Traffic and potholes — these widespread Bay Area problems are a commuters’ nemesis and on the top of San Mateo County voters’ minds, according to a new poll.
Now, San Mateo County leaders and transit officials are looking to 2018 for a possible sales tax hike to help fund local transportation projects. But first, they’ll need to convince voters.
The Board of Supervisors met Tuesday for a study session on a recent poll they commissioned to test the efficacy of a ballot measure to fund transit infrastructure and congestion relief efforts.
The measure, which would be a joint effort between the county and the San Mateo County Transit District, is expected to involve a half-cent sales tax increase. But it may not be the only funding mechanism fresh on residents’ minds. The Legislature’s Senate Bill 1 will have drivers paying more gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, and the nine-county Metropolitan Transportation Commission is looking to increase bridge tolls by up to $3.
Still, advocates have noted the gas tax hike is directed toward a backlog of state and local road repairs, while proceeds from the MTC’s proposed Regional Measure 3 will be in high demand throughout the Bay Area counties. Plus, with billions of dollars in unfunded transportation and congestion relief projects, county officials are hoping to highlight a need for a multi-faceted solution that includes a new locally-controlled revenue stream.
Pollster Brian Godbe, whose firm was hired to gauge the temperament of voters during a weeklong online and phone poll, said there’s work to be done to meet the two-thirds threshold of passing a new tax. As part of the poll voters were told informational statements, both for and against, after which some approval rates actually declined slightly.
“We’ve seen there is a base of support for a transportation measure,” Godbe said, according to a live video of a Board of Supervisors’ meeting last week. “After people hear all of the information, positive and negative, we’re not where we need to be on a sales tax and we can’t assume just because it may be the right thing to do, that people are going to support it. Right now, they won’t. We have work to do before this measure is put on the ballot and we believe public outreach measures need to begin as soon as possible.”
People’s top priorities included fixing potholes, maintaining streets, reducing congestion by expanding Highway 101 as well as its intersection with State Route 92, and supporting mass transit like Caltrain and SamTrans. But there was varying support for how to fund those needs, Godbe noted.
The poll included asking likely June as well as November 2018 voters about a 30-year half-cent sales tax that would generate nearly $80 million and be dedicated toward transportation needs. By the end of the questions, polled participants were 68.6 percent likely to support a tax in June, and just 63.7 percent likely to support it in November, Godbe said.
Seamus Murphy, chief communications officer with Caltrain and SamTrans, spoke during the meeting about the need to conduct public outreach to garner support for the proposal. He concurred with supervisors that it would require collaboration between the transit district and the county.
“We agree that this is a critical issue that we need to pay more attention to very urgently. We think there is a unique opportunity that we shouldn’t let pass by. The attention to congestion issues in this county are probably at an all-time high right now and at the same time, we have the public and the private sector both … very anxious to help invest in improvements to help address those issues,” Murphy said.
But exactly what type of funding mechanism is still up for debate. Currently, there are two bills in the Legislature that seek to enable officials to move forward with some form of local sales tax — over which voters have the final say.
The Silicon Valley Leadership Group and state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, are pushing a bill that would allow for a one-eighth cent sales tax specifically geared toward Caltrain — a tri-county regional rail agency that is one of the few without a dedicated funding source. That effort would require approval of voters in San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. It could also be tough sell in Santa Clara County where last year voters approved their own half-cent sales tax increase to support transit.
Caltrain officials have not yet committed to the effort, noting the proposed San Mateo County half-cent sales tax might provide opportunities for the rail agency.
Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, authored legislation that would allow the transit district or the county to seek a voter-approved half-cent sales tax measure dedicated to general transportation needs in San Mateo County.
Both Mullin’s and Hill’s bills would enable the local taxes to increase beyond the state’s current 2 percent cap.
One proposal that voters seemed to favor in the poll but that isn’t legally allowed by state law, was to implement a quarter-cent payroll tax for businesses with more than 100 employees. The Bay Area and Silicon Valley’s prosperous job growth, paired with housing affordability issues, is frequently cited as the main drivers of gridlocked congestion. Several business groups have stepped up to support congestion relief options helping to allocate millions of dollars toward various studies. However, County Counsel John Beiers said in an email that state law does not currently allow for local governments to implement payroll tax.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the question was included in the poll.
Instead, county and transit district officials will turn their attention toward a locally-controlled sales tax sometime in 2018.
Murphy noted the local transportation agencies have experience delivering projects and will be looking to educate voters on what future expenditures could be supported.
A key effort moving forward will be for SamTrans and the county to work on a proposed expenditure plan, which all agreed will require extensive community input.
“We think that we ought to be in lockstep with each other while we develop the expenditure plan,” Murphy said.
He said they anticipate beginning outreach in September.
The Board of Supervisors urged all parties be included and requested SamTrans staff return for a study session with the county Aug. 8. The results from a recent SamTrans study on the Dumbarton corridor and the opportunity to rehabilitate the aged rail bridge near the border of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is an expected topic as well. The board will also consider MTC’s proposed bridge toll hike expected on the June 2018 ballot, as well as the one-eighth Caltrain tax proposed by Hill and the business group.
Transportation and housing affordability have been top priorities for officials at nearly all levels of Bay Area government. In 2016, San Mateo County voters extended a half-cent general sales tax that proponents touted as a means to address the affordable housing crisis. The board agreed to allocate over $40 million over the next two years toward housing needs. There is also an existing countywide half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation that is currently overseen by the transit district through the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.
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