Facing congested and deteriorating infrastructure, California voters will decide on an unprecedented 16+ transportation measures on this November’s ballot. An estimated $167 billion is at stake to fund highway, transit and active transportation improvements from San Diego to Humboldt Counties. These ballot measures include:
• AC Transit: Measure C1 ($600 million over 20 years)
• BART: Measure RR ($3.5 billion over 48 years)
• Contra Costa County: Measure X ($2.8 billion over 30 years)
• Humboldt County: Measure U ($200 million over 20 years)
• Los Angeles County: Measure M ($120 billion over 40 years – indefinite duration)
• Monterey County: Measure X (600 million over 30 years)
• Oakland: Measure K ($350 million)
• Placer County: Measure M ($1.6 billion over 30 years)
• Sacramento County: Measure B ($3.6 billion over 30 years)
• San Diego County: Measure A ($18 billion over 40 years)
• San Luis Obispo County: Measure J ($225 million over 9 years)
• San Francisco: Propositions J and K ($2.4 billion over 24 years)
• Santa Clara County: Measure B ($6.3 billion over 30 years)
• Santa Cruz County: Measure D ($500 million over 30 years)
• Stanislaus County: Measure L ($3.4 billion over 25 years)
• Ventura County: Measure AA ($3.3 billion over 30 years)
“Self-help” ballot measures have grown in popularity as federal and state funding sources have dried up. The Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Trust Fund has faced perpetual shortfalls because the gas tax was last raised in 1993 and has not kept up with inflation. California’s gas tax was last raised in 1994 and actually decreased this year, resulting in cuts to already meager budgets. Moreover, gas tax revenues have been in decline as cars have become more fuel efficient. Without federal or state leadership, cities and counties have been forced to fund themselves.
Yet, self-funding transportation through local measures is not easy. Due to Proposition 13, all transportation tax measures require a two-thirds voter threshold, so it’s very challenging to push measures through. In 2012, for example, both Los Angeles County and Alameda County’s sales tax measures were defeated with a fraction of a percent under the required 66 percent approval threshold. Moreover, for some parts of the Bay Area, voter fatigue may present a challenge this election cycle due to multiple tax measures –some areas of Contra Costa County will be asked to vote for BART, AC Transit, and Contra Costa County taxes all at once.
Funding transportation through the ballot box is not very effective either. In order to achieve a supermajority, measures often include wasteful pet projects aimed at satisfying a niche constituency that are not always reflective of regional transportation plans or state sustainability goals. For instance, Stanislaus County plans to fund two new highways through its measure, and Santa Cruz plans to widen Highway 1. Santa Clara County plans to expand its expressway network despite local opposition while including less than its fair share toward expanding Caltrain service. Even Alameda County’s generally progressive Measure BB, which passed in 2014, included $400 million for BART to Livermore despite its low projected ridership and BART’s ongoing struggles to maintain its existing system.
Ideally, funding for transportation would be led at the regional and state levels through less regressive means with greater emphasis on performance metrics than politics. Sales taxes are not ideal means of funding transportation since they’re inherently regressive and lack a connection to travel behavior. Yet, there is no leadership at the regional or state levels to change how transportation is funded through raising gas taxes, taxing vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or tolling congested highways. Until a broader scale funding solution can be achieved, California’s piecemeal approach to funding transportation is unlikely to solve its significant transportation challenges.