Are you fed up with traffic? Concerned about climate change? Would you like better transportation options? If you live in San Mateo County the answers are probably yes, but the real question local officials are asking is — are you willing to pay for it?

The San Mateo County Transit District released a new website as part of its educational outreach campaign “Get Us Moving San Mateo County.” The effort, which is funded in part by the county Board of Supervisors, is rolling out as SamTrans considers placing a half-cent sales tax on the November 2018 ballot.

With a poll conducted earlier in the year showing just under the two-thirds approval rates, officials are now looking to sway voters toward spending more on regional transportation needs.

On Tuesday, county supervisors heard from Jim Hartnett, head of SamTrans, Caltrain and the Transportation Authority, about the proposal that would generate more than $80 million annually.

“I’d like you to think, what if there were not a San Mateo County Transit District? Because if there were not, there would not be a Caltrain, there would not be a bus and paratransit system, and there may not have been a Transportation Authority; all of which work together in any one weekday we [account for] over one million miles not driven.” Hartnett said, according to a live video of the meeting. “If we think about congestion, what would it be like if [SamTrans] were not in business?”

With San Mateo County’s population expected to increase to 900,000 by 2040, seniors becoming one of the fastest growing demographics and a flurry of jobs fueling the economy, SamTrans is looking for the additional funding source to address demands. But a key requirement before placing the sales tax increase on the ballot is for the Board of Supervisors and SamTrans Board of Directors to agree upon an expenditure plan. Now, input is being sought and an outreach campaign is underway .

“Traffic congestion is something we all experience pretty much on a day-to-day basis,” said Supervisor Warren Slocum. “SamTrans and the county have been collaborating closely on a potential ballot measure that would provide necessary resources to address this issue.”

Officials have noted a poll conducted by the county in May showed interest by voters, but that more outreach is needed to achieve the two-thirds approval margin required for a specific tax. An education component is expected as part of the development of the expenditure plan whereby stakeholders and the community are asked how they’d like to see their tax dollars spent.

Financial challenges

A very preliminary proposal suggested half of the money go toward SamTrans and Caltrain, both facing financial difficulty. The remaining revenue could be allocated in a manner similar to the current countywide transportation tax that supports projects covering highways, local roads, grade separations, bikes, pedestrians and other transit-related expenditures.

Currently, the website has a brief survey where participants are asked to chose five priorities from a list of about a dozen. All of the options relate to relieving traffic, expanding mobility options for various demographics from seniors to youth, providing funding toward cities’ transportation projects, repairing potholes, improving mobility options, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing safety. The top goals could be used as the framework for SamTrans’ investment strategy. People can also email input, including primary concerns regarding mobility in the county, according to the website.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the options for engagement online would be expanded following Monday’s release of the site.

The nearly $650,000 education campaign is funded by the county and SamTrans. Thus far, a technical advisory committee has been formed and is comprised of local public works departments and transportation partners. A stakeholder committee with community groups and private sector as well as business representatives has also been created. Engagement is expected to roll out via social media, television, public events, community meetings and the online survey, Hartnett said.

The input will be used to “develop an expenditure plan that would be realistic, relative to the needs of San Mateo County, and something that would make [a] real difference for the future and really help us get San Mateo County moving,” Hartnett said.

While the half-cent sales tax could generate $800 million over a decade, a project wish list tops the multi-billion dollar mark. Improvements such as reinstating train service along the defunct Dumbarton Rail bridge, creating managed lanes on Highway 101, improving critical freeway intersections, fully electrifying the Caltrain fleet, improving bicycle and pedestrian paths, as well as expanding ferry service are in the pipeline. Ultimately, local sales tax revenue could better position the county for regional, state and federal funding, Hartnett said.

Voter fatigue

Placing the sales tax on next year’s ballot requires approval from both the county and transit district boards, and is permitted in a new state law authored by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, also created a law that could allow San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to ask for an eighth-cent sales tax increase to fund Caltrain. That second option is being held over in lieu of the SamTrans tax proposal proceeding first.

Officials must also balance voter fatigue. The state hiked gas taxes, local voters extended a county-controlled half-cent sales tax promoted as a means to help address the housing crisis, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is expected to ask for a bridge toll hike and several cities have implemented their own taxes. The county also has Measure A, a half-cent sales tax dedicated toward transportation that is overseen by the Transportation Authority.

Opponents to increasing taxes often point to inefficiencies in government and the triple-digit salaries being earned by the public employees. Hartnett alone takes in about half a million dollars in total compensation, which some defend as reasonable for his overseeing three transit agencies.

Recently, SamTrans has sought to rebrand itself as more than a bus provider, but a mobility company with expertise to address traffic congestion.

Hartnett noted often people focus on Caltrain — a tri-county joint powers authority — but emphasized there are many who rely on the bus and paratransit services. With job and housing growth as well as an aging population striving to remain in the community, Hartnett said SamTrans is hoping to be flexible with the changing market.

“We know that our aging transportation system has to be reinvigorated and what is among the worst traffic in the country has to be relieved,” Hartnett said, later adding “but to do so, we know it costs money.”

Visit to take the survey and for more information.

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(5) comments


Ridership is down (and not just here, but other metropolitan cities...around the world). So why are we being asked to fund a loosing proposition? See excellent article and comprehensive information on Nine Counties Coalition website.......

Seasoned Observer

It is disturbing that we are all be asked to pay higher taxes for a problem created by a handful of large employers for whom it is to their advantage to set up shop in this area. I favor the idea John Mays floated several months ago about levying a tax on large employers to fund transportation system improvements. For the most part they created this problem. Not sure why our elected officials are not giving this any consideration.


Seasoned Observer....good points!!

Henry Case

Punishing successful companies is not a good policy. Driving jobs away will not make San Mateo County a nicer place to live - just look at Detroit.

Michael Stogner

Taxpayers are paying $650,000 for this Educational Outreach.

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