting opportunities. Or even big new transit projects and ribbon-cutting opportunities.

For local roads, those paid for by counties and cities, very little comes from the gas tax. Counties and cities in California do not have gas taxes nor income taxes (though they do in some other states). So where does the money come from? Sales tax, and out of the general fund, which is mostly property tax. Self supporting? Hardly. Counties and cities do get some state and federal funds, some of which comes from gas taxes, but it usually is only for new construction (not that it has to be, but that is what is asked for and given), and it is a small part of what it takes to build and maintain local roads.

And then there are the externalties of a car-centric transportation system. Climate change, air pollution, sprawl, unemployment or underemployment for people who can’t afford to get to jobs, death and severe injury on our roads ($80 billion per year, for just injuries, not including fatalities), high portions of both family income and family wealth devoted to just one purpose, the car, deteriorating infrastructure, foreign wars for oil (if you think the war in Iraq was about freedom rather than oil and profit for Halliburton and Dick Cheney, you haven’t been paying attention).

All forms of transportation get some subsidy. Motor vehicles, bicycles, buses, trains, airplanes (the subsidy here is probably the highest percentage of any), all get subsidized. Though rail freight is subsidized far less than other modes, which is why it seems to not be competetive with road and air, when it would be if the playing field were level. The real question is whether the subsidies result in a transportation system that serves all citizens, and not just those who choose to drive or are forced to drive by a lack of choice. My opinion is that we have our priorities all wrong.

So why do we still keep spending money we don’t have on highways and roads, rather than a rational transportation system? The “asphalt lobby” as it is called. This is a network of engineers, construction companies, government workers, and politicians who profit incredibly from continuing to spend our money on their pet projects. AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) and ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) are probaby the most prominent proponents, but there are organizations and lobbyists too numerous to list. OK, I can’t resist: the Asphalt Paving Alliance, the Asphalt Institute, the National Asphalt Paving Association. Not to mention: the American Concrete Pavement Association, the American Concrete Institute.

Time to stop!

transit and rail grants to Sacramento region

  California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) announced the recipients of its Transit and Intercity Capital Program (TIRCP) grants. Sacramento benefits from two projects:

  • $9M to Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority for expanded service to Roseville and related rail improvements
  • $30M to Sacramento Regional Transit District for a new streetcar

These grants of course are only a fraction of the cost of the projects, but every bit helps, and it is likely that these projects will now move forward though both were formerly stalled or moving very slowly.

From Streetsblog California, some more detail:

CCJPA_3rd-map2

2. Increased Rail Service to Roseville and Rail Improvements
$8,999,000 to Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

The project includes:

  • Extending rail service to Roseville, building eight miles of a third track, a new bridge, station improvements, and more.
  • Creating a service optimization plan to connect with Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak San Joaquin passenger rail services.
  • Adding standby electric train power to enable more trains to utilize grid electricity at the Oakland Maintenance Facility.

Capitol Corridor’s website News & Alerts page has more detail.
modernstreetcar-300x206
10. Sacramento Streetcar

$30,000,000 to Sacramento Regional Transit District

Funds go to the planned Downtown/Riverfront Sacramento-West Sacramento Streetcar (pending the project’s federal full-funding grant agreement expected by early 2017) including nineteen stations and six streetcars.