SVLG forum audience polled on 1/8 cent sales tax for Caltrain

Yesterday, at the transportation panel in the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Regional Economic Forum, audience members responded to two interactive polls. The first poll is for an initiative that publicly exists – RM3, short for Regional Measure 3, which would be the third regional bridge toll measure to pay for improved transbay transportation. The second poll was for a measure that had not been mentioned publicly before – a 1/8 cent sales tax for Caltrain.

The Caltrain tax could provide dedicated funding, with a goal to prevent periodic budget crises that are triggered by Caltrain’s current funding structure, where most of its public funding comes from three county transit agencies that have other priorities and cut back on Caltrain when they have financial challenges.

The audience, people with Silicon Valley corporate, nonprofit, and public sector roles who came to an event covering transportation and housing issues, strongly favored both measures with over 70% support. It will be interesting to see polling results with a broader public. A recent poll showed that California’s new SB1 gas tax is broadly unpopular across the state – except in the Bay Area, where we support roadway maintenance and transit investments.

A key question is what an 1/8 cent sales tax would pay for. Voters might be less motivated by a tax to avoid periodic interagency budget squabbles, and more motivated by funding that would enable more frequent, convenient, BART-like service.

Other questions include:
* How such a ballot measure would relate to local measures being considered in San Mateo County and San Francisco. Can they designed and promoted to be complementary and not seen as competitive?

* How far such a measure would go toward the larger scale improvements needed for greater frequency and capacity to serve Google Diridon and the Transbay station when the Caltrain tracks connect (probably not very), and what additional funding is needed for those future steps

* Sales taxes are regressive and vulnerable to swings in the economy. Are there other options without these weaknesses, and are any of them feasible? Property taxes are more stable but historically haven’t polled as well. Corporate per-employee taxes are proportional to commute needs. Fees on parking and peak-period solo driving have policy advantages, helping to balance costs and shift travel to more sustainable and space-efficient modes?

While there wasn’t any detail about an 1/8 cent sales tax as an actual proposal, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group has a record of leading, supporting, and winning transportation taxes in Santa Clara County over the last several decades.

Interestingly, the RM3 slide mentioned spending priorities including increasing highway capacity to relieve congestion, and better coordination among regional transportation.  The Caltrain tax slide did not have detail about spending.

What do you think about options to provide stable funding for Caltrain?