By Autumn Bernstein, ClimatePlan Director. October 31, 2012.
Next week, voters in Alameda and Los Angeles counties will decide the fate of two progressive transportation sales tax measures that represent a massive investment in California’s transit network. However, as California’s aging and defunded transportation system comes to rely more heavily on these locally-generated revenues — even as SB 375 demands a more integrated regional approach – it’s time to begin a conversation about how we can do even better next time around.
As state and federal transportation funds have evaporated in recent years, so-called ‘self-help counties’ have taken measures into their own hands, literally. According to a 2011 UC Berkeley report, county sales tax measures now represent 24% of all transportation dollars in California. Historically, these measures have been heavily weighted towards cars: widening freeways, improving interchanges, and filling potholes. Even today, measures such as Napa County’s Measure T would dedicate 100% of revenues to road projects.
But that’s changing, thanks to the hard work of advocates. Two measures on next week’s ballot exemplify a recent shift toward a more sustainable sales tax model.
In LA County, Measure J would extend a sales tax approved in 2008 for another 30 years — from its current expiration date of 2039 to 2069. The tax program, originally known as Measure R, represented a huge leap forward for LA’s visionary new transit system, dedicating 64% of revenue to transit projects such as the Westside subway and a rail connection to LAX. The new measure doesn’t change which projects would be built. Instead, by extending the tax the agency can issue bonds against the longer revenue stream and accelerate construction of these projects. What was planned to take 30 years would take 10 instead. Measure J is supported by ClimatePlan partners Move LA, American Lung Association in California, the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, Endangered Habitats League, NRDC and Clean Air Now.
In Alameda County, Measure B1 will triple funding for bike-ped projects and increase funding for an innovative transit-oriented development program by almost 700%. 47% of the measure’s total funding would go towards transit, while 39% would fund roads and highways (with the lion’s share going to local road maintenance – ie potholes – and very little for highway expansion). Measure B1 is supported by ClimatePlan partners TransForm, Greenbelt Alliance and NRDC, along with many other groups.
The passage of Measure J and Measure B1 would represent a milestone in the creation of a world-class transit system in California. But the success of SB 375’s integrated, regional approach to transportation planning has highlighted the important shortcomings of the county sales tax approach. We know now that one county’s transportation investments will have ripple effects for public health, economic prosperity, affordable housing and environmental justice – and those effects don’t stop at the county line.
Take the Southern California region, for example. LA County’s success in passing progressive sales taxes hasn’t spilled over to Ventura County, which has never passed any transportation sales tax, or to San Bernardino County, whose sales tax invests heavily in road expansion. In fact, Southern California (SCAG’s) recently adopted RTP and SCS found that communities in LA County would see substantial improvements while air quality in some Inland Empire communities would continue to get worse.
One solution to this problem is to empower the regional agencies charged with implementing SB 375: the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). The MPOs take a broader view of transportation, not only because they are regional in scope, but also because they are charged with planning for affordable housing and implementing SB 375. Yet among all of California’s multi-county MPOs, only the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission controls a local revenue source: bridge tolls. It’s therefore no surprise that the Bay Area has gone farther in ensuring transportation investments are matched with integrated land use plans and affordable housing production. The other MPOs can create visionary regional plans, but as long as the individual counties hold all the local purse strings, they lack an important tool for implementing those plans.
Countywide sales tax measures also raise questions about fairness. Who pays the taxes, and who benefits? Sales taxes are inherently regressive, and because they need a supermajority (66%) vote to pass, most sales tax measures are chock-a-block full of projects that appeal to likely voters. These likely voters tend to be older, whiter, and more affluent than the population as a whole. As such, they often prefer freeways to transit, and trains to buses.
Much has been made of this latter concern, and the bus vs. rail debate has divided progressive allies, particularly in LA. Groups such as the LA Bus Riders Union oppose Measure J due to concerns that it favors trains over buses, and thus benefits affluent whites over the working poor and people of color. A recent survey by LA Metro finds that 91% of bus riders in LA are people of color, compared to 83% of train riders. The average income of train riders ($26,000) is higher than that of bus riders ($14,400), but still far below the median income for LA County ($55,500). These data indicate that while some disparities do exist, the train system in LA is attracting a broad swath of users.
As we seek to make transportation funding more equitable, a key strategy is to make drivers pay their fair share. Historically, the state and federal gasoline taxes did just that. But as cars get more efficient and gas tax revenue declines, we need to either increase the gas tax (a political non-starter) or come up with different solutions. Road pricing strategies are one possibility, as are fees on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). These mechanisms propose an elegant solution: if you drive more, you pay more.
We must also break down the silos between funding for transportation, natural resource protection, affordable housing, parks and other integral aspects of building a sustainable community. In San Diego, transportation planners and community groups have been working to plan a quality of life funding strategy that would fund public transit operations as well as open space preservation and water quality. Such innovative and integrated funding solutions are, hopefully, the way of the future.