Santa Clara County ballot measure is off for 2014

After a June mid-term election with dismal turnout, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group polled again, and results suggested not going forward with a transportation ballot measure for  2014, and trying again for 2016.  The electorate in low-turnout elections mid-term elections tends to be less supportive of taxes than the electorate in national elections.

Given some of the issues raised in the rapid sprint toward a  2014 ballot measure whose timing took communities and transit agencies by surprise, it may be just as well to take the time to plan.

The package of capacity and speed improvements that were being proposed for Caltrain seemed reasonable (platform extensions, level boarding, diesel car replacement), but there wasn’t a solid approach for grade separations, which are likely to become increasingly important over the proposed 30 year time frame of a tax measure.

On the transit side, the ballot measure proposal focused almost entirely on BART and Caltrain ($1.8billion), with $50 million targeted toward special services for the elderly and disabled.   There wasn’t attention and funding given to the bus components of the overall transit network.

What improvements will be necessary for the feeder services for BART and helpful additions as feeders for Caltrain?  The  backbone rail system, and rail/bus transfers, are priced out of reach for low income people, who are locked out of jobs, or locked into very slow bus commutes or budget-draining cars.    Is it possible for our region to create a fare and transfer structure that could give low-wage workers access to jobs?  Key bus routes have degraded in speed over the last decade due to traffic congestion and correspondingly lost ridership – should there be investments to speed up buses?

The highest priority reflected in the measure was peak hour congestion – but this does not address the needs of transit users who do not drive out of need – the elderly, disabled, and very low income – as well as the growing number of people – especially younger folks – who would rather not be driving.  There is a need not just for transit at rush hour, but to be able to reach destinations throughout the day and evening.   Sprawling Houston is realigning its transit system to provide a 24/7 “frequent network” – could Santa Clara County?  Would community shuttles and/or newer on-demand technologies help serve the needs of the elderly and disabled. Could community shuttles help residents of densifying neighborhoods get around with fewer parking hassles?

Preparing for a ballot measure in 2016 would hopefully do a better job of considering transportation investments from an equity perspective. Preparing for a 2016 ballot measure could consider the perspective of a complete network including rail and bus, backbone and feeder, arteries and capillaries.

The transportation proposal included $1Billion in funding for expressways and expressway/freeway interchanges, with no funding for bus service in those corridors, and without discussion about whether there might be transportation mode shifts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Neither was there discussion about how the transportation investments related to the land use priorities in Plan Bay Area. The discussion about the ballot measure felt like SB375 – and regional goals to coordinate transportation and land use, and reduce vehicle miles travelled – was a dream that had never happened.  Preparing for a ballot measure in 2016 would hopefully do a better job of coordinating land use and mode shift goals.

Another the barriers in discussing transit priorities was the lack of clear accounting relating to the 2000 Measure A.   The funds from that ballot measure have been heavily advanced toward BART. That ballot measure will continue to collect taxes til 2036. If the BART project is completed before then, are there additional investments originally contemplated with 2000 Measure A that might still be fundable with that tax measure?

Are there some projects in that measure – e.g. Vasona Light Rail – that could be halted and their funds redirected?  Are there projects in that measure – like the airport connector – whose implementation needs reconsideration?   Does the Diridon to Santa Clara BART extension serve a need in current thinking,  or can that be updated for current needs and land use patterns?

There is another opportunity specifically related to Caltrain.  With Santa Clara County pursuing a tax measure in 2014, it was difficult to impossible to coordinate with investments and structural improvements with the other 2 partner counties.  In 2016, San Francisco will be pursuing a sales tax increase, along with a just-postponed vehicle license fee measure. San Mateo County could potentially join them, creating opportunities to synchronize to set aside funding for Caltrain operations, invest in capacity improvements that benefit the whole corridor (like extra cars for longer trains), and other potential improvements requiring simultaneous action.

The sprint to try and craft a ballot measure for 2014 revealed many areas where the region could do a better job of planning for a strong transportation ballot measure in 2016.