It is difficult to come out against a measure that on its surface aims to keep the buses running and help ease traffic congestion in a number of ways. Buses provide the transit option of last resort for many and there should be a way to make sure that option is available to those who need it.
Transit agencies are also not known for making a profit and actually need subsidies to make sure this public benefit is available.
SamTrans, the agency that runs the bus system, is running into what is known as a fiscal cliff that could come as soon as 2024 or earlier. That cliff means that its revenue shortfall will be the cause of significant cuts, and the levels of those cuts are simply not palatable to those running the bus service.
To help ease that pain, SamTrans officials envisioned a way to package a sales tax that would provide revenue for the bus service with other transportation improvements aimed at gathering support from interest groups including bicyclists and cities that would like to use the funding in a variety of ways.
As part of this process, SamTrans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a public outreach campaign to gather input on what regular folks would like to see. As a result, we have a wide-ranging plan that would provide half — an estimated $40 million a year — to SamTrans, with the rest — an estimated $40 million a year — going to a variety of possible projects including highway congestion, potholes, bike lanes and more. The amount is not small potatoes, but adds a half-cent sales tax to everyone in San Mateo County for projects that largely should already be paid for out of the gas tax and even part of the $3 toll increase voters just passed. Additionally, Caltrain is moving toward asking for an eighth-cent sales tax increase as well in a future election. This surely spells voter fatigue when there has been very little evidence of improvements from the tax revenue that is already collected. Sure, the auxillary lane program was good for Highway 101, but that was years ago. And the baby bullet was also good for Caltrain, but that too was years ago.
One of the primary concerns of the respondents in SamTrans’ polling was the State Route 92/Highway 101 interchange. It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to know adding lanes to the eastbound exchange will do much to ease congestion both on Highway 101 and surface streets. And yet that improvement project was pulled from the State Transportation Improvement Program before the gas tax passed. Now that Senate Bill 1 was passed, all that has been allocated to it has been $5 million and plans for a short- or long-term fix has yet to be completed. The STIP has allocated $33 million for the managed lanes program, which seeks to add a toll lane to Highway 101, and the main interchange on the transit “backbone” to Silicon Valley gets a mere $5 million? Proponents of Measure W might argue that there is possible funding for the interchange improvement in the countywide highway congestion improvements section, but it should be priority one, and the plans should be shovel-ready.
In fact, where that particular project is in the pipeline is symbolic of what is wrong with this measure. It is a measure in search of a solution, rather than a solution in search of a measure. If SamTrans had simply said the money from this measure is to save bus service from cuts while funding a shovel-ready transportation solution for which people are clamoring (State Route 92/Highway 101 fix), or even grade separation projects to ease surface street congestion, then it would have been a worthwhile exercise. Instead, it seems likely that it will become a sort of slush fund for officials to allocate to supporters. Many of the other transportation improvements should already be funded by the half-cent sales tax San Mateo County voters already pay for transportation improvements, the increase to the gas tax and even Regional Measure 3, which raised bridge tolls. A lot more should be done to make sure this area gets our fair share of the taxes we already pay. And the average folks in this area already pay a lot.
As it stands now, Measure W will actually do little to improve transportation or traffic congestion in this county in any kind of meaningful way with how many possible projects are outlined in the measure’s long text. It’s too bad because there could have been some real ingenuity to this measure and instead we got a hodgepodge of possible projects that will not actually solve this area’s transportation woes. It is time to go back to the drawing board.