Steering transportation funding

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STREET FIGHT The coming year will be a critical one for shaping transportation in San Francisco. Mayor Ed Lee's Transportation Task Force, comprised of SPUR, city agencies, and labor and transportation organizations, is floating a package of proposals to finance transportation infrastructure that includes a general obligation bond, fees on cars, and a sales tax increase. Some permutation of the elements in the package will ultimately go in front of voters by November 2014.

It's important to take a look at what's being proposed and what's at stake, right now, because whatever goes forward to the November ballot must be certified by June 2014. In the next six months, progressives have an opportunity to offer better ways to shape the city's transportation future. Here are some things to consider.

First, whatever one thinks of this decidedly development-oriented mayor and his policies, the Transportation Task Force Report, issued to the public last month, makes a clear case for raising the $10 billion we need for transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. Proclaimed as the "first of many steps," it can be considered a conversation starter that is open for modification and amendment.

The report points out the need to replace all of Muni's 1,050 buses and trains by 2030 (costing $228 million in local matching funds) and implement the Transit Effectiveness Project ($282 million required), while also showing that Muni needs over $800 million in order to avert transit crowding as the city approaches a population of 1 million.

It considers the costs of implementing a citywide bicycle network ($108 million to get to 10 percent mode share for bicycling, or $215 million to approach 20 percent). It envisions making 70 miles of streets safer for pedestrians, and it shows what it will take to make Market Street a signature transit-bike street.

Mayor Lee's plan includes a progressive funding proposal: A citywide vehicle license fee. The VLF, which needs majority approval by voters, would repair the past damage wrought by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Republicans, who gutted state education, transportation, and social funding by slashing the fee in 2004.

State legislation last year enabled San Francisco to re-establish the fee for local transportation needs. Collecting 1.35 percent of the market value of registered vehicles in the city can raise $73 million annually for transportation programs. Since it's based on the value of the vehicle, luxury car owners pay more. Progressives should rally around this proposal.

While the VLF is promising, the other two funding schemes proposed by the task force are dubious. Increasing citywide sales taxes by a half-cent, proposed for the November 2016 ballot, is regressive. Based on taxes as a share of household income, low-income households pay a disproportionately higher portion of their income in sales taxes relative to wealthier people.

Innocuous on the surface, the use of a sales tax to spread the burden reflects a neoliberal tactic to divert attention from more equitable taxation such as increasing annual assessments on commercial property owners who are reaping huge windfalls from the real estate boom. This takes us to the General Obligation Bond (GO Bond) proposal.

GO Bonds are a long-term debt financing tool whereby the city borrows to build transportation infrastructure and future property tax revenue repays the debt. Rather than raising property taxes, the scheme proposed by the task force ensures that tax rates remain below 2006 levels and the city would only issue new debt as other debt is retired.

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