How to fund transit in Sac county

This post is a follow-on to three previous posts, in particular:

and many other posts on this blog (category Measure B) and on Sacramento Transit Advocates and Riders (categories Measure B 2016 and Measure A 2020).

It is quite possible that Sacramento Transportation Authority (SacTA) will decide to float a new transportation sales tax measure in 2022 or 2024. The transit, walking and bicycling advocacy community, which worked hard but largely unsuccessfully to improve the 2020 Measure A, which never made it to the ballot, will have to decide what to do between now and then. I argue that efforts to improve the newest measure will not significantly improve it because: 1) the SacTA board is resistant to including policy and performance goals in the measure; 2) the list of projects is and probably will always be a wish list of the engineers in each of the government transportation agencies in the county, which will always be weighted towards cars-first and ribbon cutting projects; and 3) SacTA gave strong lip service to the idea of maintenance (fix-it-first) in the measure, but there was nothing to guarantee that the expenditures would actually reflect that. One has only to look at the condition of our surface streets, sidewalks and bike lanes, and bus stops and light rail vehicles, to know that has never been the priority.

I would like to suggest three major alternatives to a new transportation sales tax measure put forward by SacTRA:

  • a citizen-initiated measure that reflects the values of the residents and businesses of Sacramento County, and not the preferences of engineers
  • a transit-only measure (with first/last mile walking and bicycling improvements), either for the county, or the actual service area of the transit agencies where residents support transit
  • other sources of income rather than a regressive sales tax

Citizen-initiated Measure

A citizen-initiated funding measure only needs to pass by 50%+1, whereas agency-initiated measures need to pass by 2/3. The 2/3 level is hard though not impossible to achieve – several transportation and transit measures in California have achieved that level, but certainly 50% is easier. This 50% is not based on a specific state law, but on a court ruling about San Francisco’s tax measures which passed with more than 50%. It will probably be subject to further court cases as anti-tax organizations try to overturn the ruling, but for now, it stands. The 2016 Measure B had a yes vote of 64%+, but needed 2/3, and therefore failed. The polling done for the 2020 Measure A was also less than 2/3, which is why Sacramento County and SacTA declined to put it on the ballot.

I have no illusions about how difficult it would be to engage the community, write a ballot measure, and then promote it strongly enough to receive a 50% plus vote. The recent experience the community organizations that supported a measure for stronger rent stabilization and eviction protection in the City of Sacramento, that failed to pass, gives pause. The SacMoves coalition spent thousands of hours of individual and organization time, basically writing a good measure for SacTA to use, but very little of that effort was included in the measure proposed by SacTA. A successful citizen-initiated measure would require more than double the amount of work, and a broader coalition. Nevertheless, it is an option that I think should receive serious consideration.

I doubt that the structure of SacTA, which is board members that are elected in each of the jurisdictions, without formal citizen or organization representation on the board, combined with a Transportation Expenditure Plan that is and will alway be a wish list for roadway engineers, can ever lead to a good measure. We could of course wait to see what SacTA comes up with, or again try the largely unsuccessful attempt to improve the measure, or just oppose any measure from SacTA.

Transit-Only Measure

The percentage of 2020 Measure A allocated to transit was actually lower than in the 2016 Measure B, and lower than in the existing Measure A. Some of the difference in 2020 was due to the regional rail allocation being subtracted from the transit allocation, but there was more to it than just that. Sadly, SacRT accepted this reduction as ‘the best they could get’. To citizen advocates, though, it was unacceptable. Since the 2020 measure was not placed on the ballot, it was not necessary for advocates to formally oppose passage of the measure, but I believe most of them would have.

A transit-only measure would avoid this competition between maintenance, roadway capacity expansion, and transit (notice that walking and bicycling are not really in the competition at all), by allocating all funds to transit and related needs. The amount of course would not be the half-cent sales tax of the 2020 Measure A, but more likely a quarter-cent sales tax (or equivalent in other incomes sources, see the next section). Certainly the advocacy community would support first/last mile walking and bicycling improvements in the measure, though I’m not sure exactly how it would be defined or whether the percentage would be specified ahead of time.

A transit-only measure would more easily allow the SacRT to determine how much to allocate to capital (bus and light rail vehicles and rail, and related items such as bus stops and sidewalks) versus operations, and to change that allocation over time as needs changed. The three counties that are members of Caltrain passed 2020 Measure RR for a eighth-cent sales tax to fund operations, with 69% of the vote, and at least 2/3 in each county, precedence in California for transit-only measures.

For a transit-only measure, a decision would have to be made about the geographical area it covers. Sacramento County, only and exactly, or Sacramento County plus the YoloBus service area, or just the transit-using areas. It was clear that the strongest support for 2016 Measure B was in the transit-using parts of Sacramento County, and if these areas were the only ones, it would have passed easily. There has also been a lot of opposition to transit expenditures on the part of the county supervisors who say they represent the rural and semi-rural areas of the county (it is statistically impossible that three of the five supervisors represent rural, given that the population of the county is mostly urban and denser suburban). A lot of advocates then said, well, if they don’t want transit, then let’s exclude voters and their tax income in the future. Of course the projects defined in the measure, mostly capacity expansion, could not be funded off sales tax from only the rural and semi-rural areas, so most of these would never happen. And I think that is a good thing.

Other Sources

The sales tax rate in Sacramento County is 7.75%, and ranges up to 8.75% in the City of Sacramento and some other locations. I am not opposed to sales tax, but I think we are at or close to the point of diminishing returns on sales tax income versus impact on people and businesses. Sales taxes are regressive, in that lower income people pay a much higher percentage of their income for sales tax than do higher income people. It is not the most regressive of taxes, that award probably goes to flat rate parcel taxes where people with a lot of land and expensive buildings pay the same as anyone else. For more detail on possible funding sources, please see my earlier post: transportation funding ideas.

California under Prop 13 has an intentionally biased tax base, where property tax depends more on when you purchased than on the value of the property. I really hoped that 2020 Prop 15 would pass, undoing part of the tremendous damage that Prop 13 has done to California, but it did not. So while small and gradual increases in property tax income can occur, it is probably not enough to finance our transportation system. This saddens me, because I believe property tax would be the best, most equitable source of funding.

If property tax can serve only part of the need, and further sales tax increases are not my preference, what then? First, I think that both federal and state funding of transportation should move away from any and all roadway capacity expansion. Overall federal and state transportation funding should be greatly reduced so that it only funds needs that are more than county or regional level. And yes, federal and state taxes should be commensurately reduced, so that the money does not simply go elsewhere. State prohibitions on the type of taxes and fees that can be levied at the city and county level should be mostly or entirely removed, so that cities and counties can then recover the foregone state and federal taxes for whatever transportation uses they deem.

Local transportation needs would still exist, and should be locally funded. Yes, I want Sacramento County to provide most of the transportation funding for Sacramento County. It is necessary that local people pay for transportation, and see the benefit of what they pay for, so that they can make rational decisions about what they want and how to pay for it. Getting state and federal grants to meet local transportation needs is just a game that agencies play, hoping that they will somehow get more than they give. We know that states with strong economies, such as California, subsidize transportation in other places, and that regions with strong economies such as Los Angeles area, Bay Area, and maybe Sacramento, subsidize transportation in other regions. No reason for that to be happening, unless the need being addressed is regional or greater. If you don’t agree on this, I’d ask that you read Strong Towns Rational Response #1: Stop and Rational Response #1: What it means to STOP. And everything else by Strong Towns, for that matter.

We have spent trillions of dollars on a motor vehicle transportation system, with the biggest accomplishment being destruction of communities of color, impoverished economies and communities, pollution-caused health problems, climate change, and death, injury, and intimidation of walkers and bicyclists. It is time to stop. All future funding should go to maintenance, transit, intercity trains, walking, and bicycling. Those who want to bring ‘balance’ by making a small shift are asking that we continue the madness. We should not.

Examples of projects or maintenance that should come from the state or federal level? The Interstate highways that are actually dedicated to national defense and interstate commerce. In Sacramento region, that means Interstate 5 and Interstate 80. No, not the current freeways that have been bloated to serve local and regional commuters, but the highways. Two lanes in each direction would be sufficient to meet the legitimate needs of these highways. All additional lanes, if any, should be completely funded at the local level because they serve local needs. Long distance and regional rail should also be funded. In the case of Sacramento, that means the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr, and the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins regional rail. That’s pretty much it. There might be some argument for funding freight rail infrastructure and maintenance, not sure. No, I don’t think airports should be funded at the any level, they are a transportation mode that benefits primarily high income travelers and shipping corporations. If they want that infrastructure, they should pay for it.

So, how to fund transportation in the county?

First, charge for parking everywhere, even in residential areas. A residential parking permit should reflect the part cost of maintaining all streets. Quite possibly, people would reduce their use of the public street to store their personal vehicle, and might reduce their ownership of vehicles so that they don’t need to park on the street, and those would be good side effects, but would also limit the income from those permits. When there are fewer vehicles parked, there is less resistance to re-allocating space to sidewalks, sidewalk buffers, and bike lanes. Metered parking should be raised to ‘market rates’ which means what it would cost to park in a private garage or lot, AND achieves the Shoupian ideal of at least one open parking space on every block. Of course all parking revenue should go to transportation, not to other uses (such as paying off the Golden 1 Center). The Pasadena model of using some parking income to improve the street and surrounding areas is compatible.

Second, charge for entry into congested areas. In Sacramento County, that would primarily mean the central city. The purpose of this fee is not to reduce congestion, though the fees are often called congestion fees, but to obtain the income necessary to build and maintain our transportation network. The fee would be for each entry, so that people who live in the central city but don’t use their car much would not be paying a lot, while people who commute into the central city for their own convenience would be paying a lot.

These two sources alone might well not meet the need for transportation funding in the county, and I don’t have a ready solution to that. I don’t want development impact fees to go to transportation because I think they should be used to upgrade utilities and fund affordable housing. Same with title transfer taxes.

So, those are my thoughts of the moment. Comments and other or additional ideas are welcome.

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.

Measure B moves forward

As was no surprise, the board of the Sacramento Transportation Authority passed the Transportation Expenditure Plan and related language yesterday afternoon. All of the public speakers were in favor of less for road expansion and more for transit, walking, and bicycling. The board seems to feel that gaining the votes of the suburbs is important to passing the ballot measure, but other than Steve Hansen, seemed to forget that without the votes of the urban core which favors multi-modal transportation, the measure also won’t pass. Nevertheless, the vote was not a surprise.

What was a complete surprise was the opposition of two organizations, Region Business, a front group for greenfield developers, represented by Robert Abelon, and California Alliance of Jobs, a promoter of highways, represented by Michael Quigley. They wanted removal of paragraph H from the implementation guidelines section of the measure. Paragraph H said:

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.

Both lobbyists threatened to derail the measure if they didn’t get their way. Apparently they and their supporters had sent threatening emails to board members in the last hours before the meeting. Why are they opposed to paragraph H? They are strong defenders of the Capital Southeast Connector, and strong opponents of everything that SACOG does. SACOG is responsible for the MTP and MTIP, though it is composed of requests from the counties and cities which are seldom really questioned. Their strong opposition to paragraph H is an admission on their part that the connector, at least in its full buildout, could never meet air quality requirements, and so they want to eliminate any mention of air quality, the MTP, and the MTIP from the measure. Tom Zlotkowski, the Executive Director of the Capital Southeast Connector JPA (Joint Powers Authority), also objected, again, with the clear implication that the project could not go forward if air quality requirements were met.

The board, after well over an hour of discussion, and a long break to negotiate and regroup, decided with go with compromise language provided by SACOG counsel, Kirk Trost, and SACOG Director of Transportation Services, Matt Carpenter.

The substitute language is, in my opinion, significantly weaker and also vaguer. Not a good sign. Steve Hansen had earlier said that the existing paragraph H was part of the guarantee of accountability the authority was making with the public, and that not having a high level of accountability would result in a lower level of support at the ballot box. Yet, in the end, all board members except Roberta MacGlashan voted in favor of the TEP and language with the “compromise” change.

The new paragraph H says:

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.

For all of you who may question or be opposed to the Capital Southeast Connector, I urge you to get in touch with your representatives to ask why a very narrow interest group was allowed to significantly weaken the measure by making threats.

An earlier post of mine: No to the Capital Southeast Connector

Measure B projects

So, where would the money from Measure B go? It is impossible to really say, as the current option Transportation Expenditure Plan (TEP) focuses more on government entities than types of projects. But here is a summary, with the TEP (SacTA_2016-04-28_agenda-item6-TEP) also available:

  • Citrus Heights: $117M, mostly fix-it-first and complete streets projects, mostly good
  • Elk Grove: $235M, fix-it-first, new and widened road, new interchange, mostly bad
  • Folsom: $115M, fix-it-first, two new interchanges, road widening, mostly bad
  • Galt: $36M, fix-it-first, new interchange, mostly bad
  • Isleton: $2M, fix-it-first, great
  • Rancho Cordova: $110M, fix-it-first, interchange, several widening, mostly bad
  • City of Sacramento: $683, fix-it-first, American River bridge, OK
  • County of Sacramento: $901M, fix-it-first, one interchange, several complete streets but many road capacity expansions, mostly bad
  • Capital City Freeway: $200M, all bad
  • Capital Southeast Connector: $125M, all bad
  • SacRT replacement and operations: $393M, mostly fix-it-first with low floor modern light rail cars, all good
  • SacRT new light rail: $180M, mixed bag, but issue not addressed is which routes should be extended and how far on what priority
  • SacRT Gold Line express: $20M, good
  • SacRT Blue Line to Elk Grove and SMART: $126, mostly good, but same issue as above with priorities
  • Paratransit: $126M, good, though needs to emphasize transport to transit rather than point to point

Notice that most of the items say fix-it-first as the first line item, however, there is language in the ballot measure that would allow all agencies to squirm out of that requirement if they so chose.

So, to reiterate and summarize these recent posts, I am not against a sales tax for transportation, but I am against the way funds have been allocated in the TEP, and the length of the tax measure. I probably will not have time for any more posts between now and the Thursday meeting of SacTA.

transportation funding “balance”

“We’re doing what we think is best … so we can actually get this done,” [Sacramento Transportation Authority Board Chair Kerri] Howell said. “If we don’t get it passed, no one gets anything.”

The Sacramento Transportation Authority (SacTA, as I call it, rather than STA, to distinguish it from the State Transportation Agency, or CalSTA) is claiming that their proposed Transportation Expenditure Plan (TEP) is balanced, and that it reflects the desire of the citizens as expressed through the survey that they conducted.

The proposal might be considered balanced if it were the only source of transportation funding, but it is not. There is funding from the federal government, the state, and the existing Sacramento County sales tax, Measure A. Most of this funding goes to building new roads and expanding existing roads. As examples, the recent major widening of Interstate 80, the “Across the Top” project, that added significant capacity to the freeway, and several new interchanges in the region have been added or are under construction. The I-80 project serves commuters from Roseville to downtown. It does nothing for freight traffic, for air quality, or for a multi-modal system. The interchanges serve new greenfield developments, not existing residential and commercial areas. Any tax measure that funds new roads cannot be called balanced, because it does not bring an overall balance. We still have a cars-first transportation network, and a cars-first funding mechanism. The only answer to this is #NoNewRoads.

The survey that SacTA performed showed that people overwhelmingly support fixing roads, which is called fix-it-first. I support that. Deteriorated roads serve no one. However, too often transportation agencies use fix-it-first as a cover for widened roads. The assumption is that if a road is too narrow, and/or is congested, then it needs to be “fixed” to be wider. An example is the Hazel Ave widening going on right now. More lanes, more traffic, more air pollution, less livability. While on one hand agencies are building “complete streets” with sidewalks and bike lanes, with the other hand they are increasing capacity for motor vehicles. Having a sidewalk and bike lane does not change a roadway from a cars-first, high speed, unfriendly status to a multi-modal, serves all users part of the transportation network.

What the survey did not do is ask questions such as “Given that almost all of your tax money is already going to new construction and widening roads, do you want us to spend new tax money on the same thing?” The answer from most people would have been no. Or, “Given that we have in the past neglected to maintain roads, do you want us to continue to build new roads that we don’t have the funds to maintain. (We’ll ask you for that money later)?” The answer would have been no. The survey did not ask “Given that the level of funding for transit is Sacramento is the lowest of any major county in California, do you wish us to continue to give transit less than it needs?” The answer would have been no.

The idea that if we don’t do this tax measure then we have nothing is pernicious. We have existing funding sources, and though those sources are declining somewhat and don’t meet the needs for maintenance, we do have the ability to operate our transportation system on them, if need be. This is the same story that we have been hearing for at least 20 years, and probably back to post World War II. That story is, if you give us free rein to spend most of the money on cars, we will give you some bread crumbs to keep you happy. Some transit. A tiny bit for walking and bicycling. In my opinion, it is time to just say no. This allocation has not only been unfair to transit users, walkers and bicyclists, it has been used to create transportation system that is actively hostile to those uses. Just say no. #NoNewRoads

Please understand that I am not against increased taxes for transportation. What I am for, strongly for, is a transportation system that servers all users in an equitable manner. We don’t have that today, and we can only reach that if we spend our tax funds on undoing the damage of the past, and making sure we do no damage in the future. #NoNewRoads

transportation sales tax decision tomorrow

A critical decision on whether to place a new sales tax measure for transportation on the November ballot will be made tomorrow, Thursday, April 28, by the Sacramento Transportation Authority. I ask that you attend and let the SacTA know what you think, and why. The meeting starts at 2:30PM in the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chambers at 700 H Street in Sacramento. The agenda and agenda packet are available at: http://www.sacta.org/c_calendar.html.

I’ve written in the past about transportation funding, and will provide you some more background information between now and tomorrow that may help you form a position on Measure B, but for right now, let me summarize what I see as the negatives.

  1. The 30-year measure is far too long. To say the we know today what the county will need in 30 years is simple hubris. Just today a different vision for the streetcar was released than one year ago. How can we know 30 years from now what we will need? Yet the Transportation Expenditure Plan associated with the ballot measure would lock in projects for 30 years.
  2. There is a claim that this measure is balanced, because it includes some projects for all the entities in the county, and provides some for fix-it-first, transit capital and operations, and walking and bicycling via complete streets projects. What is not mentioned by the measure supporters is that the majority of other transportation funding goes to building new roads, not to these things, so our funding pattern is already severely out of balance. Our taxes and fees have long gone to building new roads, and almost none to creating a transportation system that works for all. If this were the sole funding for transportation, the mix might make some sense, but given the overall funding picture, this measure would just continue the imbalance.
  3. The measure devotes significant funds to two new road projects, the Capital Southeast Connector and widening of the Capital City Freeway, as well as a number of smaller but expensive freeway interchanges. All of these have unacceptable impacts on greenhouse gas reduction because they will in fact increase vehicle miles driven (VMT) rather than reducing it. It is called induced demand, and it is a well known effect.
  4. Our roadways are in such horrible condition because transportation planners and engineers, and the politicians that support them, have continued to devote our transportation funds to building new roads rather than keeping the ones we have in repair. It is time now to spend every tax dollar that we spend on roads on fixing what we have, and not building yet more than we will fail to maintain.

More to come!

streetcar vote coming

I live within the influence/taxation zone for the proposed Sacramento Streetcar, Sacramento Measure B, so I received a voter information pamphlet, and presumably will receive a ballot within a few days. Let me say right up front that I am voting yes. I support the streetcar for its economic and transportation benefits. However, I’d like to address some of the anti arguments.

YesOnB

No on Measure B

The pro side is well represented at http://gosacstreetcar.com, and the other websites linked from there. I have not found a website for the anti side, but their arguments are in the information packet and on the sign above.

Here are the anti arguments, from the pamphlet, with my comments in green:

Continue reading “streetcar vote coming”