So far, SB797, the bill allowing an 1/8 cent sales tax to provide dedicated funding for Caltrain, is sailing through the legislature as well as Bay Area regional bodies.
Yesterday, July 27, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission was the latest body to support the bill. Before that, it had clear sailing through the Senate and through Assembly Committees. It will head to the Assembly floor when the legislature returns in August.
The bill would authorize a ballot measure for an 1/8 cent sales tax that would provide regular capital and operating funding for Caltrain, addressing the funding instability that results in periodic financial crises when any of the three county partners has a challenge paying their annual bill. The measure would need approval by 2/3 of voters in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties.
One concern raised about the bill is that it could potentially interfere with other local and regional ballot measures, including measures in San Mateo County and San Francisco, and the Regional Measure 3 bridge toll.
To avoid conflicts, the bill has language requiring consent of the Caltrain district’s transit partners and county governments. “The measure shall only be submitted to the voters upon approval by the boards of supervisors of the Counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara… and approval by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the San Mateo County Transit District, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority by a majority vote of each transportation entity’s governing board.”
The bill is strongly supported by key business groups, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Bay Area Council, authored by Senator Jerry Hill, and coauthored much of the Bay Area legislative contingent, including Senators Beall, Wieckowski and Wiener and Assemblymembers Chiu, Kalra, Mullin, Stone and Ting.
Some local voices, including San Mateo Daily Journal editor-in-chief John Mays, would prefer a payroll tax, putting the cost of Caltrain on the region’s employers, instead of a regressive sales tax.
However, the business organizations that have historically funded tax campaigns favor measures that don’t directly tax their members. Over the last few years, measures to tax local employers have been discussed by local leaders in cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Cupertino, but none of these seems to getting traction, and the local proposals were floated more to address local needs, rather than regional services such as Caltrain.
Another logical option would be a surcharge on parking spaces – a scaled up version of the mechanism that the City of Palo Alto used to fund its downtown Transportation Management Association’s programs like transit pass discounts and carpool assist to help reduce traffic and parking demand. Our preliminary research suggests that this would be legal, and would have the beneficial effect of changing the balance of incentives to drive alone vs. taking alternatives that generate less congestion and pollution. Currently, driving is subsidized deeply by providing the nation’s most expensive real estate for car storage, at no charge, or at minimal cost compared to the value of housing or commercial uses of the land.